Qalandar Reviews PHILLAURI (Hindi; 2017)
There is a certain magic to Phillauri, Anshai Lal’s directorial debut for actress-producer Anushka Sharma, and it isn’t because of the supernatural element (Sharma plays Shashi, the ghost of a woman from 1919 who haunts nervous Kanan (Suraj Sharma), on the verge of his wedding to Anu (Mehreen Peerzada) a century later in the same village). It’s because the old-fashioned virtues of focused storytelling, memorable characterization, strong casting, and above all fresh dialogues and lyrics by Anvita Dutt, elevate what could so easily have been the hackneyed Punjabi love story of Shashi and Roop Lal (Diljit Dosanjh), making of it a story about two individuals, not mere instances of the Bollywood hero and heroine, and in a particular time and place, the Jalandhar village of Phillauri on the verge of the Indian national movement.
Unusually for Hindi films, both members of the pair (not just the male half) are imbued with strong personalities, and this isn’t accidental. A gentle current of feminism runs through the film, brought to mind by an initial effacement: Shashi is one of the Phillauris of the film’s title, that is to say her village’s name serves as her pen-name for the poetry she publishes in the local journal (no one knows she’s the author, as it wouldn’t do for a respectable village girl to be seen to write, even if she is the sister of a progressive doctor). The village bard Roop Lal initially passes off the poems as his own (a bit of an odd echo (and inversion) of Kannathil Muthamittal, where Madhavan’s writer uses a pen-name that corresponds to his wife’s given name; here Roop Lal adds “Phillauri” to his name, albeit for the unsavory reason that he is pretending to be the poet), until he encounters the woman behind the verse, and falls for her. Once in love, the tables are turned: Shashi wants her verses to be passed off as her lover’s own, but Roop Lal demurs: up to this point he has been posing as a poet, even as his songs have featured entirely different lyrics; now he wishes to give voice to Shashi’s lyrics, with due authorial credit as it were: the gramophone disc he ultimately cuts in Amritsar features both their names. And if one may read into this Anvita Dutt’s wistful nod at the realities of popular art – writers remain among the most anonymous filmmakers in India – who could blame her?
Fast forward a century, and I was struck by how garish the Punjabi milieu of Kanan and Anu seemed: there seems to be little place for slowness or thoughtfulness here, with copious amounts of alcohol used to lubricate just about every social occasion. Anu too is far more passive than Shashi, far too willing to sit around waiting for Kanan to make up his mind and decide if he wants to marry her. We also seem to be regressing in more substantive ways: Shashi’s brother (played by Manav Vij), as the most educated person in the village, is “naturally” drawn to the nationalist movement, as is the urbane seth played by Raza Murad in a pleasurable cameo; in 2017, the Canada-returned Kannan grumbles but gives in to his modern family’s pressure to address his status as “manglik” by marrying a tree prior to marrying Anu (it would be one thing if his relatives overtly believed in the necessity of the ritual, as the priest does; in fact their attitude is farcical, a sheepish acknowledgment that this sort of thing might be ridiculous, but “hey, why not?”). The result is that they become ridiculous, devoid of the dignity of either the unembarrassed believer or the proud rationalist. Kannan and Anu clearly do not believe, but are far more cowardly than, as will be clear by film’s end, Shashi or Roop Lal were. Kanan’s haunting by Shashi is a kind of punishment, a joke – who marries a tree instead of a woman? – given spectral form: if you’re daft enough to marry the tree, why are you shocked to find yourself married to the ghost-woman in the tree? That is, Kanan can act as if the ritual mattered, but only because he feels it does not – and is promptly haunted by the fact that even his insincere participation in the ritual has let loose a spirit: act as if the ritual matters, and it just might.
