2020 was a year when we all realised that love and compassion were of paramount importance. Cutting across societal hierarchies and dynamically changing relationships, love made its way to us from unforeseen quarters, in ways unexpected. Sometimes givers, sometimes receivers – love enriched us and was like a warm hug from the universe, a reminder that all of us matter. If there's one film that perfectly encapsulates this, then it would be Ludo. At once whimsical, wacky and heartwarming, the film highlights the crisscrossing of characters and their fates and fortunes like pieces on a Ludo board.
Ludo is a film replete in imagery – both visual and obvious as also metaphorical and slightly ambiguous. One of the standout shots for me in this film was the one at the interval. It shows us four simultaneous squares (like that in a Ludo board) with the images of the four male protagonists falling asleep or contemplating the state of their lives, but distinctly alone. The image immediately spoke to me. Much as Ludo is about the myriad characters that people the stage of life, it is also about love and loneliness.
The men in Ludo lack love and this is made very clear to us in each of their stories. Akash (played by Aditya Roy Kapur) is a misunderstood ventriloquist who is dumped by his girlfriend Shruti (portrayed by Sanya Malhotra) for being 'unambitious'. The two of them are forced to team up together after a tape of theirs is leaked on the internet and they must find which hotel room had cameras. Yet at the very beginning, the film tells us that Akash and Shruti will not get together. She is getting married to a rich and handsome man, and will definitely not lose that golden opportunity. Alok a.k.a. Aalu (essayed by Rajkummar Rao) is a hopelessly lovelorn young man – willing to do just about anything to earn a smile from his ladylove Pinky (played by Fatima Sana Sheikh) who is now married to another man, even if this means trying to help her husband attempt a jailbreak.
Both of these love stories are conventional and have already been seen before in countless films. As the audience, you and I both know what the outcome of these stories will be and Ludo gives us those endings. It is in the other two stories that Ludo attempts to show us that love can come in all kinds of forms.
Bittu (played by Abhishek Bachchan), a hardened criminal, has a love story that is entirely different – it is one of searching for belonging, comfort and, more importantly, an anchor for his restless soul. His family having moved on, he finds solace in the company of a little girl Mini (an adorable Inayat Verma) who reminds him of his daughter. It is through Bittu's track, however, that the film attempts to articulate what love, in its ideal form, can be – the ability to set the loved one free from one's own love can sometimes become a stifling cage for the other.
The last track is my most favourite – a classic story of the underdogs; in this case, Rahul (essayed by Rohit Saraf), a much (verbally) abused sales-boy and Sheeja (portrayed by Pearle Maaney), a Malayali nurse who must deal with taunts for being from a different state. The two of them develop a silent, non-verbal bond. However I find it difficult to classify this as a love story because when Rahul confesses to 'being in love' with Sheeja, I would rather say it is not so much love as it is finally getting the attention and care of someone. It is only natural for Rahul to develop feelings for the first person who treats him with kindness and dignity, after being at the receiving end of umpteen insults. We also see this in the volatile way in which Rahul reacts upon finding Sheeja dance with someone else, just as he is about to confess his love for her. Enraged and filled with possessive envy, he drags her away, possibly insecure at the prospect of being doomed to loneliness all over again.
It is loneliness – something a lot of us have dealt with in 2020 – that makes the men in Ludo react the way they do. Akash is resigned to his fate – he is in love with Shruti but also knows what she wants and therefore thinks it is hopeless to convince her. Aalu gives selflessly, expecting nothing concrete in return because the mere existence of Pinky in his life is his purpose. When Pinky leaves with her husband and child, we find him desperately attempting to stop crying and then abandoning all attempts and chasing after her car, screaming for her. Sans her, he has no one to take care of, whose needs to pander to and, in this way, he again becomes lonely. Bittu's reaction, perhaps, one could say, is a combination of all the other three characters' reactions. He begins by being angry like Rahul, demanding that he be allowed to see his daughter. Thereafter, he learns to accept what fate has meted out to him and eventually selflessly works to rescue the man who has now taken over his place in his family's life.
Even Sattu Bhaiya (played by Pankaj Tripathi) – the die to all the pawns that the characters of this film are – is no exception. When alone in a hospital and left alone by his henchmen who are busy hatching plans of their own, Sattu bonds with a sharp-tongued yet caring nurse, Lata Kutty, played by Shalini Vatsa.
The women in Ludo are on the periphery of the story when it comes to their feelings, conflicts and wants. In a sense, they merely serve to further the stories of the men – either filling in a void or leaving a deep wound. Yet without them, Ludo's men would not experience the depth and range of the emotions they do.
The film also makes it clear to us that while it is a love story, there are none of the conventional expressions of romance – there are no candlelit dinners, grandiose proposals and neither are the characters stock tropes from a worn-out romance novel. At the same time, we are also told that love, true love, need not actually require any of these expressions and that it can be found in the most unlikeliest of places from the most unlikely person. For who would have imagined that Sattu Bhaiya would develop a bond with a nurse in a hospital?
Finally, Ludo, like any other heartwarming film, makes us believe that true love will never go unrecognized. Shruti and Pinky both realise that they are only truly happy with Akash and Aalu respectively, leading them to abandon the paths that they had believed were right for them. Sheeja and Rahul also find themselves together again as do Sattu Bhaiya and Lata Kutty.
There is a dialogue in the film that loosely translates to English as 'ultimately, all the pawns have to reach home'. Ludo's characters finally find home at the end of the film – a place where they can be themselves and with the person they truly love. In the trying times that we have lived through in 2020, Ludo is the perfect film to remind us to love truly and be compassionate.