Roohi movie review: A horror comedy that’s dead on arrival despite sporadic humour, feminist aspirations

Roohi movie review: A horror comedy that’s dead on arrival despite sporadic humour, feminist aspirations

Roohi movie review: A horror comedy that’s dead on arrival despite sporadic humour, feminist aspirations

Language: Hindi

Somewhere in the deep, dark recesses of Roohi’s screenplay, is a feminist flick waiting to be exorcised from the body it is trapped in. But writers Mrighdeep Singh Lamba (who earlier directed Fukrey and Fukrey Returns) and Gautam Mehra take so long to get to the point they wish to make, walking us through a long and convoluted plot along the way, that their subversive intent is completely lost.

On the path to the finale, Roohi is lifted at intervals by a sense of humour and by the comic timing that actors Rajkummar Rao and Varun Sharma are blessed with. It is so stretched and flimsy though, that these flashes of fun are just not enough. Besides, the woman-friendly messaging is contradicted by the manner in which the female ‘lead’ is confined to the sidelines through most of the proceedings on screen. Yeah yeah, the ending gives her more agency than most Hindi films grant their heroines, but that is not sufficient compensation for the lack of substance in the writing of her character.

Roohi begins with Bhawra (Rao) and Kattanni (Sharma) introducing a foreign journalist (Alexx O’Neil) to bridal abductions in their Uttar Pradesh town – women here are routinely picked up by contract kidnappers, we are told, and handed over to the families of men interested in marrying them. This horrifying practise is portrayed as something women don’t quite mind, but if you think Roohi means to trivialise women, ultimately you will find out that is not its objective.

Rajkummar Rao, Janhvi Kapoor, and Varun Sharma in a still from Roohi Afzana

The male protagonists are instructed by their boss to pick up one such target, a woman called Roohi (Janhvi Kapoor). They soon learn that she is possessed by a chudail who will rest only when she (the witch, not Roohi) is married. Events take an unexpected turn, leaving Bhawra and Kattanni alone with this hapless youngster for much longer than was originally planned. Not surprisingly, one of them is attracted to her and the rest of the film is driven by his desire to liberate her from her wretched existence as men in mainstream cinema are known to do.

The passing mention of mental health aside, at its heart, what Messrs Lamba and Mehra aim at making. Roohi is a film that turns clichés about female spooks on their head, particularly to cock a snook at the widely prevalent social myth (perpetuated by popular culture globally) that men are women’s redeemers and that marriage – to a man, mind you – is every woman’s ultimate goal and saviour. Look no further than Hollywood films and shows that have, for decades, told us that every girl starts dreaming of her wedding from her childhood and that the wedding day is “the most important day in a woman’s life”; and the English literary trope of the gallant knight in shining armour rescuing the damsel in distress.

Given the context, I wish I wish I wish that Roohi had been able to pull off what it set out to do. It had a fine example before it: Amar Kaushik’s fantastic 2018 horror satire, Stree, from the same production house and starring the same Rajkummar Rao. You need more than feminist aspirations to make a feminist supernatural flick though, and what Roohi sorely misses is the complexity writers Raj and DK brought to Stree in addition to a comedic vein that was consistent with the theme and unrelenting.

Some parts of Roohi are, no doubt, genuinely funny, (spoilers ahead in this paragraph) my favourite episode being the one in which Kattanni tries to mimic the exorcisms he has seen in Hollywood films by spouting lines often delivered by Christian priests in those stories and touching what he describes as a “plus sign” to Roohi’s forehead. A “plus sign” – got it? (Spoiler alert ends)

Rajkummar Rao, Varun Sharma in a still from Roohi

The humour, however, is almost entirely divorced from the weighty theme, with the exception of the brilliant overturning of DDLJ’s famous “Raj agar yeh tujhe pyaarkarti hai, toh yeh palat ke dekhegi” (Raj, if she loves you she will turn around to look at you) scene– not once, but twice. This is what Roohi needed more of. This is what it has too little of.

Instead what we get are sporadic bursts of comedy, interspersed with unfunniness, extended passages of nothing much, a spot of ageism, too many extraneous elements – the foreign reporter, for one – and lack of depth. And delightful though Rao often is in Roohi, I found myself in too many instances struggling to wade through his character’s heavy accent and speech impairment that, when combined with the actor’s trademark clipped dialogue delivery, results in a mix that is hard to decipher. Sharma does better, even if he ends up striking the exact same pitch in every film.

As for Kapoor, she is given next to nothing to do beyond look crazed while covered in prosthetic makeup or look helpless and innocent. They could have cast any other actor in her place and it would not have made an inch of a difference to the film. Nothing better indicates Roohi’s lack of commitment to its feminist goals than the irrelevance of its female star.

Roohi is currently playing in theatres.

Rating: 1.5 (out of 5 stars)