Director: Terrie Samundra
Writers: Terrie Samundra, David Walter Lech, Rupinder Inderjit
Cast: Shabana Azmi, Sanjeeda Sheikh, Riva Arora, Satyadeep Misra
Cinematographer: Sejal Shah
Editor: Sanyukta Kaza
Streaming on: Netflix
Fog plays a leading role in Kaali Khuhi. It rolls over the land like some sort of a silent witness, starting with the opening sequence, which takes place at night to the last shot, which is at dawn, signifying a new beginning perhaps. The fog works strenuously to add a layer of mystery and creepiness to Terrie Samundra’s debut feature. The director also relies heavily on other horror tropes – a ghost makes a sudden appearance in a mirror, the soundtrack is purposefully ominous, in one scene, a withered old woman with one eye shows up, it rains incessantly. The story is set in rural Punjab, which is presented as desolate, dark and quietly horrific. The color palette is grey. But as I watched, I found myself wondering: How many fog machines did they haul to location? Or is it now all done digitally? And that is not a good sign.
Like Dibakar Banerjee’s terrific short in the Ghost Stories anthology and Anvita Dutt’s Bulbbul, Kaali Khuhi is a horror film with a message. The idea is to scare you but also to make you think beyond the horror onscreen and consider the horror in life. Incidentally, horror plus sex was dubbed horrex but I couldn’t think of a clever name for horror plus message. Kaali Khuhi is about female infanticide in Punjab. The heroine is a 10-year-old girl Shivangi who confronts an awful secret when she is taken by her parents to their ancestral village because her grandmother is ill.
When we first meet Shivangi, she is peering into a well as she sucks on a gola. The red flavoring from the gola drips into the water in tight close-up, foreshadowing the blood that will soon be spilled. It’s a striking, spooky moment. Shivangi played by Riva Arora is a timid girl, confused by the adults – especially her parents who don’t do a good job of shielding her from their problems. But eventually, she is the one with the courage and wisdom to put an end to the terrible events.
As an idea, Kaali Khuhi is potent. There is something inherently eerie about wells – the cavernous dark space and the impossibility of escape makes them perfect fodder for horror films. Case in point, the Japanese classic Ringu, in which the murderous spirit Sadako, with her hair covering her face, emerges from a well, walking like a marionette whose strings are being drunkenly yanked by someone above. We learn later that she was drowned in it. It’s terrifying.
Shabana Azmi, who plays the grandmother’s neighbor in the village, is too much of a veteran to be fazed by dull writing so she soldiers on even as the events become more preposterous
In Kaali Khuhi also, the well is a graveyard but it’s not particularly frightening. Because the scares in the film are too predictable to make us jump. DOP Sejal Shah succeeds in creating an unnerving atmosphere. The film has been shot beautifully – the vast fields and narrow lanes of the village all seem to be hiding something. But the screenplay, written by Terrie and David Walter Lech, squanders the opportunity. The storytelling is flat and strained. The dialogues, by Rupinder Inderjeet, are banal and a few scenes border on comical.
Shabana Azmi, who plays the grandmother’s neighbor in the village, is too much of a veteran to be fazed by dull writing so she soldiers on even as the events become more preposterous. There is too much of a load on Riva who delivers as best as she can, making her unaffectedness work for the character. There’s also Satyadeep Misra as Shivangi’s father Darshan who seems unhinged from the start. Honestly, I didn’t get why this man was doing the things he was doing, like insisting that his family continue to live in the village.
Kaali Khuhi has been edited by Sanyukta Kaza who earlier cut the superb Paatal Lok. It’s thrilling to see a team of female artists tell a story that puts women front and center. It’s also thrilling that Terrie is attempting here to deliver an urgent message via a genre picture. But for the combination to work, the writing needed to be much sharper.
You can watch Kaali Khuhi on Netflix.