Ludo and anthology cinema: How Anurag Basu's film compares to other international, Bollywood films of the genre
It’s fair to say that Ludo is more of an interesting, articulate failure than a triumph. It’s also fair to say that Anurag Basu’s failures are generally interesting and even instructive.
Anurag Basu's Ludo, which released on Netflix earlier this month, starring Pankaj Tripathi, Rajkummar Rao, Sanya Malhotra, Fatima Sana Sheikh and Abhishek Bachchan among others, is an example of what one might call anthology cinema — ‘composite’ films consisting of several distinctly realised story arcs, interlinked thematically, spatially or through any number of other ways. The Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu has favoured this technique in the past: Amores perros (2000), Babel (2003), 21 Grams (2003) and Birdman (2014) all achieved this ‘narrative convergence’ in different and constantly surprising ways.
Basu’s own earlier Life in a Metro (2007) can be considered one of the better examples of this genre in Bollywood. The Irrfan Khan-Konkona Sen Sharma storyline, in particular, ought to be counted among both actors’ best outings (and again, as per usual for this director individual moments stand out; in this case, the famous rooftop screaming scene). Ludo, too, has a lot going for it: commendable performances, (especially from Malhotra and Bachchan), witty one-liners every now and then, Basu’s usual programming of colour-coded sequences and handfuls of amiability.
A wildly uneven last half-hour, however, means that Basu has no choice but to deus ex machina his way out of trouble in Ludo; it’s a spin of the dice right out of the game that lends his film its name and framing device. Here this plays out via Mexican-adjacent standoffs, not entirely unlike Akshat Varma’s Delhi Belly, a film more adept at juggling its individual story arcs.
Concept is king
What makes good anthology cinema work? It helps if the core concept, or the narrative strand that connects the individual stories, is both solid and self-evident, without relying on affectations like expository dialogue or persistent voiceovers. In Iñárritu’s Babel, for example, the connecting strand is the Biblical story about the Tower of Babel. It’s a creation myth used to explain why people speak in different languages. It says that when the people of the world united to build a tower tall enough to reach paradise, God made it so that the builders could not understand each other. Foiled, chastened and speaking in mutually incomprehensible tongues, they scattered across the globe.
Every story in Babel depends, to an extent, upon the narrative tension provided by cultural collision. A freak accident leads to a Moroccan man and his sons being hunted down by the US Army, a Mexican nanny risks deportation by going to her son’s wedding in Tijuana — and bringing her American employer’s children along for the ride. With reliable consistency and technical finesse, these stories evoke the key elements of the Tower of Babel myth: communication gaps, the alienating effects of globalisation and so on. Similarly, a Burn After Reading or a Pulp Fiction works not only because of the strength of individual strands but also how artfully the connections are woven around their central preoccupations (paranoia and redemption, respectively).
In contrast, Ludo doesn’t really do much with its framing concept, apart from giving Basu the chance to play around with the RBGY colours every now and then. The scenes featuring Basu and Rahul Bagga as Yamraj (the Hindu god of death) and Chitragupta (his bookkeeper), respectively, look forced and didn’t do much for me. The trailer might have begun with Basu’s own ‘Ludo is life and life is Ludo’ voiceover but this sentiment doesn’t really echo all that often during the film.
The moving parts
Experienced storytellers know that one or two of their characters will always be much more kinetic than others, tasked with moving the action along. This doesn’t necessarily translate to screen time or the number of lines that they speak, just speaks to their role in the narrative. In Birdman, for example, that character is Mike Shiner, a skilled but wildly unpredictable stage actor played by Edward Norton. Despite limited screen time his impact on every major character’s life is considerable.
Mike ruins protagonist Riggan Thompson’s (Michael Keaton) rehearsals for his new play, a self-consciously ‘serious’ Raymond Carver adaptation. He attempts to rape Lesley (Naomi Watts), the actor who had helped Mike get this role in the first place Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone) has a rare heartfelt, meaningful conversation with Mike on a rooftop. His antics are a constant pain for Riggan’s best friend Jake (Zach Galifianakis), who’s co-producing the play.
