Director: Anurag Basu
Writer: Anurag Basu
Cast: Abhishek Bachchan, Aditya Roy Kapur, Sanya Malhotra, Rajkummar Rao, Fatima Sana Shaikh
Cinematographer: Anurag Basu
Editor: Ajay Sharma
Streaming on: Netflix
Whatever faults you might find with an Anurag Basu film, lack of invention isn't one of them. The director creates worlds filled with whimsy and wonder, set to Pritam's pulsating soundscape. Think of the blend of surreal, sad and funny in his last film Jagga Jasoos. I go into Anurag's films expecting the unexpected and he rarely fails to surprise.
In Ludo, he creates a mash-up of stories, sensibilities, tonalities. He returns to the multiple-story format, which he had used in his 2007 film Life in a…Metro. Using the game of Ludo as metaphor and structural skeleton, Anurag, who also wrote the film, constructs four interlocking stories. The twists in one impact the other. There is so much going on that Anurag himself appears as sutradhar, delivering exposition, explanation and also spelling out the big themes the film is grappling with – notions of good and evil, crime and punishment, love, death, murder, sacrifice. All of which is done with a mood of dry self-awareness, outlandish humor and eye-popping colour – incidentally Anurag is also the DoP.
There is enough here for several movies. Which is perhaps why the first thirty minutes or so are all set-up and then Ludo takes another two hours to pull all the strands together. That's a long time to sustain the rollercoaster experience that Anurag is trying to create. Inevitably, the energy flags, the plot twists start to feel strained and the length weighs the film down. The writing is also uneven – some of the characters are delightful, others, bland. Their actions – sneaking into hotel rooms for sex or stealing loot from a criminal – might be dangerous or exciting but they themselves don't have enough personality to keep you interested in their shenanigans. In this frantic and crowded film, the standouts are Alloo and Pinky, played by Rajkummar Rao and Fatima Sana Shaikh, Sattu bhaiyya, the trigger-happy don played by Pankaj Tripathi and Lata Kutty, a senior nurse played by Shalini Vatsa.
Alloo has been besotted by Pinky since their school days. Even after she's been married for three years and had a child, Alloo remains a devotee, going to her house to look at her every day. Alloo is a Bachchan fan but because Pinky likes Mithun Chakraborty, Alloo models himself after the actor, with a hairstyle straight out of Disco Dancer. There is such sweetness in his longing. Of course, Alloo is an emotional fool but Rajkummar doesn't play him for laughs. We root for Alloo to find happiness. Fatima is equally good as Pinky, a woman blissfully unaware of the havoc she is creating. It's a hoot to watch them.
Pankaj has played a don so many times, from Gurgaon to Mirzapur, that I'm afraid he might be getting typecast. And yet, he manages to infuse a singular charm and eccentricity into Sattu. Anurag also gives him some of the film's best lines – at one point, when the chips are down, Sattu says: When life suck, everyone fuck. Which is such valuable gyaan that someone should put it on a t-shirt. Later in the film, Sattu, who packs a pistol on his thigh, shows us that even he has a vulnerable side. It's hilarious. Shalini as Lata, a tough-love caregiver, is bang-on.
The rest of the characters work erratically. Aditya Roy Kapur has some nice, goofy moments playing Akash, a ventriloquist, who is so laid back that the woman he loves, Shruti, tells him that the problem isn't that he isn't rich in the present, the problem is that he will never be rich. Sanya Malhotra as Shruti, a woman desperate to marry a rich man, is lovely and yet their love story lacks sparkle. They are casual about it and so are we. Abhishek Bachchan as Bittu, a criminal who tried to go straight but failed, summons a tragic toughness, which might remind you of Lallan Singh in Yuva. Abhishek's track involves a little girl so emotions run high but the attempt to tug at your heartstrings shows. The cutesiness feels forced. Rohit Saraf as Rahul, an ordinary, small-town boy, gets one of the funniest scenes in the film – it involves a naked dead body. But again, Rahul's romance with Sheeja, a nurse from Kerala, works intermittently.
Multiple narrative films present a formidable challenge to the editor and Ajay Sharma does a fine job of stitching the various stories together with some skillful transitions. As always, Pritam's music plays a key role. There aren't any lip-sync songs, which I missed but my favorites 'Hardum Humdum' and 'Aabaad Barbaad' are used to thread the emotions of the characters. In the climax, Anurag, perhaps taking inspiration from Bejoy Nambiar's Shaitan and Sriram Raghavan's Agent Vinod, stages a full-blown action sequence to song. It's a fitting finale to this absurdist tragi-comedy.
In an early scene in the film, a song from the 1951 blockbuster Albela is playing on a television set. Bhagwan, in a chef's outfit, is pondering on qismat ki hawa which can sometimes be naram and sometimes garam. Like the hawa, Ludo is also kabhi naram and kabhi garam. But the film leaves you with a smile on your face. And right now, that goes a long way.
You can watch Ludo on Netflix.