Kaali Khuhi

Very, very, late into its ninety-minute duration, after a curse has claimed most of its victims, and the makers of this supposed horror movie have claimed the lifeforce of its audience, Shivangi, Kaali Khuhi’s 10-year-old heroine, finally screams: “What’s happening?!”

A better question to be screamed, perhaps more loudly, would be: Why is this happening?

‘This’, as in this film — a thinly veiled whoopla lambasting archaic customs where women are commanded to breed male heirs, and newborn daughters are thrown into a black well. (I apologise. That was a spoiler, unmysterious and easily decipherable as it was, but a spoiler nonetheless).

There is a strong, unnecessary feminist tilt in the tale. There wasn’t a need for it, but there it is — looming over your face, staring you down, hoping to scare the living daylights out of you. It is scarier than the curse that makes people vomit black goo, or the spectre of an eight-year-old girl walking the dark streets of the village where the story is set.

In this week’s two Netflix releases, there is a tacked-on feminist tilt in logic-deprived Kaali Khuhi while Anurag Basu’s Ludo is a piece of art, revolving around a series of tales that intersect but never collide with each other

Shivangi’s bickering parents (Satyadeep Mishra, Sanjeeda Sheikh) have some idea of the ominousness. From the way the couple argue, one would think they were in the middle of a separation. The real reason behind the squabbling is as old as the curse: Shivangi’s mother can’t stand her mother-in-law. The old woman, however, is critically ill, which is why Shivangi’s parents are visiting from the city.

The adults talk little and make even less sense. One of the few who do have enough lines of dialogue is Satya Maasi (Shabana Azmi), an old aunt raising her eight-year-old grandchild (no, she is not the ghost of the story if you were wondering). Satya Maasi also has a secret ill-omened journal from her past. It doesn’t help the story one bit.

Simple logic evades co-writer and director Terrie Samundra’s screenplay: if, say, newborn girls were thrown into the aforementioned black well (ie. the Kaali Khuhi of the title), why do their spirits take forms that can walk and talk like 10-year-old girls? And aren’t newborns innocent and free from concepts of heaven and hell? So why would they hold a grudge?

A rotting, exploding ghost womb in the climax is an answer. It wasn’t the answer Shivangi, or the audience, were looking for…but it was the only one Samundra is interested in giving you. Take it, or skip the movie (hopefully, you’re tilting for the latter).

Kaali Khuhi is streaming now on Netflix. It is rated 16+, suitable for audiences of that age and above. A few years younger can watch the film…but then again, why would you subject them to your torment?

Ludo

There might have been a perfectly logical, philosophically-inclined, reason for co-writer-director Anurag Basu to call his film Ludo, a game of kismet and chance, that depends on how a dice rolls.

One can try faking up intellectual allusions on why the film was titled Ludo. For example: it can be said that the four anthology-ish stories in the film have their own peculiar style and narrative tilt (ie. their own colour), and further substantiate that argument with the relevance of said colour assigned to particular characters in the poster art (ie. colours as traits associated with a character’s mindset; one character is red and aggressive; another is yellow or scared etc). Or how, like in the game of Ludo, characters and their chases contribute to the thrill of the game.

However, after a good night’s sleep and some clearheaded afterthought, one can see that these aspects remain scholarly allusions for the pompous, or those looking for deeper context.

Ludo works just as well without the excessive highbrow embellishment. It’s a simple and straightforward, long but never long-winded, series of tales that intersect but never collide with each other. That’s an art by itself, if you ask me. And if anything, Basu, knows art.

Basu, who previously directed Jagga Jasoos and Barfi, crudely sets up these stories from the perspectives of two unnamed people playing a game of Ludo on top of a small hill. The more astute of the two, clad in a long black overcoat, is irked because they came in too early for their rendezvous. The younger of the two, dressed in a white safari suit (the clichéd wardrobe of government contractors in India), is still green on his perspective of life.

These two, whose roles make sense by the end of the film, inexplicably, have innate background information of the people who are converging on their location.

One of them is Bittu (Abhishek Bachchan, superb), a career criminal who just got out of jail after a six year stint, only to find out that his ex-wife, her present husband, and the daughter he fathered (who knows nothing about him), are in mortal danger because they can’t pay Bittu’s former boss the 90-lakh loan they owe him. Bittu, reeling from emotional anguish, has a heart of gold, and he soon finds himself helping a cute six-year-old girl who’s run away from home on the pretext of being kidnapped (she got the idea from a television show; go figure).

The second character is a struggling voice-actor-cum-ventriloquist-cum-stand-up comedian (Aditya Roy Kapur), who finds out that a sex-tape of him and his ex-girlfriend (Sanya Malhotra) has somehow leaked online. With just a few days left before the girl marries a rich, sensible guy, the two exes start searching for the hotel where the sex-tape was made (believe me, there’s a reason for this wild goose chase).

The third story is of ‘Aalu’ (as in potato; Rajkummar Rao), an overly animated, Mithun Chakraborty-inspired waiter in a small roadside restaurant. Aalu, truly, madly, stupidly in love with his childhood friend (Fatima Sana Shaikh), agrees to help her husband after the latter is locked up on murder charges. The wife knows that her husband is no murderer because she was following him that night as he was rendezvousing with his mistress.

The last set of characters don’t speak each other’s language: a meek, homeless young man (Rohit Suresh Saraf) witnesses a murder, and then is picked up by the murderer because they share the same first name. The killer is a local mobster named Rahul Satyendra “Sattu” Tripathi (Pankaj Tripathi), who was born with unlimited lives. Later in the film, the young man and a nurse from South India (Pearle Maaney), who only speaks English and Malayalam, get their hands on two suitcases of Sattu’s money, and run for their lives.

Sattu is the common thread in the film who is either instigating or unknowingly supplementing every story.

Things get weird fast.

Unlike other filmmakers, Basu is seemingly bored of the mundane. The world he sets up is a mix of reality and quirky fantasy, and his characters are appropriately eccentric and wonderful, with aptly fleshed out backstories that make them believable.

The director doesn’t care about long running times (Ludo is 150 minutes long); what he’s interested is, is the payoff…and perhaps some appreciation of his superior acumen of making complicated things of deep context appear unpretentious and sincere.

Ludo, streaming on Netflix, is rated 16+ for scenes of violence, profanity, romance and sensuality

Published in Dawn, ICON, November 22nd, 2020