THERE’S A brief, embarrassed silence over the phone when one tells Amar Kaushik that he has outdone Alfred Hitchcock, M Night Shyamalan, and Subhash Ghai. Speaking about his debut, Stree — what is being hailed as this year’s feminist triumph in Bollywood — the affable 35-year-old director says with a chuckle, “You’re right, I appear in three cameos but Rajkummar Rao is to blame for that. I tend to act a scene out before we take a shot. He insisted that I remain in the frame.”
In recent years, the industry has been peddling a “woke code” of sorts with great commercial results: a star (Amitabh Bachchan or Akshay Kumar) and an able cast band together to act out a script loaded with good intentions and a social message which is hammed and hammered home. Kaushik’s horror comedy, Stree, has performances by Rao, Shraddha Kapoor, that national treasure Pankaj Tripathi, among others, and instead of making the audience squirm in their seats, it does something else — it makes them laugh.
“The writers and producers of the film, Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK, and I, didn’t want Stree to be preachy. If we want to address women’s safety in this country, we could do it simply by turning the topic on its head. What if men were to become mortally afraid of a woman?” asks Kaushik, who cut his teeth in the industry as an assistant director for films such as Aamir (2008, directed by Raj Kumar Gupta), I Am (2010, Onir), No One Killed Jessica (2011, Raj Kumar Gupta), Fukrey (2013, Mrighdeep Singh Lamba), and most recently, Beyond the Clouds (Majid Majidi). Stree is based on the urban legend of Nale Ba, about a witchy woman who preys on men who cannot resist her sultry call and turn to face her, only to be whisked away and never be seen again. In the film, Stree appears during an annual four-day local festival in Chanderi, Madhya Pradesh. To prepare for her arrival, a message in specially-made red dye is written on the walls of the town’s residences: O Stree, kal aana (O Stree, come tomorrow). Its connection to a woman’s menstrual cycle may not be obvious to most, but Kaushik is not too bothered. “There are plenty of subliminal messages in the film for the audience to pick up on. What I can tell you is that every single conversation that the men have about how they can be safe — whether it is not to step out after dark, to travel in groups, to dress modestly, etc. — is a conversation that women have been having with themselves for ages,” he says. The films borrow snippets from real and reel-life moments, whether it is last year’s braid thefts incidents in north India, or 2016’s hit film, Pink, which taught that “No means No”.
When producers Nidimoru and DK of Maddock Films approached him to direct the film last year, Kaushik was eager to get on board as long as the project embraced its weird and wild side. “How do I make an audience, especially men, feel actual fear and yet not alienate them from the subject? By making them laugh. So horror comedy was the only way for us to go and it had to have a desi horror vibe,” says Kaushik, who also worked on the zombie comedy Go Goa Gone in 2013.
Horror comedies have been around in Hollywood since the 1920s, and in the past decade, films such as Teeth (2007), Jennifer’s Body (2009), and The Babysitter (2017) have used the genre’s inherent sexism and misogyny for comedic effect. In Stree, the subversion plays out simply by questioning why a female spirit is haunting a town, but the tension is nearly derailed by a raunchy item number. Kaushik acknowledges the gender politics of such a sequence and explains the intention behind it. “What I wanted to show through that song was how men, in spite of the threat of being killed or taken away, still continue to treat women without respect. That’s probably why she returns every year,” he says.
Stree earned Rs 50 crore in the first weekend, but this is not Kaushik’s first brush with success. Last year, his first film, Aaba, was the only Indian film in competition at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Prize, and has gone on to win 15 more awards, including a National Award for Best Short Film. Shot in Ziro, Arunachal Pradesh, the 22-minute short is based on a story his mother had once told him. “My father was a forest ranger and I spent a few years in Arunachal Pradesh before I moved to my grandparents’ house in Kanpur. I wanted my first film to be something close to me, I did not think I would show it to anybody,” says Kaushik, who worked with a three-member team and shot the film with a local family.
Aaba is a tenderly-told tale about a young Apatani girl living with her grandparents in a hut near a rice field. When her grandfather is informed that his lung cancer has spread and he won’t live for long, he begins to dig a grave. The dialogue is sparse, and the long silences are interspersed with shots of an isolated, verdant landscape, where death is dealt with stoicism, not despair. “I’m not in a rush for it to be shown on Netflix, it’s still doing the rounds of the international festival circuit. When people watched it, they said it wasn’t me at all, but when they watch Stree, they say it’s totally me. I’m fine with that perception, because I don’t want to be a filmmaker in this industry who has only one story to tell and repeats himself in every film for years on end,” says Kaushik.