Pari - Not a Fairy Tale Review: Bases its scares on the horrifying refugee crisis
A horror film that has its heart in the right place and chooses to celebrate life
The last time a horror film from Hindi cinema tried, and by that I mean really tried to be different from the usual bullet point version of Indian horror films, we got Pawan Kripalani's Phobia. Phobia did not attempt anything different in terms of narrative, but it had a solid footing for its existence - it touched on the subjects of fear, sexual harassment and the aftermath of breaching an individual's - a woman's - boundaries of space. Phobia had its share of jump scares and hold your breath moments, but you knew it wanted to be more. Close on those heels comes Prosit Roy's Pari. The title insists on warning you that it is not a fairy tale while announcing that it is a horror film at the same time. Pari, soon after its opening, goes on a namedropping (or phrase dropping) spree: "Bangladesh Tribune", "Qayamat Andolan", "ifrit", "heads of children recovered". It doesn't give explanations, but we soon realise that there is more going on in Pari than it wishes to let on, initially. A Muslim woman dies. Her daughter, presumably, is found in chains. She (Anushka Sharma as Rukhsana) gives little reason to believe that she has been anywhere close to the civilised world all her life. She's always lived around dogs, so much that smells speak to her more than images and speech. She is afraid of incense and even when given a medicine, she takes it close to her nose. She's been held in captivity, to save her or to torture her, we don't know.
Director: Prosit Roy
Cast: Anushka Sharma, Parambrata Chattopadhyay, Rajat Kapoor
Pari (written by Prosit Roy and Abhishek Bannerjee), like Phobia, has none of the haunted house hullabaloo or ghosts taking revenge backstory. It does follow the horror tropes with jump scares and music that lets you know when you should be expecting something. But beyond that, there is little to feel scared about. The horrors, they are a different breed. Pari has plenty of horror that might make you uneasy, squirm in your seat or leave a bad taste in the mouth. There is biting involving both dogs and humans as victims. A morgue worker extracts a tooth out of a dead body and puts it straight into his mouth for a bit of a chew. There is killing of progeny, and a call to spread the bloodline. Rajat Kapoor plays a professor who's had a dark history, an understatement by all counts. One of his victims attacked him in the eye and now he wears a cosmetic eyeball. Since then the professor has always wanted an eye for an eye and it finally dawns that Pari was always about the refugee crisis. The immediate example is of course the Rohingya crisis, but the metaphor works for refugee crisis anywhere in the world, an act with hate at its very foundation.
Immediately after some horrifying visuals from the past, Roy cuts to Arnab (Parambrata Chattopadhyay) and Piyali (Ritabhari Chakraborty) - the woman he meets as part of an arranged marriage proposal - sitting on a bench in the Maidan, with the towering Tata Steel building in the background. The progress of the state and the sounds of peace in the park seem far removed from a time when displaced children were being killed as part of a genocide. A child walks up to them to collect the ball (we also see the professor feeding a child when we first meet him) and it soon hits that where they are sitting is probably not very far away from the places where these awful things are happening even today. In this story, it is imperative that Anushka Sharma play a Muslim and Arnab, a Hindu, who shelters her out of empathy and soon develops an affection, an arc that informs the ending of Pari. It is to Roy and Bannerjee's credit that they did not choose to be satisfied with the allegory but took the effort to flesh it out with details. When Rukhsana switches on the television, there is a news item informing of a woman killed at a Jammu & Kashmir related protest. As unions crumble, Arnab and Rukhsana form a union of their own. So unique that even shadows make love.
Some of Pari reminds one of Mysskin's Tamil film Pisaasu, where it takes a while to find out whether what we are encountering is a good spirit or an evil one. In Pari, we keep alternating in our opinion which probably reflects on how and what we think when we think refugees. Arnab has a similar problem and he is a stand-in for the collective, who has a good heart but lacks the patience to deal with something that lives in his house now. Pari, ultimately, has its heart in the right place and chooses to celebrate life, and for that, every jump scare and horror film cliché can be forgiven. Anushka Sharma, the producer, continues to be cautiously radical in her choice of scripts - from slasher NH-10 to Phillauri where she played another fairy from the past, and now in Pari - where, between jumping windows and climbing walls like Spiderman - she's green signalled a horror film that might not be scary but is thoroughly satisfying in its reimagination.