Anushka Sharma plays three roles in Phillauri. The first brought the film into existence – she’s the producer and star-clout wielder. The second is that of a vaporous ghost that haunts the weed-smoking Kanan (Suraj Sharma), due to reasons even she (it?) cannot fathom. (Existential “Why am I here?” questions aren’t something you’d usually associate with creatures that no longer… exist.) But the ghost looks lovely, a vision in gold that seems to be evaporating even as we watch it. The borders of its being seem to be dissolving into firefly molecules. Anushka’s third role is the one that gives this ghost a name. In a previous life, she/it was Shashi, the sister of a doctor (the wonderful Manav Vij, who imbues the gruff-patriarch archetype with shades of pain and vulnerability) in Punjab, which is shot in sun-baked colours that are a spa for the eyes.
The film contrasts the relationships between Shashi and folk singer Roop (Diljit Dosanjh), and Kanan and his soon-to-be-bride Anu (Mehreen Pirzada). Sometimes, we see similarities. Roop and Kanan are both singers, and both end up transformed. Sometimes, we see the differences. Anu tells Kanan there’s no sex until they get married, while Shashi giggles gleefully about her tryst with Roop. In other words, we are in the realm of Love Aaj Kal, which also went back and forth between a sturdy Punjab-set romance in older times and a modern-day love story between commitment-phobic millennials. Phillauri opens with Kanan’s nightmare. There’s a snake. There’s water. There’s nudity. Or as Freud would put it, there’s a phallic symbol, the unconscious self, and a revelation of one’s true self.
The film isn’t psychological, though. It’s pretty plot-driven. One might even say Idiot Plot-driven. Had Kanan confided in someone that there’s a ghost gliding around the premises, the film would have ended in ten minutes. Instead, it goes on for two-and-a-half hours, which is the only real problem I had with it. And maybe Suraj Sharma’s silent-film befuddlement, which keeps hitting the same note throughout. Mehreen Pirzada is so alive (she practically quivers with feeling) that you feel she deserves better, which is not the way a romantic track should function. Also, with so much time at their disposal, one wonders if Roop could not have been more three-dimensional. His change occurs through the device Hindi cinema once reserved for shrewish women: one tight slap.
But the songs are wonderful. The Indian colours are wonderful. The detour into Indian history is wonderful. And many scenes are wonderful. As Kanan gets married to a tree, Anu keeps taking selfies as though it’s the most natural thing on earth. She isn’t being insensitive. She just doesn’t think it’s that big a deal, like he does. Much later, Kanan makes up for his treatment of Anu by reciting seriously romantic poetry. I watched with glassy eyes. Best of all, this heavily emotional story is treated by the director (Anshai Lal) with the lightest of touches. He saves the explosions for the end. I mean, literally – we watch two people unite across time amidst fireworks of the soul. It’s like Diwali and Valentine’s Day rolled into one. What’s not to love?
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