In Terrie Samundra’s Kaali Khuhi, which releases on Netflix on October 30, a village in Punjab is haunted by the sins of its forefathers. Acts of female infanticide, committed years earlier, set off series of spooky occurrences that plague a visiting couple and their 10-year-old daughter.
Samundra, who lives in Los Angeles, directed a series of documentary shorts for Planned Parenthood’s 100th anniversary campaign in 2016, so the assumption that child and maternal healthcare are issues she cares about deeply isn’t far off. “I’m interested in women characters, in women-led stories, and so it makes sense that my work for Planned Parenthood and my other short films all have similar narratives. I believe that the personal is political and I’ve pretty much devoted my life to fighting the patriarchy,” she says.
Inspiration for the film also came from another personal place – the desire to carry on her mother’s legacy through the ghost stories she’d been told as a child. Not a fan of slasher films or creature features, she turned to fantasy horror, like Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), which is also shouldered by 10-year-old protagonist, to figure out the kind of story she wanted to tell. She found that the nuanced exploration of motherhood and parental grief in Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014) also resonated with her. Studying Mati Diop’s supernatural drama, Atlantics (2019), then helped her figure out how the framework of horror could be used to deliver socio-political commentary.
The village Kaali Khuhi is set in, with its near-constant darkness and enveloping fog, is similar to the one Samundra remembers growing up in. The cast and crew shot for an “intense” 42 days at a tiny village near the India-Pakistan border, an hour’s drive from Amritsar. Shabana Azmi credits the location with improving her performance in the film. “It helps when you can’t return to your vanity van at the end of the day. When you’re on set all the time, you become part of that atmosphere, you’re breathing that air and it helps,” she says.
The actor deepened her voice to play Satya, a neighbourly village woman harbouring a dark secret. “She’s the embodiment of guilt. That lends a heaviness to her, whether in her gait, her walk, her voice,” says Azmi, who also suggested that her character have a unibrow, to create the impression that she hadn’t looked into a mirror for years. What drew her to the script was the chance to spark a conversation about sex selection.
“It’s outrageous. This is not something that only happens in villages, but in metropolitan cities too. Clinics have hoardings saying that sex selection is banned, which means that it was being practiced in the first place. Why do we not focus on it with the same horror that we do when we hear about murder?” she asks.
Samundra agrees with the idea of art as an instrument of social change, but says her main focus was to tell a good story. “I believe in female agency, but at the end of the day, my commitment is to my art form. If you’ve stuck with Kaali Khuhi for the entirety of its runtime and it’s moved you, that’s the goal.”