Somewhere in the deep recesses of the screenplay for “Roohi,” is a feminist flick waiting to be exorcised from the body it is trapped in. But writers Mrighdeep Singh Lamba (who earlier directed the funny “Fukrey” and “ Fukrey Returns ”) and Gautam Mehra take so long to get to the point, walking us through a long and convoluted plot that their subversive intent is completely lost in a sea of absurdity.
In many ways, “Roohi” is reminiscent of “Stree,” and not only because both have emerged from the Maddock Films stable and feature Rajkummar Rao as the male lead. The actor trades the tools of a ladies’ tailor – his character in “Stree” – for the excitement of a crime reporter working for a nondescript rag called “Muzirabad Zalzala,” replete with mannerisms and dyed hair borrowed straight from his playbook in “Ludo” and “Bareilly Ki Barfi” (Rao, we expect so much more from an actor of your caliber!) He is definitely funny in parts, but as the absurdist plot careens out of control and turns more and more unwieldy, Rao ends up looking as lost as the feckless character he plays on screen.
So here’s what passes for a story. The story is set in a village called Bagadpur off the small town of Muzirabad. There is apparently a real town by that name in Uttar Pradesh not far from Delhi but it is made amply clear from the start that the location in the film is purely fictional. There we meet the dashing duo – Bhawra (Rao) and his dumchalla (sidekick) Kattanni (Varun Sharma) who work for local goon the Crossfit loving Guniya Shakil (Manav Vij). “Roohi” begins with Bhawra and Kattanni introducing a foreign journalist (Alexx O’Neil) to bridal abductions in their Uttar Pradesh town – women here are apparently routinely picked up by contract kidnappers, and handed over to the families of men interested in marrying them. This horrifying practice is portrayed as something women don’t quite mind, but if you think “Roohi” means to trivialize women, you will find out that this is not its objective.
The western scribe’s camera captures one such kidnapping. A girl is accosted outside her college and bundled into a getaway car. As she struggles to free herself from her captors, the girl is told by her would-be mother-in-law and she is stunned into silence by all the gold jewelry on display for her: “Engineer hai mera beta, bahot pyaar she rakhega tujhe” (my son is an engineer. He will love you a lot).
With dreams of riches and a comfortable life, the unwilling bride acquiesces. The rest of the night does not turn out the way other such nights have turned out in this neck of the woods. An indication is provided by the camera moving away from the house and looking in through the branches of a tree with eerie hissing in the background. There is somebody outthere…watching. If you love the bizarre, this might not be a bad starting point. But when the macabre kicks in, the film encounters turbulence that it never quite flies out of.
When Shukla’s henchmen are unable to do the deed (kidnap a hapless and unsuspecting bride-to-be), 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 todo. Between the groveling and the blood curdling growling that this troubled damsel does, she pulls two childhood pals, Bhawra Pandey and Kattanni Qureshi in different directions. The boys fall in love with her – naturally – this is a Bollywood drama after all, one with the docile Roohi, and the other with her frightening, destructive avatar.
Roohi, who herself is treated with disdain by her extended family, has a mission in life that takes her to a place called Chimmatipur, where supposedly holy men who specialize in exorcism dwell. What ensues is the tussle between a spirited avenger, trapped in the body of a meek woman and who wants to revolt against the injustice meted out to women and society. This lofty message getting buried in all the tomfoolery.
Rao makes these scenes count for whatever they are worth but the inconsistent script – screenwriters Mrighdeep Singh Lamba and Gautam Mehra are hard-pressed to give the flighty plot premise a steady path – lets him down at crucial junctures. An earthy lingo, a wayward diction and an icky demeanor lend his and co-actor Varun Sharma’s personas an air of harmless innocence, one of the more effective elements that “Roohi” manages to dish up, but the buck stops there.
Given the feminist context, 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 Rajkummar Rao. But, 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. And while “Stree’ was about the wandering spirit of a wronged woman who went about kidnapping men at night at a particular time of the year, this one forays more into the mental derangement space without caring to explain what it is exactly that lies behind the anger (or anguish) of a schizophrenic girl who, as we can vaguely surmise, has received the wrong end of the stick from her family and the misogynistic society she is a part of.
Some parts of “Roohi” are, no doubt, genuinely funny, (spoiler ahead) with my favorite part 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 and touching what he describes as a “plus sign” to Roohi’s forehead. The humor is almost entirely divorced from the weighty theme, with the exception of the brilliant overturning of DDLJ’s famous dialogue – “Raj agar yeh tujhe pyaar karti hai, toh yeh palatke 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 unfunny, 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 doing the same bit 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. Point to note, 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. This is one ghost movie that is best left to rest.
“Roohi” is streaming on Netflix.
Anu Ghosh immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1999. Back in India she was a journalist for the Times of India in Pune for 8years and a graduate from the Symbiosis Institute of Journalism and Communication. In the U.S., she obtained her Masters andPhD. in Communications from The Ohio State University. Go Buckeyes! She has been involved in education for the last 15years, as a professor at Oglethorpe University and then Georgia State University. She currently teaches Special Education at OakGrove Elementary. She is also a mom to two precocious girls ages 11 and 6.