There are two competing forces within Roohi. One is a conventional and schlocky horror show in which superstition is embraced, witches abound and scares are accompanied by loud sound effects.
The other is a wild and unorthodox tale with metaphorical possibilities, in which an unusual love triangle unfolds between a pair of friends and a possessed woman.
But like its titular character, Roohi ends up being neither this nor that.
Directed by Hardik Mehta and written by Mrighdeep Singh Lamba and Gautam Mehra, Roohi is set in a fictional corner of Uttar Pradesh. Here, Bhawra (Rajkummar Rao) and Kattani (Varun Sharma) help gangster Shakeel (Manav Vij) run a profitable bride kidnapping racket. Women are scooped up, taken straight to the mandap and married off to Shakeel’s clients.
Revenge (if one can call it that) comes in the form of Roohi (Janhvi Kapoor). Unbeknownst to Bhawra and Kattani, she is possessed by the matrimony-obsessed witch Afza. Bhawra is spooked by Roohi’s sudden transformations, the veins that cover her entire skin, her unnerving cat-eyes, and her inverted feet.
Kattani, who is made of firmer stuff and is the story’s most audacious soul, is smitten by this new creature.
Two men in love with two halves of the same woman – it’s about the strongest idea in the horror-comedy. Rather than sticking with this bizarre predicament, which yields the best scenes, Roohi thrashes about in search of coherence over its 134-minute duration.
Named after a female character but incurious about her condition or needs, the movie comes alive only in the wacky repartee between its male leads. Rajkummar Rao and Varun Sharma are perfectly matched in their bromance and shared ardour for Roohi/Afza. Despite being saddled with strained dialogue that revolves around the mispronunciation of English words and is delivered in near-incomprehensible accents, Rao and Sharma compensate by offering physical comedy and unwavering enthusiasm.
Janhvi Kapoor, who is well cast as the tremulous Roohi, has a tougher time. Chained and submissive for half the narrative, Kapoor is poorly served even by her ghoulish side. Apart from a changed appearance and a deep voice, the all-talk-no-action Afza scares only the easily frightened Bhawra.
Rajkummar Rao has been over similar territory in the 2018 movie Stree. Directed by Amar Kaushik and written by Raj & DK, Stree dished out ample servings of humour in the course of a story of yet another woman who wasn’t who she claimed to be.
Apart from its leading man, Roohi shares with Stree a producer (Dinesh Vijan) and a similar conceit of exploring female empowerment through the prism of comedy-laced horror. But the spirit is less willing this time. Bhawra’s creepy moves on the abducted Roohi get a fitting reply from Afza, but like other ideas in the movie, this one too makes little progress.
Rather than Stree, a better exemplar for Roohi’s failed genre-bending experiments is Anvita Dutt’s Bulbbul, a beguiling tale of righteous revenge carried out by a woman with inverted feet and a clear sense of identity and purpose. Without the entertainment offered by Stree or the conviction of Bulbbul, Roohi is neither here nor there, like its dual-sided heroine.