The Stree duo of producer Dinesh Vijan and director Amar Kaushik reunite to deliver a film that is substantially more than just yet another horror-comedy. It is in certain ways in the same zone as the 2018 film but is markedly different in spirit, substance and style. It makes room for scepticism but blends that with a substantial degree of earnestness and teasing humour that prevent the film from losing its way in the sort of baffling convolutions that ruined Maddock Films’ previous offering, Roohi. Bhediya, toplined by Varun Dhawan exploring the power of a wild transmogrification, rests primarily on the consequences of the human-animal conflict – it plays out in a tangible yet fairy tale-like setting where the fantastical and the real intermingle. However, as the story unfolds, it hits its straps and lets other essential themes find their way in. The director, working with a screenplay by Niren Bhatt, not only dovetails an environmental conservation message into a folksy storyline but also dwells upon questions of language, identity and culture with dashes of robust comicality thrown in for the purpose of livening up a debate of great significance. Bhediya does a generally successful balancing act between farce and fable. The latter is rooted firmly in local myths and legends. A 120-year-old shaman is a key character who brings to the equation the role that traditional knowledge and beliefs play in the lives of people who have been sustained by hills and forests for generations. Parts of the film could certainly have done with some trimming, but, overall, the director sustains an unwavering grip on the tone and tenor of the narrative, which allows Bhediya to wrest from the audience a willing suspension of disbelief, which is obviously absolutely essential for a film that rides on free-flowing notions that might be easy to dismiss as avoidable argle-bargle. The film’s technical attributes – led by the mood-setting lighting and lensing and the evocative production design – are of a high order. Especially impressive are the visual effects in the pivotal scenes that show the process of the protagonist transforming into a wolf and acquiring the ability and strength to leap over all hurdles. The cast of Bhediya includes Abhishek Banerjee, who was one of the three friends in Stree who encounter a beautiful apparition who spells preternatural trouble for men. In an end-credits scene, Bhediya acknowledges its debt to Stree, the film that inaugurated Maddock Films’ horror-comedy universe that now seems to be well-nigh back on course after the forgettable and wayward Roohi detour. Bhediya reworks the conventions of the genre to craft the story of a forest facing the threat of denudation in the name of development. The film would have had far greater thrust had it been a tad shorter. But despite a runtime of more than two and a half hours, the plot elements that it puts together form a cohesive whole without overly straining credulity. In the popular imagination, perpetuated doubtless by genre cinema and tales we have been told for decades, a bhediya is a dreaded animal, a wild predator that has never made peace with humankind. In this film, the creature is granted surprisingly positive prospects that let the benign and the fearsome coexist and create space for ambiguities in our responses to the animal’s violent depredations. To be sure, the wolf isn’t native to the part of the world where Bhediya is set. But this isn’t a film that is aiming for absolute factual veracity. Located in a fantasy world, the wild animal is given a mythical cloak to justify its presence in the wilds of Arunachal. The creature is a jungle beast, a sort of wild dog with very sharp fangs that can do great damage to humans, and, more important than anything else, a warning sign for votaries of development that does not take ecological concerns into consideration. A road construction contractor from Delhi, Bhaskar, arrives in the Arunachal Pradesh town of Ziro in the company of his slow-witted cousin Janardhan. He has a blueprint that maps out the dimensions of a proposed infrastructure project that he has reasons to believe will transform the place completely. The Delhi duo is joined by a local point person Jomin, whose job is to help the outsiders convince the local populace about the pressing need for a new road through the forest. That is easier said than done. Bhediya represents the clash between tradition and so-called modernity through a clear and understandable divide between the town elders who regard the forest as a sacred space and the younger population addicted to consumerist inducements that depend on technology and electronic gadgets. The wolf bite that throws Bhaskar’s plans into total disarray is the centrepiece of this allegory about the greed for greenbacks and the depletion of green covers and about mankind’s enormous capacity to harm the environment. It triggers panic among the townspeople. A police outpost swings into action but the cops are up against a phenomenon that they can barely explain, let alone crack. Bhaskar and his friends – among them are Panda, a Nainital native who has lived in Arunachal Pradesh all his life and is suspected of being swayed by ulterior motives, and Anika, a veterinarian who has no option but to treat Bhaskar although the complicated case is well out of her league – are stopped in their tracks as the mystifying and fatal attacks by the wolf multiply. One important thread that runs through Bhediya centres on Janardhan’s attitude to the place and its people. Insensitive to the feelings of Jomin, he cracks casual jokes at the latter’s expense, ridiculing his Hindi and making offensive presumptions. The casual verbal indiscretions threaten to drive a wedge between the Delhi boys and the local guy and become a key strand of the story. The resolution takes its time in coming, but when it does the script sums up the situation and its repercussions forcefully, if only in a way that is a touch too in your face. Bhediya, both enjoyable and thought-provoking, is helped along by lively performances. Varun Dhawan gives the unconventional role his best shot. Abhishek Banerjee and Paalin Kabak are terrific as much with their comic timing as with their dramatic flourishes. Kriti Sanon has comparatively limited footage but does all that it takes not to be swamped out of the picture. Bhediya, thanks to the inventive and intriguing ways that it adopts with a genre that has spawned many a movie over the decades from Paul Schrader’s Cat People and John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London to Rajkumar Kohli’s Jaani Dushman and Mahesh Bhatt’s Junoon, has a own unique footprint that makes watchable all the way.