In the two years since the conclusion of the Telugu epic Baahubali bestrode the international box-office like a colossus, the Indian mainstream has doubled down on all things big, yielding a procession of long, lavish magnum opuses: Padmaavat and Thugs of Hindostan last year, Manikarnika and Kalank this. Local audiences, perhaps understandably feeling overstuffed, have instead started to gravitate towards smaller, lower-profile, more distinctive diversions, such as the beguiling comedy-horror Stree, one of the sleeper hits of 2018. Amar Kaushik's film is well-managed and carefully composed, running just two hours rather than the now-standard three and constantly altering the shape of its central conflict, such that it never becomes entrenched. It's also, purely and simply, a great deal of fun; you can see why movielovers turned out for it so. Rather than requiring D.W. Griffith-scale sets, much of the action plays out within the confines of a superstitious rural village where even now, in the second decade of the 21st century, the residents hold firm to a belief in the Stree, a witch who adopts human form to prey upon single men. Bad news, this, for our hero Vicky (Rajkummar Rao), a guileless tailor introduced tumbling head over heels for the spookily serene new girl in town (Shraddha Kapoor). Having seen movies enough, you and I will have some idea of what he's getting into; the running joke, however, is that the protagonist is basically clueless, somebody very much to be toyed with.
The set-up allows Kaushik and the emergent writing team known as Raj and DK to themselves toy with what the opening credits describe as a "ridiculously true" folk legend, while throwing in plenty of knowing scary-movie business. Not for the first time in a film such as this, there are rules to guarantee survival, but they're delivered by Pankaj Tripathi (the crime boss in Netflix India's Sacred Games) in the guise of a distractible, prissy scholar. The Stree's first victim is shown preparing for an evening of what's euphemistically referred to as "friendship" with a lady of the night. And when Vicky is handed a list of tasks by his mysterious new sweetheart, the score takes on some recognisable Mission: Impossible bombast - no matter that said mission involves no more than our boy figuring how to get his hands on a lizard to remove it of his tail. The script, meanwhile, is fashioning its own form of amusement circumnavigating viewer expectations and warding off any misogyny that might lurk amid its mythos. The poor old Stree, it transpires, is as much of a victim as those she's been led to prey upon, this time of a patriarchal society's assumptions. That much becomes clear in the unusually strong second half - always a litmus test for modern Bollywood; the movie doesn't peak too soon - as the village empties out and Vicky assembles a ragtag team of ghostbusters to shoo the spirit in the direction of peace.
Here, Kaushik makes merry with his story beats and delights in his ensemble, particularly the droll Tripathi and the sleepy Aparshakti Khurana, whose Bittu can be witnessed eating a banana during one team meeting, presumably as it's important to keep up potassium levels when dealing with the undead. Funnier still is Raj, more character actor than star, but an increasingly reliable kitemark of quality - he was the crusading lawyer in 2012's Shahid and the faux-romantic hero of February's Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga - who here gets to stutter and stammer and seem to care not one jot that much of the joke is on him. (One great, subversive image late on: Vicky in newlywed garb perched atop a rock like a siren, yet conducting himself in the manner of a lamb to the slaughter - a lure not just for the Stree, but for any analysts of gender in Bollywood cinema, who'll note how this makeshift damsel-in-distress is occupying a spot the movies have traditionally reserved for the fairer sex.) Representatives of that generation bombarded into submission by the Conjuring franchise and its myriad spin-offs may find there isn't enough quiet-quiet-loud for their liking. Yet Kaushik swaps in other forms of surprise (throat-singing!) and ample wit besides: to these VHS-trained eyes, Stree really wouldn't look out of place in a double- or triple-bill with any of that weirdly memorable Eighties run of comedy-horrors that began with Vamp and The Monster Squad and eventually begat Beetlejuice.
Stree is now streaming on Netflix.