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
Watching an Anurag Basu film these days is a cross between watching a kid in a candy store and a bull in a china shop. There's wide-eyed magic but also manic mayhem. There's earnest excitement but also cacophonic chaos. The proportion between the two – one can't seem to exist without the other – often defines our perception of Basu's vision. After the unhinged second half of Jagga Jasoos, I can understand the thematic structure of Ludo. I get the need for course correction. Ludo is a hyperlink film whose four narratives represent the four colours of the board game. In a way, this streamlining of colour and whimsy is writer-Basu's attempt to lend some method to director-Basu's madness. It even opens with actor-Basu, as a bearded mythological figure who pontificates about life resembling ludo in a Seventh-Seal-like setup. But he's really playing the de facto narrator, a voice meant to explain the film's eccentricities. It looks like a loose, last-minute addition to shape the incoherence. (His final line reflects this: "…they are just means people come up with to control this out-of-control world").
Despite these organizational leaps of faith, eventually it's director-Basu who can't be constrained. The shackles don't last. In Ludo's case, that's not such a good thing. The exploding looks a lot like imploding. While Anurag Basu's films usually find art in the flab, Ludo creates flab out of art. The art is of course the composition of the film. Yellow features Akash (Aditya Roy Kapur) and Shruti (Sanya Malhotra), an ex-couple who embark on a road trip to find the source of their leaked sextape. Green features Alok (Rajkummar Rao), a hustling Mithun Chakraborty fanatic whose one-sided love for Pinky (Fatima Sana Sheikh) leads them on a bizarre quest to free her cheating husband from jail. Blue features salesman Rahul (Rohit Suresh Saraf) and nurse Sheeja (Pearle Maaney), two meek misfits brought together by a mysterious suitcase of cash. Red features Bittu Tiwari (Abhishek Bachchan), a sullen ex-gangster who bonds with a little girl who has faked her own kidnapping. The common link is Sattu Tripathi (Pankaj Tripathi), a ruthless local don whose path crosses all of theirs – he makes his entry by smashing down a green door, drives a red van, gets injured in a blazing yellow fire and gets hospitalized in a blue room. The optical grammar is clever, but to expect the viewer to be satisfied with a series of visual illusions (like trains throwing a chain-wave of lights on the walls of houses they pass) for two-and-a-half hours is a bit of a stretch. At some point, the mad-scientist vibe is bound to wear off.
I appreciate Basu's playful gaze as much as the next Amelie-loving cinephile. There's something about the sight of imagination running free on the uptight screens of mainstream Hindi cinema. Yet, freedom can also be a crown of thorns. In this filmmaker's case, it isn't restraint that's the need of the hour so much as order. Ludo is, at its core, a bloated anthology of love stories under the guise of a screwball comedy – like a deranged interpretation of Love, Actually by the Coens. Obese corpses, shootouts at lodges, gravity-mocking motor chases and physical humour do to the blossoming relationships what life cannot. Crisis, in its most literal form, becomes the cornerstone of chemistry. Super Deluxe comes to mind, but its subtext of spirituality is far more compelling than the text of romance.
That's not to say Ludo is a complete misfire. The characters on their own melt into their colour-coded surroundings. As they inch towards collective resolution, a bit of green invades yellow, red invades blue, yellow invades red – implying correlation as well as the gradual widening of their mental spaces. It's nice to see Rajkummar Rao back in form, playing a man-child smitten for so long that his entire personality is hijacked by the excesses of Bollywood. Long-haired "Alloo" excuses himself to privately weep with joy every time Pinky approaches him for help. The way Rao subconsciously breaks into languid disco-dancer moves to battle different emotions is priceless, reminiscent of Dr. Asthana's hyena-like laughter therapy in Munna Bhai M.B.B.S. For the most part, Sanya Malhotra nails the borderline-gold-digger nobility of Shruti. She's essentially playing the same sheltered girl next door from Photograph, but dialed to a higher pitch.
Aditya Roy Kapur plays a ventriloquist; the puppet is expressive. Despite being at the mercy of a restless plot, the Rahul-Sheeja arc with the two lesser-known actors is the most endearing of the lot. He can't understand her Malayalam, she can't understand his Hindi, but their loneliness speaks the same language. Ironically, theirs is the most Bunty-Babli thread – the murkiest in terms of circumstances – and yet evokes the awkward romance brimming between the young two porn actors in Love, Actually. At the midway point, the narratives settle down for a brief respite from the pretty anarchy: best characterized by a deadpan tryst between the broken don and his veteran nurse. The moments shine, like little postcards from a vacation, but the act of stringing them into a functional memory is too visible.
I also like the way Anurag Basu scores his films. Music is the real (or only) editor of his storytelling. The sounds – whether of the songs or background tracks – are distinct in how they serve as aural extensions of a montage-heavy narrative. If you think back to a scene, it's always difficult to extract the characters out of this rhythm; the music already exists, it's only a matter of hearing it. One of the final scenes of Ludo breaks this pattern. It features all the characters converging in an orgy of slow-mo bullets and bloody bodies. It's not the first time we've seen a filmmaker find poetry in violence and it won't be the last. But the song, 'Lo Aise Hua Pyaar', is the clincher. At the back of our minds, we know that the opening stanzas imitate the lead-chorus set of The Mamas & The Papas' 'California Dreamin''. But once the rest of the track branches out into its own lilt-rock melody, it's so soothing and soulful that we forgive its most fundamental flaw.
This imitation-flattery duality is emblematic of not just Pritam's music but also Anurag Basu's filmography. The style is blatantly derivative, but also impossibly persuasive. It's a conflict that so many (like myself) who adored Barfi! are still grappling with. You want to love the fact that Hindi cinema can look and sound like this. You want to remember the blue skies and green water. You want to celebrate the heart of disarray. But just notice the number of disparate pop-culture references in this review alone. It's all over the place, everywhere and nowhere, and no amount of board-game philosophy can tame – or translate – the spirit. With Ludo, it's hard to tell the rowdy child in a candy store from the sedated bull in a china shop. After all, a striking mess of confectionery and crockery is still a mess.