Pari: Not A Fairytale

India (2018) Dir. Prosit Roy

Despite being something of a world traveller when it comes to films, the output of one territory that I’ve never connected with is Bollywood. Admittedly, I’ve not seen many but the few I have tried just didn’t click at all. It occurred to me that perhaps I should try a different tact, hence this Hindi horror, Pari.

One rainy night a woman leaps out in front of a car driving through a country lane. One of the passengers, Arnab (Parambrata Chatterjee) joins the police in tracing where the woman came from, discovering an old shack in the forest in which a dishevelled frightened young woman Rukhsana (Anushka Sharma) is chained up. With nowhere else to go, Arnab takes Rukhsana in and helps her recover.

Meanwhile, a morgue worker (Dibyendu Bhattacharya) recognises a peculiar branded mark on the deceased woman’s arm and informs Professor Quasim Ali (Rajat Kapoor) who immediately recognises the danger this poses. A trip to the shack confirms what Ali feared but now, he has to track down Rukhsana, while Arnab is unaware of the true nature of the childlike woman in his care.

I must confess within minutes of Pari a huge piece of improbable plotting – putting aside this is a supernatural horror – put it on the wrong foot with me and I feared the negative review I have read would be justified. But first time director Prosit Roy throws so much into this film and spins a surprisingly enthralling, if sometimes convoluted yarn that it wholly redeems itself – until the clumsy ending that is.   

As the title expressly informs us this is not a fairytale although it is, as we learn later on, about fairies but not the sort with glittery wings who perform magic like Tinkerbelle. These fairies are based on the Indian folklore of Ifrit, supernatural beings that can’t be seen and only their breath can be heard, the most dangerous of these are Djinn.

In this story, a Satanic cult Auladhchakra would impregnate young women to continue the Ifrit bloodline and brand them with the symbol of a foetus. A group of vigilantes formed by Prof. Ali used to seclude the branded women, remove the Ifrit babies, and cut off their heads, but their methods were considered too extreme for villagers and they were outlawed.

From this, you can work out where Rukhsana fits into all of this but it isn’t made clear until much later into the film as the revelations behind Prof. Ali’s concerns about Rukhsana are shared via piecemeal flashbacks inserted at awkward moments throughout the film. Thankfully, it all comes together in the final act after some teasing through Rukhsana’s behaviour that subtly wrong foots us as to what she is enduring as opposed to the truth.

To Roy’s credit, the premise is extremely fertile, if hardly original, but with India being a very spiritual country, this does make it feel very credible and believable. His script also does a great job in building up Rukhsana as a sympathetic victim of the story and not its central monster but as the story reveals, in essence she already is a victim by virtue of how she came to be in the world and the way her mother “protected” her.  

Delving a little further into the constituent elements of some of the story’s concepts also reveals a somewhat cruel parable on the nature of parenthood, actually justifying what had previously felt like a time wasting subplot in the arranged marriage between Arnab and the impossibly gorgeous nurse Piyali (Ritabhari Chakraborty).  

Earlier I mentioned being frustrated with the opening section of Pari and this is part of it, beginning with the awkward first meeting between these two charisma vacuums (but Piyali’s pulchritude is fair compensation) as a prelude to the car accident. What really bothered me however was after finding Rukhsana, the police did nothing – zilch, nada, nought, nil.

Rukhsana wasn’t taken to hospital for a check up, given a shower or food, questioned or afforded a counsellor, she was simply handed over to Arnab to look after, not having her first wash and change of clothes until 45 minutes in! Police procedure might be time consuming and not all films need to cover it, but they could have briefly touched on this as a matter of continuity, else this is a reflection of a lousy Indian police force.

And it is once the true story about Rukhsana’s origins and the backstory of Prof. Ali that the erratic structure of the narrative is exposed as being too obtuse for its own good and how much more dynamic and tense this film could have been were it tighter. The 135-minute run time is not justified and the fat that needs trimming becomes more obvious over time, as well as the characters that needed more development that they got.

However, Roy creates something rather charming in charting Rukhsana’s evolution from a timid waif to tortured savant under Arnab’s care but he can’t take all the credit for this – Anushka Sharma is utterly spellbinding in this role, whether she is a innocent child or a ferocious beast. Even those who dislike this film have praised Sharma as its one saving grace and rightly so.

Viewing Pari as a horror film, it is a mixed bag of supernatural tension, by the book jump scares and grisly brutality, spread out across irregular intervals. Atmosphere is a key part in keeping the audience hooked, showing a Thai horror influence as does the high quality visuals – although one shot has been cheekily lifted wholesale from Under The Shadow!

Not without its flaws that have been highlighted here, Pari is nowhere near as awful as the negatives reviews suggest, which might be more due to the black magic inferences some have made, incurring a ban in Pakistan. Most parts of this film are greater than the sum but do the job well enough to earn a thumbs up.