The Akshay Kumar starrer Laxmii, streaming on Disney+Hotstar, can’t wait to establish its horror film credentials.
Opening in Daman, the movie depicts a world marked by poltergeist phenomena: doors creaking, wind gusting, clothes flying. All set to a booming, ominous background score. More spooky elements follow: lights fluctuate, a shadowy figure emerges, a body is dragged. Depending on how many horror films you’ve watched — and it doesn’t have to be a lot — you’d either yawn or gasp. I sighed, feeling bad both for the film and myself: a bucketful of shoddiness in a Kumar film, where Kumar had not even so far appeared.
He appears soon, in a village in Haryana, as a rationalist man, busting myths about ghosts and godmen, saving (to no one’s surprise) a tormented woman. Then we get an abrupt item number masquerading as opening credits — the song is immensely forgettable, but it leaves lasting scars. It flits from a railway platform to a swimming pool to an open-air laundromat; it features a flying scooter made of skeletons, a bike decked out in dozen headlights, swaying phantoms, huge trumpets, suited Draculas, bikini-clad women. The set-piece is intentionally moronic, that is not tough to guess, but like everything else in the film, it elicits a baffling question: Why is it the way it is? Mind you, by this point, less than 15 minutes have passed, and the real story hasn’t even begun.
Written and directed by Raghava Lawrence, Laxmii revolves around a married couple, Asif (Kumar) and Rashmi (Kiara Advani), who travel to Daman to meet her parents. They have been married for three years, but Rashmi’s father, Sachin (Rajesh Sharma), doesn’t approve of the alliance, as Asif’s a Muslim. Rashmi’s family comprises two more members, her brother Deepak (Manu Rishi Chadha) and his wife Ashwin (Ashwini Kalsekar).
Now, unlike the initial portion, the film sees itself as a ‘comedy’. So, you’ve one gag after the other, heightened by an obvious goofy score. Rashmi’s mother (Ayesha Raza Mishra) often downs a bottle of alcohol and confronts her husband. Deepak, a singer at Jāgran, randomly breaks into a devotional song. Sachin is almost always sullen; Asif tries to impress him. The jokes, loud and lame, do not work at all. The entire set-up — over-the-top acting, physical comedy, a prodding background music — tries so hard that it reminds you of a shoddy sitcom, where the only thing missing is a laughter track in the background.
The film then slips into the horror mode again, and we get the same old tricks: a child crying in the night, a wooden toy horse rocking on its own, characters bumping into each other and getting shocked — a sudden burst of music, a shock of a visual; it’s a fest of horror film clichés. Even the exorcists are jaded and bland — a Hindu priest, a Sufi master (and a Father DeMello who never shows up) — adding nothing to elevate our interest. If the entire film would have unfolded like this, then Laxmii would have been a terrible movie — nothing truly remarkable though, just another chapter in Bollywood mediocrity. But around the halfway mark, Asif is possessed by the ghost of a trans person, and the film finds its true identity: it becomes awful, offensive, repulsive.
There’s nothing redeeming here, nothing even at the level of craft. Even middling horror films build some intrigue, but Laxmii is so formulaic and banal that it can’t sustain tension for any substantial period — even its most potent subplot, centered on revenge, is stale. The moment we see Laxmii, the ghost, commit the second murder — soon after the introduction of a powerful local family — we understand the mechanics of the backstory.
Even those, however, are not fatal flaws. They come to the fore when, in the guise of championing trans rights, the movie rolls out a litany of offensive stereotypes. Transpersons have historically struggled to found acceptance, because our society doesn’t view them as people — people no different than us; people with thoughts, feelings, intelligence; people with desires, aspirations, flaws — but as artifacts of amusement, eccentricity, and dread, solely defined by outlandish traits and mannerisms.
Laxmii revels in each one of them. The film was always navigating a slippery slope: making a trans woman a ghost, amplifying the marginalisation of an already marginalised community is a tone-deaf narrative choice — especially when the haunted figure is a Muslim in a devout Hindu family. Not a deal-breaker still for, in its first one hour, the film doesn’t extrapolate the specific to the generic.
All such illusions shatter when the ghost and the film reveal their character. Laxmii advances the idea that transpersons are prone to criminal proclivities. When Laxmii possesses Asif, he often effects a throwing, thumping clap linked, in popular imagination, to intrusive, annoying transpeople. He chatters his teeth, looking like a figure removed from any civilisational decorum. He appropriates a feminine gait and diction, reducing the character to an intimidating parody. All these choices are bizarre — and they do nothing to improve the film — and it seems as if the makers are intent on exacting some inexplicable revenge on transpersons, going out of their way to reinforce every damaging stereotype about them.
Laxmii would have been disastrously bad for these reasons alone, but its third act — especially the climactic number Bam Bholle — makes it disturbing and dangerous. Here, the film deprives transpersons of any grace or normality. In fact, they look barbaric and bloodthirsty. Laxmii shows remarkable commitment in ‘othering’ them, in demonising and dehumanising them, in conforming to regressive Hindu ideals (that, for instance, forbid transpersons to enter temples). All of this, done again, under the umbrella of ‘progressive politics’, with the assurance of being an ally — an irresponsible, shameful choice. There are million ways of earning millions but benefiting from the plight of an already excluded community — while causing them harm and distorting public perception — is borderline criminal. The real ghost here is the film itself.