Do you believe in ghosts? You’d better, if you live in the Indian town of Chanderi, the setting for Stree, the sophomore film from director Amar Kaushik. It’s in the comedy-horror subgenre, alongside classics like Scream and Scary Movie. Thus, be prepared for both laughs and jump scares.
Rajkummar Rao stars as the teenager Vicky (odd, seeing as Rao is 34 and not even remotely adolescent-looking). He’s a happy-go-lucky women’s tailor (one of the film’s subtle homages to Chanderi, which is renowned for its saris). One day, Vicky meets a special client (Shraddha Kapoor, whose character remains nameless throughout the film), who seems to literally appear out of thin air. Kapoor instantly mesmerizes our young protagonist, who proceeds to go on all sorts of arduous tasks for her.
Kapoor’s appearance coincides with the start of a 4-day local festival. This festival has far more than rituals and music: it centers on a ghost named Stree. Once a prostitute who was murdered by a mob of former clients, she now haunts the men of Chanderi. Throughout the festival, she prowls the city’s streets and homes at night for men to kill – leaving nothing remaining of her victims besides their clothes.
On the first night of the festival, Vicky and his friends Jana (Abhishek Banerjee) and Bittu (Aparshakti Khurana), attend a party where Stree kills a guy who was trying to sleep with a prostitute. This is the classic horror film trope of having horny teenagers murdered. Stree continues to play with sexual dynamics through the course of the film. The titular villain hunts solo men at night; the men of Chanderi are so scared of this undead woman that they start to wear women’s clothes to try to avoid attracting her. This cleverly illustrates a fear that women in real life feel: being harassed, stalked and even killed by men if they “dress inappropriately.” Such risks are compounded if traveling solo or at night, like the victims of Stree. It’s interesting that the film’s predator strips her victims before kidnapping them. Stree, a former prostitute, is now taking sexual agency and pleasure.
Stree is a film that manages to seamlessly juggle humor with horror. It can trigger a laugh one second, then flip into suspense the next. This is a real credit to Amar Kaushik’s youthful talent. Like classics such as Alien and Dracula, the horror of Stree succeeds because it is able to tap into subconscious sexual fears. A big shout-out must be given to Abhishek Banerjee, who’s mostly been known in Bollywood as a casting director. Abhishek was the breakout star of the film, eliciting the most laughs by far, as well being able to emote terror convincingly.
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