Anushka Sharma has, over her nine years in Bollywood, proven herself with powerful roles reflecting both exceptional talent and maturity that have heightened our expectations from her as an actress. The chilling thriller “NH10,” the 2015 maiden feature from her production house Clean Slate Films — one of the few in Bollywood companies helmed by a female actor — more than lived up to the company’s mission to tell risky, non-clichéd stories. Setting all that aside, while Clean Slate’s second release, “Phillauri,” has a promising premise, it’s disappointing to see first-time director Anshai Lal’s primarily play-it-safe treatment and lethargic pacing make it an underwhelming watch.
The story opens with Kanan (Suraj Sharma, of “Life of Pi” fame), who, after a three-year stint making music in Canada, has reluctantly returned home to Amritsar, Punjab to wed his high school sweetheart, Anu (Mehreen Pirzada). His trepidation towards the marriage is only made worse when he is forced by an astrologer and his boisterous and superstitious family to first marry a tree, a ritual that, according to Hindu astrology, will fend off ill fortune before he ties the knot with Anu.
Kanan grudgingly obliges, only to soon afterwards be visited by the ghost of Shashi, a young woman whose spirit has inhabited the tree ever since her death almost a century ago. Now stuck with an apparition for a wife (whose luminous avatar only he can see), the bewildered Kanan must help Shashi take care of her unfinished business to free himself of her, all while trying to maintain some semblance of sanity to an increasingly flabbergasted Anu. From this point, the plot oscillates between Kanan’s present and Shashi’s past in pre-Partition India as we learn of her life with her overprotective older brother and her love story with Phillauri (Diljit Dosanjh).
The biggest problem with “Phillauri” is not the lack of compelling material. From the dual timelines to Kanan’s commitment phobia, the mystery of Shashi’s backstory, and of course, the special effects required to make her “ghostliness” convincing, there’s a lot to work with here on the level of plot, character development, and visuals. But that potential is consistently underutilized: Kanan never truly explores the reason for his cold feet, and in the absence of a discernible arc, he comes off rudderless and selfish. In her acting debut, Pirzada is monotonous at best and expressionless at worst; the nonexistent chemistry between the young couple doesn’t give us much reason to root for them.
By contrast, Shashi’s romance with Phillauri is more emotionally involving, thanks in large part to Dosanjh’s earthy charm and the ability to put more heart into his small role than any of the others. The small-town setting is endearing, but it’s predictable at every turn. At least the movie delivers some impressive special effects: Shashi, floating across the frame in her translucent, gold-trimmed gown, appears just ethereal enough looking cartoonish.
But in the third act, a few too many computerized glitter showers and twinkly sound effects lead to a gimmicky and contrived quality, diminishing the overall impact. That’s a problem for “Phillauri” across the board: the songs are melodic but forgettable, its comedy is funny but slight, its drama is vaguely involving but never more than that. Moreover, it’s difficult to determine the message — more substantive than pure escapist entertainment, and yet not deep enough to convey a clear point of view, the film stumbles through an empty plot. While Shashi’s past might be viewed as a lesson to Kanan in the value of long-lasting love, the film makes no effort to expand on that idea, so attaching that meaning seems like a stretch.
In fact, the connection between Shashi and Kanan’s stories is so ambiguous, it’s easy to leave the theater wondering whether the crossing of their paths had any real significance, or was simply for convenience’s sake. It’s all pleasant enough, but falls short of being as genuinely different as Clean Slate claims its films to be. As a romance, “Phillauri” lacks passion, and as a ghost story, it’s missing some much-needed spirit.
“Phillauri” released in India and the U.S on March 24th. Check out the trailer here: