Phillauri movie review: Anushka Sharma, Diljit Dosanjh rev up this inconsistent, sweet spook story
Early in Phillauri, an alcohol-swilling old woman with obviously dyed, jet black hair tells her grayhead of a son that he was the result of a single peg of booze. It is a funny remark, of course, yet one you might shrug off if you think of the number of Hindi films in recent years that have seen alcohol, cigarettes, swear words and sex talk from women as the sole harbingers of progressiveness, and the number of filmmakers who have used these props to mask their deeply entrenched patriarchal notions of womanhood while pretending to be forward-thinking.
Over an hour later though, a character in the film tells a woman that a man is worthy of her, not because of his social status, but because he treated her with genuine respect and honour. It is then you know for sure that Anshai Lal’s Phillauri is not merely faking it. The director along with writer Anvita Dutt have struck at the heart of what true equality means. And what a relief that is.
Phillauri belongs to the love-aaj-and-kal genre, with the story of Kanan and Anu in 2017 told parallel to the pre-Independence tale of Shashi and Roop. Kanan (Suraj Sharma) has just completed his studies in Canada and is now in Punjab to marry his childhood sweetheart Anu (debutant Mehreen Pirzada). Much against his wishes he fulfills the family elders’ wishes by marrying a tree to overcome his manglik dosh. Since the ghost of Shashi (Anushka Sharma) from a bygone era resides in that tree, Kanan ends up unknowingly becoming her groom.
The pretty spook is now stuck with him. His commitment phobia combined with the fact that only he can see Shashi ends up creating confusion in his relationship with Anu as D-day inches towards them.
Is Shashi real or is she a figment of Kanan’s weed-addled imagination? Who knows. What we do know is that while Shashi’s sepia-toned affair with the popular local singer Roop (Diljit Dosanjh) unfolds in Punjab’s Phillaur town, Kanan clears up his muddled head and figures out precisely what he wants from life.
On the face of it, the apparition in Phillauri is a tool to take a comparative look at romance then and now. Yet, with its gentle allusions to India’s colonial history, social attitudes towards artists and women’s autonomy, the film becomes more than just that. It is, of course, a bemused swipe at regressive customs and those who follow them without conviction or understanding. It is a comment on how even now, gifted women are often fronted by men with half their talent because ambition is deemed a dirty word for women.
Most of all though, it is a reminder that the human lives lost in any tragedy are not mere statistics, but real people who died with goals yet unattained and dreams yet unfulfilled.
All this takes a while to sink in though because Lal takes too long to get to the point. Too many Hindi films are lost to the curse of the second half. Fortunately for Phillauri, its affliction is the exact opposite. The pre-interval portion is too stretched out and, after the initial engaging, humorous few minutes, becomes as pale as Shashi’s ghostly presence.
More time than required is spent with Kanan and Shashi together. Suraj has just one expression on his face throughout this segment and Anushka is a shadow of her usually charismatic self. Besides, their equation is far less interesting than Kanan-Anu and Shashi-Roop.
Of the two couples, the old-world pair has way more substance and novelty value than the two youngsters from the 21st century. It is no wonder then that Phillauri truly comes into its own post interval when it devotes itself primarily to Shashi and Roop’s romance which is at once uplifting and heart-wrenching, thus rendering even the needlessly elongated climax forgivable. The resonance and relevance of their story in modern times is this film’s selling point.
The other USP of Phillauri is its music and the way it is used to recount a large part of Shashi and Roop’s love saga. Music director Shashwat Sachdev and lyricist Anvita Dutt deserve kudos in particular for the beautiful song Sahiba – a reference to the legend of Mirza and Sahibaan which serves as a red herring of sorts here – in Romy and Pawni Pandey’s lovely voices. Lal deserves a big salaam for how this number has been woven into the narrative to such soul-stirring effect.
As with Imtiaz Ali’s Love Aaj Kal in 2009, the past has more appeal in this film too. One reason of course is the eternal poignance of what-might-have-beens and the challenge of that inevitable question: how might I have functioned or even survived in a regressive, claustrophobic era gone by? That alone does not explain Phillauri’s split personality though.
In terms of writing, directorial execution and acting, yesterday has zest and today does not in this inconsistent albeit sweet spook story.