Kaali Khuhi movie review: Shabana Azmi leads a cast of women telling ghostly tales of traditional horrors
Kaali Khuhi is simplistic in the way it portrays men as helpless in the face of patriarchy but leaves us with a powerful image of the child heroine as a guardian of baby girls.
castShabana Azmi, Leela Samson, Riva Arora, Sanjeeda Shaikh, Satyadeep Mishra, Hetvi Bhanushali, Rose Rathod
A covered well, a little girl and a grown man come together in the countryside on a pitch black night in the opening shot of Terrie Samundra’s Kaali Khuhi (The Black Well), a horror flick about macabre social practices and their consequences.
Cut to the daytime in a bustling urban centre where curious little Shivangi (Riva Arora) peers into a well filled with water and sees a reflection she was not expecting. Shivangi’s Daadi (grandmother) is unwell in their village and her parents, Priya and Darshan, squabble over the news since he (Satyadeep Mishra) wants to visit his mother while she (Sanjeeda Shaikh) seems repelled by the old lady (Leela Samson). When they finally get there we find out why: Daadi taunts Priya for being satisfied with a daughter, not craving a son and wanting a career for herself.
As Shivangi hangs out with her friend Chandni (Hetvi Bhanushali) and Satya Maasi (Shabana Azmi), ghosts of the past are resurrected and she learns of horrifying traditions that place an unprecedented weight on her frail young shoulders. How much of what she sees is a product of the active imagination exemplified by her introductory scene and how much is actually happening around her is for the viewer to gauge.
Like numerous storytellers before them telling a tale of and for children, Samundra and her co-writer David Walter Lech too use compelling visual imagery and a folksy tone to throw light on troubling truths. For the most part, writer-director Samundra thankfully steers clear of early 21st century Bollywood’s horror flick cliches – screechy noises, jerky camera movements and overbearing background scores – largely relying instead on the power of suggestion to instil fear at first, then revulsion and finally hope in the viewer.
Several generations of women are represented here: women of the past who inflicted atrocities on their own kind; older women like Satya Maasi who were vulnerable yet enraged by these customs, remain traumatised by the memory of them and prove to be allies of the youth; others like Daadi who were initially reluctant but ultimately socially conditioned into playing along; Priya who is fighting back; and Shivangi on whom rests the responsibility to carry her mother’s battles forward.
Here though lies both the strength and failing of Kaali Khuhi. Certainly it is good to watch a film that does not impose male saviours on us and instead sets out to remind women and girls that the leadership of movements against patriarchy must rest with us. It is perfectly acceptable too to shine a spotlight on women who enable patriarchy since the tragic reality is that male-dominated power structures could not possibly survive if womankind were to rise up as one against them. However, Kaali Khuhi gets painfully simplistic when it lays the blame for patriarchy entirely and completely at women's door and lets men off lightly through the vehicle of Darshan who is shown to be helpless – and at worst, an apathetic observer – in the face of an existing system. Men are the primary beneficiaries and primary perpetrators of patriarchy, but the screenplay is either unwilling or unable to handle the nuance required to make that point in addition to everything else it says.
When a film sets out to bust myths and prejudice, it behoves the makers not to play into or play up others. The facial disfigurement of the woman representing regressive social realities is one, the other is the ageist suggestion that the young alone drive change – the fact is that women of today’s generations are free to fight the battles we now fight because of generations of women who have gone before us who broke glass ceilings that we no longer need to contend with, who kicked open doors that we now casually walk through, leaving us with the energy and strength to crash against glass ceilings that lie further up and doors that are still shut to us. A refusal to acknowledge our female seniors and ancestors is an unfortunate part of the popular public feminist discourse these days, but for a film directed at children to collectively paint our female forebears as symbols of either regression or inaction is disappointing.
(Minor spoiler alert) Kaali Khuhi’s focus is largely on female infanticide until a scene in which Shivangi sees a throbbing human womb in a darkened room. Here the film forgets – or perhaps intentionally sidesteps – another complexity. The pro-choice debate in the real world is continuously challenged by anti-abortion activists’ attempts to blur the lines between abortion and sex-selective abortions. This is a tough point and one that needed to be addressed since the director chose to feature this scene in her narrative. (Spoiler alert ends)
Having said that, there is plenty to recommend in this well-acted, compact film. Most important, Kaali Khuhi is laudable as an unprecedented attempt by the Hindi film industry to strike up a conversation with both children and adults about the wounds that patriarchy inflicts on women in a society that ironically worships both Lord Shiva, the Destroyer in the Hindu Holy Trinity, and Goddess Durga – as villagers are shown doing in a fleeting scene – but denies real-world Durgas that most basic of rights: the right to life.
The child heroine’s name can be read as a derivative of Shiva’s name, as another name for his wife Parvathy, as a sign of the incompleteness of Shiva without her, and/or another title of the divine feminine, Shakti. Either way, the lasting impression from this film, of Shivangi as the Preserver, the force causing well-established structures of patriarchy to crumble, the protector of baby girls, the one leading the Lord of Death Yamraj’s mount away from them, is a powerful, empowering, unforgettable image.
Kaali Khuhi is streaming on Netflix India.
Rating: 2.75 stars
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