Cast: Anushka Sharma, Parambrata Chatterjee, Rajat Kapoor, Rithbhari Chakraborty, Mansi Multani
Director: Prosit Roy
There are certain things top Bollywood actresses just don’t do. They don’t, for example, play flesh-chomping chudails with a mouth that drips blood and a face that’s a mess of cracking, rotting skin. Nagins avenging the murder of their slithering, beloved Nags is as far as they will go in the revenge-seeking supernatural world. Angry and hissing, yes, but never ugly and repulsive. That’s because, a), bhootnis are unseemly; and b), because things stick. After playing a witch or a pret aatma who preys on innocent, unsuspecting humans, it is very likely that the next time the actress puts her manicured hand on the hero’s shoulder in a KJo or an Adi Chopra film, everyone in the hall will freak out in unison, scream and run straight to Shah Rukh Khan’s Mannat to save him from the chudail’s chungal. But Anushka Sharma clearly doesn’t scare easy. She has put her own money into producing Pari: Not a Fairytale, a film set in Kolkata where she plays no ordinary witch, but the last one in a long, insidious line of Ifrits — women born, raised and devoted to carry on the bloodline of Shaitan.
Pari begins with Arnab (Parambrata Chatterjee), an awkward, reserved, decent man meeting a prospective wife, Piyali (Rithbhari Chakraborty), a talkative, straightforward nurse who believes in the calming powers of anulom-vilom. Soon after their meeting, as Arnab and his family are heading home, there’s an accident and Kuttewaali Budhia, a destitute women in a burqa, is declared dead. While the accident takes Arnab and the cops to her hut in a secluded patch of forest where they find her daughter Rukhsana (Anushka Sharma), the mark on the dead woman’s arm creeps out a worker at the morgue and he dials Professor Qasim Ali (Rajat Kapoor). There on unfolds the story which began in a town in Bangladesh, about the Kayamat Andolan, the professor’s accident while trying to kill the unborn of an Ifrit, a female soldier of the scary, bad one.
The flashback conjures up a pagan world where pregnant women are chained and then, one by one, dunked into a bathtub and their child aborted. The professor has been on the lookout for the one that got away because, you see, the chain, the Aulad Chakra, needs to be broken. Soon, Rukhsana lands in Arnab’s house, all dirty and bloody and quaking with fear. He takes her in, feeds her, brings her clothes, teaches her how to dunk a biscuit in tea and the child-woman, while watching cartoons and clipping her nails that grow at an alarming rate, slowly begins to fall in love. But Rukhsana also, once every few days, moves like Wolverine to prey on some living thing to spit out the poison that keeps building up inside her. There is much leaping about, hanging upside-down, quaking at the sight and sound of anything that is godly, and some sudden YIKES!! moments. But the movie — together with its excellent camerawork and the gentle but haunting background score — isn’t so much interested in scaring us as in telling us of the transformative powers of love. Though her sharp light-eyed stare is scary, Rukhsana is, eventually, sad, heartbreaking almost.
Pari’s story, though rooted in patriarchy’s sadiyon purana fear of powerful women, doesn’t show the witches doing much evil stuff except, for the sake of their survival and love, bite a few pain in the necks. Mostly it shows Ifrits as being sexually liberated and driven — whatever their age, they brazenly tempt men with sex. Nice. In fact, in a movie that has terribly regressive genesis and annoying pageantry that panders to misogyny, there’s a lot of clever detailing of characters. Rajat Kapoor’s Prof. Qasim Ali is a very compelling character, and the actor plays it with delicious ambiguity. He seems, at once, scholarly and more powerful, vindictive and evil than the women he is pursuing with a chain saw. The film’s narrative style is controlled and stylised. There’s a slow, gradual revelation of who Ifrits are, what Rukhsana is capable of. While the movie lovingly builds up the fear factor, revealing her Vampire-like traits, it also serenades Arnab and Rukhsana. And the climax neatly ties together Piyali’s past with Arnab’s present.
Parambrata Chatterjee is very good, and Rithbhari Chakraborty screams very nicely. But the film belongs to Rajat Kapoor and Anushka Sharma. Sharma’s witch doesn’t just bite off chunks of humans she doesn’t like, but also poor, little street dogs. And she does it with sumptuous joy and at chilling speed. That’s brave, very brave indeed for a leading Bollywood actress. And scary. I wondered if, after watching the film, Virat Kohli skipped a beat at night when Anushka extended her hand to switch off the bedroom light. I would have.