Just as unusual is the implicit seriousness with which this film takes the arts, not just Shashi’s poetry but Roop Lal’s singing as well (indeed, one of Shashi’s most damning charges against Roop Lal early on is that he has a magical voice, but is wasting it in trifling tunes) — a far cry from offensiveness of the sort we see in the likes of Fitoor, where one can’t quite shake the feeling that Aditya Roy Kapur’s character is a painter because, well, he and Katrina Kaif would look so good with some color smeared on those abs. Phillauri does so in part by rendering the making of art concrete, as the work of physical bodies : we see the rustic pens people write with, the black ink-stains on Shashi’s hands; the close-up of the ghungroo on Roop Lal’s feet as he makes his entry with a musical performance (anklets are also at the center of a cheekily erotic moment later on, when we see village girls string up their own paazeb on Roop Lal’s door; a subsequent shot of several feet in a row, some of them without anklets, is sexy — bare feet as a sign that something has been, unbidden, offered). In short, the arts here are not removed from sweat, and are seamlessly part of who Shashi and Roop Lal are — in most contemporary films they are mere posture, conveying a sense of style in the way an accessory would (does anyone really believe Farhan Akhtar’s character in Zindagi Milegi Na Dobara could be a poet? Or that Siddharth Malhotra’s and Fawad Khan’s characters could have collectively written four novels between them in Kapoor & Sons?)
It’s also easy to take Roop Lal’s music seriously when the film features two songs as memorable as “Dum Dum” and “Sahibaan”. They are both intensely romantic ballads rooted in Punjabi/Sufi mellowness – composer Shashwat Sachdev had the unenviable task of making Punjabi music (the horse Bollywood just won’t stop flogging) seem fresh, and he manages it with little showiness, and a lot of soul (to the point where one can forgive him the abruptness of more than one transition in “Dum Dum”; there are no such missteps in “Sahibaan” which, by song’s end, veers into qawwali without missing a beat – the track is splendid). Neither song is imaginable without the disarming freshness of Anvita Dutt’s romantic imagery: if you don’t respond to “O Sahibaan, O Sahibaan / Hijr ki chot hai laagi re / O Sahibaan / Jigar hua hai baaghi re” or “O tere bina saans bhi / Kaanch si, kaanch si, kaate, kaate re”, you might need to be punished with a diet of Badshah forever.
Diljit Dosanjh and Anushka Sharma are the stars of this show: this is only my second encounter with Dosanjh’s low-key charisma, and as in Udta Punjab, he steals almost every scene he is in. It isn’t hard to see why he is a huge star in his native Punjabi film industry (not to mention that the man can sing!), and as with so many successful star-actors from India’s so-called “regional” industries, one is reminded of what Bollywood’s star-kids all too often can’t get us: a smooth finish, the result of a lifetime of grooming for one’s position in the family business, yes, but not that flash of some authentic experience unmediated by industry privilege, that whiff of other scents. (I found myself wishing Rakeysh Mehra had cast Diljit Dosanjh rather than Harshvardhan Kapoor in Mirzya.) Anushka Sharma is always likeable when she isn’t going down the Kajol-route (typically in lighter roles), and Phillauri is no exception: she is excellent as Shashi in the flashback (the standout is a wordless moment when a friend, shocked to find out she has slept with her lover, asks her if she wasn’t ashamed to do so; Shashi nods at first, then shakes her head from side to side, even as her eyes maintain the same sparkle through both gestures: not at all), and less impressive as the ghost in the comic scenes set in the present. (Among the other actors, Salima Raza stood out as Kanan’s perennially drinking grandmother, with some wonderful comic timing.)
Phillauri is far from perfect: the film’s two story arcs don’t meld well – or at all – partly because of some uninspired writing for that segment, but mostly because the actors playing the contemporary pair leave us utterly cold. It’s hard to get over how ineptly Suraj Sharma bumbles his way through the role, without ever seeming like he can be taken seriously, or that he can provide comic relief; Mehreen Peerzada as his fiancée is inert, and between them both manage to botch a number of scenes. The imbalance between the two pairs meant I was disinterested every time the film moved back to 2017, and over time I couldn’t help the uncharitable thought that the entire second track was simply an unfortunate attempt to shoehorn some Punju comedy into the film (it’s quite mystifying that the film has been marketed as a comedy – it’s far more of a straight film, and stronger for that). That sort of problem – and it is a huge problem – would have sunk most other films; but Phillauri’s heart is in the right place, its old-world charms too potent to be completely wasted by “new Bollywood” badness. The same might be said of the producer Anushka Sharma, who has now followed up the relentlessly grim NH10 with this (uneven) charmer: I can’t wait to see what she gets behind next.