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Saturday, March 25, 2017

‘Phillauri’ film review: A mournful ghost gives love lessons to a hysterical groom

Anshai Lal’s debut is an enjoyable but overstretched yarn about the inadvertent wedding between a young man and a ghost from many years ago.

Kanan has the pre-wedding jitters, and all the marijuana in the world cannot cure him of his belief that he is getting married too early.

When Kanan (Suraj Sharma) lands from Canada in Amritsar for his big fat Punjabi wedding (there is no other kind, it seems), he is informed that he is “manglik”: if he weds, great misfortune will befall him. Since superstition always comes with an exit clause, Kanan’s otherwise posh family (his grandmother’s diet consists of many glasses of whisky) makes him marry a tree before his actual wedding. On this tree lives the ghost of Shashi (Anushka Sharma), the latest in a long line of unhappy female spirits who have been unable to transit to the other world because they have unfinished business in this one.

Kanan is understandably spooked by Shashi, beautifully conceptualised by the visual effects team as a shimmering vision in white and gold who leaves a trail of glitter. Rather than warding off trouble, Kanan’s cheat wedding only compounds his misfortune. Does he actually want to marry Anu (Mehreen Pirzada), and has Shashi’s appearance reminded him of the folly of it all?

Anushka Sharma is her customary efficient self, and works better in the comic moments, but the movie’s best scenes belong to Suraj Sharma’s Kanan, whose hysterical voice and stricken visage mark him out as the perfect victim of a haunting.

Anshai Lal’s directorial debut plonks the idea of an inadvertent wedding between a human and a ghost (borrowed from the 2005 animated movie Corpse Bride) between the present and Shashi’s past in the early 1900s in Punjab. Shashi is too obedient to flout her stern brother’s diktats that well-behaved women do not waste their time on poetry and music. She nevertheless falls for folk singer Roop Lal (Diljit Dosanjh), but accepts him only after he starts behaving more like a gentleman than the proto rock star that he is. A similar kind of behaviour change is being attempted in the present, as Anu tries to remind Kanan of his vows.

In another more subtle parallel, Shashi learns that the world still has use for “frying pans” – as the first music records are referred to – when she sees a DJ spins tunes at Kanan’s nuptials.

The present is an altogether more fun place than the past. Shashi and Roop Lal are barely convincing as star-crossed lovers despite being luminously shot by Vishal Sinha in golden yellows and earthy browns. For all their squabbling, Kanan and Anu actually seem like a couple in love (but with caveats).

The idea of a ghost who has been floating around for decades results in a time warp that affects the narrative pacing. This is one wedding that seems to be in no hurry to be conducted, and Kanan and Anu seem to have all the time in world to sort out his haunting. Day turns into night and night into day as the film shifts between now and then. The sense of being trapped in between the hands of the clock leaches into the running time. At 127 minutes, Phillauri doesn’t simply have enough to go on. Lal, working on a screenplay by Anvita Dutt, lets several scenes roll on several indulgent minutes in order to reserve his punch for the twist-laden climax.

The spirit is willing but the flesh is a bit weak. Had the narrative threads been braided together even more tightly, Phillauri could have been an even more enjoyable comedy about the need to make peace with the past. Potentially neurosis-inducing problems (the curbing of ambition and dreams, the belief that elders know best, damaging superstitions) get the kid glove and soft-focus treatment. The fate of Shashi and Roop Lal isn’t as engaging as Kanan’s disenchantment with his fate. The real ghost in Kanan’s bedroom isn’t the vision in white-and-gold from many years ago – it’s his present, and possibly dull future.

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