Like everyone else, I’ve missed films on the big screen. What I haven’t missed are big-screen films, the ones with major stars and minor intellects. Raghava Lawrence's Laxmii is a reminder of the sort of plodding, patronizing, garish Hindi film that would release wide every fortnight in pre-covid times. Akshay Kumar is Bollywood’s most consistent hitmaker but this might be his sternest test—without the ritual of theatre viewing, will the audience choose to remain captive to unrelenting silliness for over two-and-a-half hours?
This remake of Lawrence's Tamil-language Kanchana begins in Daman, with a spirit freed and a girl dragged out of her house and down the road by a malevolent force, but the true horror comes a few scenes later, in a brightly lit apartment, as Asif (Kumar) tries to explain to his nephew why his wife’s parents won’t talk to them. “Her father didn’t like me being Muslim,” he says. “He’s still stuck on the whole Hindu-Muslim thing?” the child asks. “Yes, he’s still stuck on the whole Hindu-Muslim thing,” Asif replies. I’d forgotten how much heavy weather Indian screenwriters could make of scenarios that have been in circulation since the 1930s (the writers here are Lawrence, Farhad Samji, Sparsh Khetarpal and Tasha Bhambra).
The impetus for that little lecture—not the last in the film—is a phone call from Rashmi’s (Kiara Advani) mother, asking her to come home after three years. So Asif, Rashmi and nephew, whom they’re bringing up, head to Daman. Along with painful meet-the-parents comedy, a spectral presence starts haunting Rashmi’s mother (Ayesha Raza Mishra), father (Rajesh Sharma), sister-law (Ashwini Kalsekar, occasionally funny) and brother (Manu Rishi Chadha). Finally, it settles on Asif, entering him via lemongrass tea (of the two Hindi films this year to feature the beverage, Thappad is certainly the better horror movie).
Though we already know Asif is possessed—he’s shown dribbling from the mouth, teeth streaked with mud, shouting “I won’t let them go”—the first sign of the specific form this will take comes in a sari shop. He asks the attendant to hand over a sari, then another, and another. His movements and voice turn coy, effeminate. He gets up and sashays to a mirror, where he tries on the sari as his extended family look on, horrified. He snaps out of it after he’s slapped, and storms out. That night and the next day, he’s overtaken by similar possessions—wearing bangles, applying turmeric to his hands and face. He also has an out-of-body experience where he murders a man in a warehouse, because why not?
Woman-Asif is violent and superhumanly strong but the low comedy—childish name-calling, people going cross-eyed with terror—diminishes any latent threat. After flinging her husband across the room, Asif tells the sister-in-law: “Tera pati hai na, halkat, tedha hai par tera hai (this idiot husband, he’s twisted but he’s yours).” How I've missed you, silver wit of Farhad Samji.
There’s also the underwhelming central idea of a straight, macho actor playing an exaggerated version of a transgender person primarily for laughs. Asif, it turns out, has been possessed by the ghost of Laxmi, a trans woman killed by corrupt builders. Laxmi is shown as a bruiser—capable of inflicting as much damage as Asif can when he's possessed by her—but also an inspirational figure and a mentor. Actor Sharad Kelkar gives the character some dignity in this flashback, at odds with Kumar’s turn, which is grotesque and intended to be so (some might remember Kumar camped it up as a gay man in Dishoom).
Having a huge contingent of trans persons perform a wild, religion-themed dance (there's a bunch of Hindu iconography in the film) before Asif-as-Laxmi stabs, slices, dices and burns her way to revenge is one way to do representation. But it’s scarcely worse than the last scene, where Asif and Rashmi sum up the film’s Good Intentions. “There wasn’t much difference between Laxmi and me,” he says. “I used to eradicate the fear of ghosts from people’s hearts and Laxmi removed the ghost of inequality from society.” “Absolutely right,” she replies. “We have created divisions by classifying people as male, female, transgender—but when it comes down to emotions, we’re all the same.”
I’d like to tell you there’s a pretty frame or two, some nice camerawork, a scene with a novel idea. But the only evidence of good taste in 140 minutes is the straight lift of John Carpenter’s tinkling theme from Halloween. The funniest moment comes when the real Laxmi gives an emotional speech on stage. As soon as she finishes, a man in the audience jumps up and shouts “Superb!” What’s a nice adjective like you doing in a film like this?