Anurag Basu on Ludo: ‘Chaos Is My thing’

The director on the strange setting of Ludo, why he also did the cinematography and production design, and his filmmaking quirks.
Anurag Basu on Ludo: ‘Chaos Is My thing’

The verdict is out. Anurag Basu's Ludo is flawed, messy, overlong, and also fun? A multi star-cast film with crisscrossing storylines, it's an artistically lesser work than Jagga Jasoos, a formally daring movie full of vast feeling, which was also a big flop and tanked a major studio. It's easy for a filmmaker to lose himself in the process when he is trying to regain lost ground—that's how film industries function. And there's something reassuring about the notion that the commercial failure of Basu's last film hasn't curbed his creative instincts. Even when you think that he is going to make a 'safe', 'conventional' film, he ends up making a film that's filled with his obsessions and personal quirks.

A week after the release of the film, on Netflix, the director of such films as Life in a… Metro (2007) and Barfi (2012) chatted about Ludo over Zoom call. He spoke about the strange setting of the film, why he also did the cinematography and production design, and his filmmaking quirks. 

Edited excerpts: 

The setting of Ludo is interesting. It's like you took bits and pieces from different real places and made up your own fictional land.

Absolutely. It's a fictional place. The car numbers are fictional—they are Ludo something something. So Ludo is its own world. For example, Abhishek (Bachchan) and Mini's track needed paddy fields and magical things about it, but placing Aditya and Sanya's story in the same place would've been odd. Their story needed its own landscape and colour. 

So I just went with the flow. And come to think of it, you just go around Bombay, you go to Igatpuri, you go to the outskirts in Lonavala and there is all this greenery. So it's not completely out of logic that this type of land never existed anywhere…I thought of the locations in terms of what suited the characters and the storyline. I didn't think much about the region, country. 

On the one hand, you have shots of art deco buildings from Mumbai. You've said that 90 % of the film was shot in Chandivali studios. But Bhopal and Kolkata are also listed among the places you've shot.

There were real locations that we had gone and shot in too. I thought people should not identify so much with Bhopal, or so much with West Bengal, or so much with Maharashtra. So it has been shot in many places: in Chandivali, in West Bengal, a little bit in Bhopal. 

Where in West Bengal?

Towards Chuchura. 

Which parts of the movie are those?

This I won't tell you. 

There's also the reference to your hometown Bhilai, because you show the factories. 

Lot of my friends in Bhilai are asking me if I went there to shoot. I didn't. I incorporate Bhilai whenever I get an opportunity. Maybe in the future if I am shooting a story based in Africa and shooting in Mombassa, I will still name the place Bhilai. 

How do you write these things in the screenplay?

When you are writing, the colour palette is there in front of you, and the visual that comes to your head is somewhere in your hard drive. You cannot imagine a place where you haven't been. You don't think of places you saw on Discovery channel. I have been to these windmills and all these places. When you are giving a little fantastical treatment to the film, it becomes easier for the director to take that liberty and make his own world and own city. 

Talking about screenplay, in an interview after Jagga Jasoos you had told me that you were listening to a certain kind of Kishore Kumar songs and Western Classical music while writing it. What were you listening to while writing Ludo?

I had a playlist of full 80s funk, like early Chaka Khan. It added a lot of quirks in the film. It really plays an important role when you are writing. If you set your audio right, it just drives you in certain directions. 

You also share the cinematographer credit and sole production designer credit. 

So, I work with certain people. When I was working with Ravi Varman in Barfi, he was completely new and then he collaborated with me in Jagga. Because Jagga took so long, there were times when he couldn't give me dates. He became busy with some other film, I think Imtiaz's film. So I shot Jagga. We had this trust between us. He allowed me. Since Ludo had so many actors and they had given their dates, I didn't want to wait for anybody. 

I thought I will start and maybe Ravi will join and that never happened. So I continued doing it, and I started enjoying it, and I wished Ravi never comes back. So that happened. Ravi also came to visit the set one day. To be honest, I enjoyed it so much that it I used to look forward to going to the set everyday. In my television days I used to do both camera and direction. In my first film I felt so handicapped, because I was not seeing the scene through the viewfinder.

Now that it has come back to digital, it's safe to do both. With film, it's very risky. If Jagga was completely digital I would've taken over and done the whole film myself. But half of Jagga is shot in film. I wanted to finish it in film, but couldn't do it.

About production design, I think when people like the camerawork, actually they are also appreciating production design. If the wall colour is different, the whole camerawork will look absolutely shoddy. When the frame is looking beautiful, they are also appreciating DI, camera, costume and production design, everything.  

Do you think you will do it in your next film as well?

This was a breezy film, it was not very stressful. If the canvas is big, then maybe…I don't know. 

Also, a lot of credit is given to me, but the colourist is also very important. Ken (Metzker) was the colourist of this film, and my work would've looked average if he wouldn't have worked so hard. He is an integral part of my films—this is my fifth film with him. Somehow the media and the critics don't give colourists so much credit. They do 50 % of the job of any cameraman. 