When done well, characters like Mike Shiner push everybody around them, especially the protagonist(s), to their limits. However, because of their role in the narrative they also run a high risk of devolving into caricature (Norton is brilliant at walking this fine line).
This is another area where Ludo misses the mark, I feel. Not by much this time, but enough to upset the second half in particular. It’s clear that Tripathi, who plays the gangster Sattu, is the film’s most kinetic figure. And while his romance with the Malayali nurse Lata (Shalini Vatsa) is enjoyable in parts, it also means a long stretch of the film where Tripathi’s character can barely move and cannot speak much, which feels wasteful. And when Sattu does speak, lines like “when luck suck, everybody fuck” lack the punch necessary to make up for this.
It’s a pity, because Tripathi is a brilliant actor in general, a proven performer saddled with a somewhat thinly written character here. What he needed was more detail-oriented storytelling, like the moment where he whips out a gun from underneath his lungi in the film’s opening scene, revealing that he’s wearing a garter (a common visual in ‘femme fatale’ sequences; think Angelina Jolie on the poster of Mr and Mrs Smith)
Chance, causality and ‘network cinema’
Ludo, with its choice of connecting strand, was primed to use coincidence or pure, dumb luck as a major plot pivot, but by the end of the film this too is added to the list of small disappointments. Apart from Pinky’s (Fatima Sana Sheikh) scooter ride investigating her husband’s extramarital dalliance (Pinky’s nightie was a nice touch) — and the inopportune moment in time where she abandons this mission — chance plays no real role in Ludo’s plot, contrary to what the trailer and Basu’s bookending Yamraj scenes would have you believe.
The point about chance isn’t merely a way for screenwriters to get out of jail. It is also, in many ways, a formal feature of anthology cinema.
Maria Poulaki’s 2014 essay ‘Network films and complex causality’, published in the journal Screen, uses Burn After Reading (2008) and several other examples to explain the structural features of what she calls ‘network films’, a category in which she also places films like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999), Tom Tykwer’s Cloud Atlas (2012) and Paul Haggis’ Crash (2005). She also cites an earlier essay by Charles Ramirez Berg, about the so-called ‘Tarantino effect’ (nonlinear storytelling à la Pulp Fiction) and what Berg calls ‘hub-and-spoke’ plots featuring many more protagonists than usual.
“Thematically (…) demonstrate the frailty of agency by presenting a world where happenstance prevails and best-laid plans come to naught. At a formal level, they question whether causality and characters’ choices, the bedrocks of Hollywood’s classical narration and narration in general, are viable as narrative mainstreams particularly in contemporary dramas and romances. And because causality is foundational not just for movies but for life, particularly American life, the ideological implications of such challenges are seriously subversive.”
Poulaki also notes that the element of chance, plus the way these ‘hub-and-spoke’ narratives are structured, often land ‘network film’ plots into transcendental territory. Basically, because of the speed and the scale of their escalating circumstances, these films have a greater chance of ending on emotional notes that feel ‘cosmic’, ‘transcendental’. Cue Ludo’s last big reveal about Basu being the god of death—it didn’t quite work for me, but the fact that the attempt was made in the first place tells you something about the narrative rhythms of an interlocking ‘network film’.
In this aspect, one must also point out what a missed opportunity Abhishek Bachchan’s subplot represents. His character Bittu is the definition of down-on-luck. His criminal career only costs him after he quits, the love of his life leaves him while he’s behind bars and the daughter who’s his last remaining connection to stability and emotional well-being, doesn’t even recognise him.
What if in the climax, instead of martyring Bittu and having Basu’s Yamraj deliver a punya-paap dialogue about his wretched end, a freak of chance saved him? It would’ve been a far nicer way of closing the narrative loop and given the audience plenty to chew on about the vagaries of chance. Instead what we have is regular, par-for-the-course Bollywood moralising and a disappointingly common sentimentality, by Basu’s standards.
In the final equation, it’s fair to say that Ludo is more of an interesting, articulate failure than a triumph. It’s also fair to say that Basu’s failures are generally interesting and even instructive. Hopefully, in his next stab at the network/anthology format, Ludo’s missteps will be improved upon in style.
(All images from Twitter)
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