Ludo movie review: Anurag Basu cracks the black comedy genre, quietly and with flair
With his last directorial venture Jagga Jasoos, Anurag Basu had held out the promise of whimsy but faltered in his execution. Ludo enters the same territory and quietly delivers.
castPankaj Tripathi, Rajkummar Rao, Shalini Vatsa, Sanya Malhotra, Abhishek Bachchan, Aditya Roy Kapur, Fatima Sana Shaikh, Pearle Maaney, Inayat Verma, Asha Negi
Anurag Basu’s Ludo unfolds through a conversation over a board game between an important figure in Hindu mythology (played by Basu himself) and a curious questioner. Beyond this clever device and the discussion that plays out between them through the length of the narrative is this simple truth: the film is good old-fashioned, light-hearted fun.
Ludo examines questions of virtue and vice, sin and goodness, heaven and hell, fate and punishment through intersecting lives.
Rahul Satyendra Tripathi aka Sattu Bhaiyya (Pankaj Tripathi) is a criminal whose determination to control his gang members – past and present – and save a lost stash of loot sets off a chain of events that has consequences for people known and unknown to him.
Elsewhere in the city is Sheeja Thomas (Pearle Maaney), an ambitious nurse newly arrived in north India from Kerala.
Batukeshwar Tiwari aka Bittu Bhaiyya (Abhishek Bachchan) has just been released from jail and is mourning the loss of his wife (Asha Negi) and child to another man.
When Pinky (Fatima Sana Shaikh) runs into trouble, she has a tendency to turn to her former lover, Alok Kumar Gupta aka Aalu (Rajkummar Rao), for help although she is married to another man.
And Akash Chauhan (Aditya Roy Kapur) is a voice-over artiste and ventriloquist-comedian in love with Shruti Choksi (Sanya Malhotra) who reciprocates his feelings but is determined to marry only a rich man.
Throw into this mix a homeless salesperson (Rohit Suresh Saraf), infidelity, a porn clip, an unsuspecting fiancé and a kidnap plan gone awry, and the potential for a comedy of errors is evident.
However, Basu wisely does not go the slapstick way with Ludo. He keeps his wit sharp, low-volume and clean.
Even in the rare instances when vulgar expletives are tossed around by characters, it happens not for sensationalist effect but to make a point. Imagine Florence Nightingale coming to Delhi and learning to say BC and f***? That kind of occurs in Ludo.
Despite the throng of characters in the narrative, many of them played by significant stars, no one is lost in the madding crowd. Each sub-plot gets its due, and while individual players in the story may face confusion over the randomness of events, the editing is neatly handled by Ajay Sharma to ensure that the viewer does not.
Terrible things happen to many people in Ludo while others do terrible things, but Basu ably ensures that the overall tone remains feather light despite interludes of violence, heartache and pathos.
The black comedy genre is not one that Bollywood has often attempted, possibly because it is challenging as it is and made all the more so in a nation of thin skins. Abhinay Deo tried it with the English film Delhi Belly in 2011 and pulled it off with unprecedented élan. Seven years later in 2018, the writer of Delhi Belly, Akshat Verma, gave it a shot again as the director of Kaalakandi starring Saif Ali Khan, but sputtered and stalled at take-off. Ludo is not the raging, high-adrenaline lark that Deo’s film was, but in its own way and in its own style it offers unrelenting entertainment. Despite its 2.5 hours length, it does not flag, held together as it is by some nimble editing and Basu’s deft direction that introduce connections where none were evident, reveal already existing links in small increments at unexpected moments and occasionally opt for arbitrariness just for kicks.
The film may appear frothy, but beneath the bubbles manages to make a point about materialism, true love, parochialism and a news media perched on the lap of the establishment. Pinky and Shruti are not as well-written or acted with as much spark as the other characters, but their respective stories are well rounded off all the same. Not every point is taken to a logical conclusion, but as a sutradhar reminds us, there are no easy answers to life’s most complex questions.
The tone is set in one of the opening scenes where Sattu Bhaiyya bullies his flunkeys and a captive to join in with him as he watches Bhagwan Dada on his cellphone singing the old Hindi film classic 'Qismat Ki Hawa Kabhi Naram' from the 1951 blockbuster Albela that also starred Geeta Bali. The words go, “O babuji / O betaji / Qismat ki hawa kabhi naram, kabhi garam / Kabhi naram-naram, kabhi garam-garam / Kabhi naram-garam-naram-garam”, which roughly translates to the message that fate blows hot and cold with us humans.
In this interesting ensemble cast, not surprisingly Tripathi and Rao are a hoot as they display faultless comic timing for the nth time in their careers.
Bachchan is likeable and shares a pleasant, warm equation with the lovable child actor Inayat Verma whose character crosses paths with him.
Pearle Maaney, the Mollywood actor making her Bollywood debut here, plays a Malayali who is being bullied because she is not adept at Hindi and pulls off the role without descending to the cringey “Madrasi” cliché that was once a Bollywood staple.
My pick of the cast though is the hilarious Shalini Vatsa who plays a fellow Malayali nurse, I assume one who has lived all her life in the north since her Malayalam accent is not very good – the hard work she has put into getting that accent right though, again sans caricature, is endearing.
Basu – who earlier made Murder, Gangster, Life In A…Metro and Barfi! – is a multi-tasker in this film. In addition to directing it and acting in it, he also shares a cinematography credit with Rajesh Kalra, is Ludo’s production designer, and has written the story and screenplay (the dialogues are credited to Samrat Chakraborty). You would think that the overwork would show, but quite to the contrary, he adeptly carries each department on his shoulders.
Ludo strikes a fine balance between the naram hawa and garam hawa that passes through the lives of its multiple players. In his last film, Jagga Jasoos, Basu had held out the promise of whimsy but faltered in his execution. Ludo enters the same territory and quietly delivers on its promise.
Ludo is streaming on Netflix India.
All images from Netflix.
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