What does he bring to the table?

Any cinematographer will understand what I am saying. It's like when you click a picture and colour correct it on an I-phone, that's what they do with the whole film. 

Barfi, Jagga and Ludo have certain shared qualities. There's a scene in all 3 films where you have two characters crossing a river in a forest.  

I don't see it as a compliment. After the shooting I remember telling my wife that I am repeating the same scene, so maybe I should reshoot again… It just shows that I am limited. I don't have many options. (laughs).

Your films have become increasingly surreal. It's almost as if you have no interest in so-called realism. 

I think (laughs) reality has hit us hard in the last 4-5 years, through television, through a lot of stuff. The magic of cinema is that you want to transport audiences to a world of make-belief and make them believe your characters. It's more creatively demanding. So you enjoy the process more. Being real and representing everything as it is doesn't need so much of creativity. I might sound a little arrogant…but I thrive on that actually. Tabhi maza aata hai, you get excited to do a project and go and create that world. 

You also thrive on chaos.

Absolutely. Chaos is my thing. You see my desk, you see my kitchen when I cook and you see the film when I make. It's in my system I can't help it. 

Your last 3 films feature this cartoonish cop. 

(Starts laughing). What? I'll come to that later. 

What's with you and the name Shruti? Metro, Barfi, Jagga and Ludo, all feature characters with that name. 

I just hope that one day Shruti will see the film and call me. 

You're being evasive. 

One day, all the names dedicated to a Shruti will call me. So I am still waiting for that call. 

Is it an old lover? 

What do you think?

I don't know. But your wife might be reading this. 

On a more serious note, why do you keep going back to these elements in your films?

You like the sound of certain names. Now I kind of understand why Amitabh was called Vijay, or Shah Rukh Khan was called Raj. It just gets associated with something. It's not superstitious or anything. It makes you fall in love with a character more effortlessly. When you will also start writing fiction, you will also go back to familiar names. Many writers do it. I understand why. When you are going to an unknown zone, you want to see familiar things. 

Is the track with Abhishek Bachchan and the little girl a tribute to Kabuliwala?

Absolutely. That's why she is called Mini.  

And Abhishek's physicality too. Like Kabuliwala, he too talks about his own daughter to her. 

Yes. It was written as a separate story and not a part of Ludo. I was completely inspired by Kabuliwala for the story.

What are some of the other homages?

The two people narrating is Waiting for Godot. My character is like Vladimir. There is a low angle shot when they come and stand and talk about life and death, I clearly wanted to do that. 

A lot of people thought that's The Seventh Seal.

It's very Shakespearian actually. People can say Maqbool also. It has been done in so many places. The Seventh Seal. Samuel Beckett. 

How did Ludo come about?

I wanted to make something by not thinking too much, just make people smile and laugh, create some magical characters and masti mein picture banayenge… 2 stories were written, then write another one and hop onto the next one. Not much serious thought went into the writing. 

What made you throw in unknown actors like Pearle Maaney, Shalini Vatsa and Rohit Saraf into an ensemble of well known actors?

I knew I wanted to cast somebody new in these characters. For a guy working in a mall, who is an underachiever, and not very important, you wanted to cast Rohit because people will relate to him more as that character. 

And Pearle just accidentally happened. I was actually looking for a known actress in Kerala. Then I shortlisted one or two names, and then finalised one name. I will not mention who but I saw her film and I told my AD to find some interviews of her, because I want to see how she is as a person. Pearle was the anchor in one of those interviews. She was taking the interview. I said this girl is better. 

That's hilarious. 

Then we got in touch with Pearle, and somebody said 'Arre, she has gone to Bigg Boss, when is she going to come out?' So we waited for her to come out of Bigg Boss. Then she won Bigg Boss. It was an accident…She is very funny. 

After Jagga Jasoos, did you have any pressure to keep it safe? Because it looks like you did pretty much whatever you wanted to in Ludo. 

I did pretty much whatever I wanted to do. But to be honest I didn't want to throw audiences off. The lesson learnt from Jagga was that in that film everything was new. There was no familiarity, whether it's the story, the genre, the structure, music. 

In Ludo, I thought I will keep one or two elements that are a little familiar. It was a conscious decision from the very beginning. I will get more and more people to understand, and see the film and appreciate. 

What are the familiar things?

I was doing 5 interlinked stories, but I wouldn't say that the stories are something you have never heard or never seen. Story wise, I wanted to have some familiar ground. Also characters like Rajkummar (Rao) behaving like Mithun da, or Pankaj Tripathi. Even Sanya's gold-digger character is not a new thing, although their crisis with the leaked tape is a new one.  

What are the risky parts?

I don't understand risky parts, otherwise I wouldn't have made these kind of films. I don't understand risky, non-risky, safe, non-safe. I don't understand this language only. I think safe routes are the most unsafe. It's boring…

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