“Pari”… A rewarding slow-burn story that’s not a ‘horror movie’ so much as a horror-inflected drama about misfits

Posted on March 3, 2018

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Spoilers ahead…

The marketing department of Pari needs a rap on the knuckles. The tagline says “not a fairytale,” but given how the film has been publicised and positioned, it should really have said “not a horror movie.” There are a few jolt-scares, to be sure — slowly escalating sound effects leading to visuals like the one where a character clipping her toenails sees herself (or at least, a blood-spattered lookalike) clipping her toenails. But this is really a star-crossed interspecies love story. (Also inter-religious: it’s a Hindu-Muslim couple.) Imagine one of those films where an alien falls for a human. The shadings may come from sci-fi, but the genre is romance. Pari is something similar. Because we are dealing with demons and witches, the inflections are from horror cinema, but at heart, this is about the slow-burn relationship between Rukhsana (Anushka Sharma, also the producer) and Arnab (Parambrata Chatterjee).

Pari is a curiosity, a modest yet ambitious undertaking. The director, Prosit Roy (also the co-writer, with Abhishek Bannerjee), works in the lowest of keys. At times, we seem to be watching actors in between takes, doing things like… clipping nails. But the narrative is like a kaleidoscope that forms a different pattern every few minutes. Now, it’s a triangular romance, with Arnab’s fiancée, Piyali (a sweetly understated Ritabhari Chakraborty). Now, it’s one of those stories of a traumatised child learning to smile under the care of a tender, patient adult. Now, it’s Truffaut’s The Wild Child, about a feral forest-dweller slowly being exposed to “civilisation.” Now, it’s a wronged-woman revenge saga. Now, it’s a noir-tinted drama about how you can run and try to make a new life for yourself, but the past always catches up with you. Now, it’s one of those morality plays about how compassion  always overcomes evil. Now, it’s a 1950s social drama about illegitimate children, a plea for inclusivity and acceptance. Now, it’s a clunky philosophy debate about the demons inside us. Along the way, there’s also a political subtext, about refugees. (The story is set in Kolkata, and keeps flashing back to Bangladesh.)

As you might expect, not all these angles are explored satisfactorily — but I was surprised at how elegantly Roy tells his story. The first time we meet Arnab and Piyali, she demonstrates the Pranayama technique. Much later, Piyali faces a situation where she instructs someone to take much deeper breaths. The events have a way of snowballing without calling attention to themselves. The connections between Arnab and Rukhsana are fleshed out not just through character traits (they’re both loners, and like he did as a child, she hides under the bed when scared) but also through the visuals, like the moment when they are both in agony, and we move from him on the floor, in a part-foetal position, to her in the same position. I wish Parambrata Chatterjee had found more notes to play — but he makes us believe and invest in Arnab. This is not a man who does things easily, so you really feel his betrayals (to Rukhsana and Piyali) weighing down his soul. It makes sense that when he does decide to turn saviour, it’s after weeks of wrangling with his conscience.

But as expert as Roy is in creating and sustaining mood, I wish he’d deigned to explain some of his conceits. If the accident at the beginning was really an instance of suicide, did the mother not care about the daughter she was leaving behind? Does it mean something that all important moments are staged during rains? Does no one wonder why Rukhsana was found in chains? Instead of a piecemeal approach — showing glimpses of tattoos and incense sticks and blood-filled bathtubs — why not pack it all into one solidly expository flashback? The explanations, when they come, don’t leave you with that aha! impulse to slap your forehead.

But I enjoyed the pace. I liked the funny (but not overdone) baroque touches like Qasim Ali (a superbly understated Rajat Kapoor, playing a witch hunter with the air of a self-righteous professor) removing his fake eyeball and cleaning the socket with an ear bud. It’s nice (and unusual) to see horror tropes play out in a Muslim setting, and also in a gendered setting. As in Rosemary’s Baby, you could read the happenings in a number of ways. For instance: Is the once-a-month pain a witch faces while her body gets infected with poison a reference to menstrual cramps? Is Pari really about the horrors women undergo — from rape to being expected to carry on bloodlines to being abandoned by their partners during pregnancy to even being chained by men when they don’t conform to feminine stereotypes?

All of which means that Pari fits squarely into what we’ve come to recognise as The Anushka Sharma Production. As an actress, this isn’t much of a stretch — she does what’s needed. (The plain-looking face, with freckles, is a nice touch.) But her real talent in these films seems to be in picking out interesting scripts, and directors (Roy is a first-timer) who really fit the material. These may not be Great Movies™, but they’re fresh, unpredictable and have a definite voice. (I’m thinking about the staging with billowing clothes and curtains, or the scene where a man pulls out chains and the woman, though probably hurt, puts them on as though he’s given her anklets.) And Anushka is making these films even as she’s still in demand as a heroine, starring in the upcoming Shah Rukh Khan vehicle, Zero. Apparently, Virat Kohli is not the only one set for a long innings in that household.

Copyright ©2018 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi