There’s so much to love about Phillauri on its own merits, but it also represents something important within the Hindi-film industry. This film is the product of an actress taking control of her career, in effect saying to the industry, “This is the caliber of movie I think the audience wants and the type of quality role female performers deserve.” It’s a powerful statement packaged within a fun, touching romantic-comedy.
Phillauri is the second movie by Clean Slate Films, a production house run by actress Anushka Sharma and her brother, Karnesh. As with Clean Slate’s first movie, the excellent 2015 revenge thriller NH10, Sharma stars in Phillauri in a role that explicitly addresses gender issues in a progressive way.
Sharma plays a ghost named Shashi, whose spirit has been trapped in a tree since her death many years ago. She’s ripped from her arboreal abode when a young man with an unlucky love life — Kanan (Suraj Sharma) — marries her tree in an effort to improve his luck before marrying his childhood sweetheart, Anu (Mehreen Pirzada). Shashi and Kanan are shocked to find themselves metaphysically hitched following the tree ceremony — especially Kanan, since he’s the only living person who can see Shashi.
As Kanan copes with the stress of preparing for his wedding to Anu with a ghost in tow, Shashi tries to recall how she died. She finds the modern world unfamiliar and too liberal for her taste — she’s scandalized by Anu’s backless dress and Kanan’s whiskey-drinking grandmother — but seeing a DJ spinning a record at the young couple’s engagement party brings back a flood of memories.
Flashbacks show us Shashi’s hometown of Phillaur outside of Amritsar in the early 20th Century. Traveling salesmen bring a phonograph to town to show off the latest technology, and Shashi sneaks out of the house to listen to the music, against the wishes of her overly protective and status-conscious older brother.
Beautiful Shashi is spotted at the phonograph demonstration by a popular local singer who goes by the nickname “Phillauri” (Diljit Dosanjh), a name that can be applied to anyone who hails from the town of Phillaur. He asks Shashi why she doesn’t sneak away to listen to his bawdy tunes the way the other single women do. She chastises him for wasting his platform on tacky frivolities instead of using it to elevate his audience, inspiring them with poetic lyrics and opening their minds to new ideas. He has the opportunity to reach an audience that others don’t have access to, particularly women during this time period.
Sharma knows first-hand about the film industry’s continuing focus on the youth and beauty of female performers, resulting in short careers and insubstantial roles as eye-candy alongside one of a handful of middle-aged male actors. Like some of her female contemporaries, Sharma is using her hard-earned star power and connections to bankroll movies that feature strong women in uplifting roles. When her character in Phillauri talks about using one’s platform for good, it’s a statement of her own purpose and a challenge to the men who dominate the film industry in front of and behind the camera to do the same.
Sharma also deserves kudos in her capacity as a producer for assembling a top-notch crew to make Phillauri. Helming his first picture, director Anshai Lal gets great performances from his cast — Suraj Sharma’s high-pitched whimpering is a hoot — in a film that looks fabulous, also thanks to cinematographer Vishal Sinha. The costumes by Veera Kapur are as lush as Sameer Uddin’s score, which makes the tear-jerking climax all the more memorable. Writer Anvita Dutt’s screenplay is tight and layered.
It’s unfortunate that not all of the songs’ lyrics are subtitled in English. Some are, when the lyrics are of particular plot significance, but there’s no reason why all of the songs shouldn’t be. Failing to do so puts international audiences at a disadvantage.
Yet a lack of subtitles doesn’t impede understanding because the script is “high-concept” done right. Phillauri‘s entertaining and heartfelt story translates just fine.