Janhvi ghosts us with a tale that is all show and no punch in ‘Roohi’

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A fictional town, Bhagadpur, where ‘pakdai shaadis’ are the norm and nobody blinks when girls get kidnapped and forcefully married off to ‘eligible’ grooms. A haunting folklore about a desperate-to-get-hitched witch with ’mudiya pairi’ (inverted feet) stalking wedding houses to possess brides if their grooms so much as fall asleep. A seemingly hapless young girl, Roohi (Janhvi Kapoor) with a split personality that turns her from a meek and docile person to one who shrieks and rants with no apparent purpose. And in the midst of all this you have two affable small-town crime reporters, Bhawra Pandey (Rajkummar Rao) and Kattanni Qureshi (Varun Sharma), the self-anointed ‘Jai-Veeru’ of their neighbourhood, who work part time for a broker who facilities these forced marriages as well as cover salacious news for the local paper.

When the childhood besties fall for Roohi and her twin personality, the demonic Afza, the ensuing love triangle leads to hilarious consequences including one desperate paramour exchanging vows with a street dog to fend off the superstitious beliefs regarding ‘mudiya pairi’ which literally means girls with their feet twisted – the calling card of any reputable witch who wants to be taken seriously.

Hardik Mehta’s horror-comedy Roohi, starring Janhvi Kapoor, Rajkummar Rao and Varun Sharma is so brimming with potential you literally wait with bated breath from the opening scene. After all the movie is helmed by the same production house that gave us the affable Stree in 2018, one that set the benchmark for the genre.

The townsfolk are so rooted in character, the filmi young men are stylishly accessorised with blonde and red hair streaks and a propensity to reference Bollywood and Hollywood movies and characters, that Roohi is without doubt a delight to watch. Even the horror is so artfully entwined into the whole story (if you can call it that) that you willingly wait with bated breath for the big reveal. But shockingly for a movie where the lead actor can shriek like a banshee at the drop of a hat and turn suitably gruesome and instill terror in all (expect for the lovelorn Kattanni), Roohi falls short of explaining itself.

The central character of Roohi deserved a back-story that never comes up and if we delve behind the seemingly purposeless histrionics and somehow come away scratching our heads with a plausible central theme of ‘self-love’ and ‘women empowerment’, sorry, it just doesn’t add up. Is mental ailment/split-personality/schizophrenia meant to evoke laughter or worse be passed off as womanly strength, I’m not sure.

Roohi in the end is a horror-comedy where the humans definitely get a better deal – ghosts, spirits or a troubled girl who transforms into a fearsome creature with a flexible neck and backward facing feet surely gets a raw deal. As do the audience. The only saving grace if you could call it that is the comic camaraderie between Rao and Sharma; if only it had something resembling a story to tie it all together.

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