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Film

More Forced Than Felt, 'Ludo' Misses the Film for the Vignettes

Basu is more interested in the ways in which the disparate stories intersect each other, as opposed to their overarching meaning.

The charm of hyperlink cinema – a multi-narrative device where more than one or all stories collide – lies in the way it approximates fate and winks at the fickleness of life. A trivial change in one story can wreak havoc in another. It is a comment on our interconnected yet disjointed state, a hat-doff to the small things that are never small, an exemplification of butterfly effect in cinema.

The form has been around for quite some time, but it’s gained cultural prominence in the last two decades, catapulting its once regular practitioner, Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu – Amores Perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003), Babel (2006) – to international acclaim. Anurag Basu uses the same storytelling trick in his latest release, Ludo, streaming on Netflix.

The movie opens to two unnamed narrators who, while playing the game of Ludo, ruminate on the essence of life – the definitions of sins and virtues, fair and unfair. Basu is quite attuned to the postmodernist nature of this narrative style: its tendencies to be cheeky, whimsical, self-referential. A story grappling with the meanings of storytelling itself. It’s not too surprising then that one of Ludo’s narrators – a figure familiar with the ins and outs of this story – is played by someone who controls the fate of this film: Basu, the director.

Set in an unnamed east India city (presumably Kolkata), Ludo tells around half-a-dozen intersecting stories. There’s Sattu Bhaiya (Pankaj Tripathi), a fabled local don; Akash (Aditya Roy Kapur), a ventriloquist and stand-up comedian; Bittu (Abhishek Bachchan), once an associate of Sattu, jailed for many years, now intent on straightening his life; Shreeja (Pearle Maaney), a nurse in a local hospital; Alok, or “Aalu” (Rajkummar Rao), who still pines for his childhood flame, Pinky (Fatima Sana Shaikh); and Rahul (Rohit Suresh Saraf), a salesman at a mall.

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At the start of the film, Sattu murders a local builder; Rahul happens to be near the crime scene, so he’s abducted by Sattu’s goons. Pinky’s husband, who is having an affair, knew the builder, so the cops arrest him for his murder; she approaches Alok for help. Akash had a fling with a girl, Ahana (Sanya Malhotra), about to get married, and their sex tape is leaked online; he approaches Sattu through his uncle to resolve the matter; at the same time, Bittu is there as well, as the gangster is extorting money from his ex-wife’s husband. A gas leak at the den causes a huge explosion, resulting in an ambulance, comprising nurses, coming to their rescue. One of them is Shreeja.

Phew. There’s a lot going on here.

By virtue of its structure, Ludo spends a lot of time developing characters, laying out stakes. This is a film overstuffed with people, conflicts, twists. The ones not discussed so far include Bittu fighting to meet his eight-year-old daughter, Akash trying to get over Ahana, Ahana being confused about her life choices, Rahul falling for Shreeja, another eight-year-old orchestrating her kidnapping because her parents neglect her, and on and on.

Since this is a story of numerous desires – some muted, some expressed – each segment deserves considerable time and attention, so that we care enough for the characters and their struggles. But Ludo zips in and out of their lives, producing, in essence, a series of episodes that are too busy for their own sake. Because the film deals with many intercut stories, the final outcome looks like busy, fragmented pieces prioritising narrative coherence and momentum over lasting poignancy.

But even if you discount its fundamental structural limitation, Ludo mainly suffers because of the following:

a) the individual stories – with the exception of the Akash-Ahana and the Bittu-girl tracks – are not sufficiently compelling,

b) Basu is more interested in the mechanics of this tapestry, the many ways in which the disparate stories intersect and inform each other, as opposed to the tapestry itself: its overarching meaning, its dramatic power, its psychological portraits. Some miss the wood for the trees; Ludo misses the film for the vignettes.

The film also takes its intersectionality way too seriously, at times contriving efforts to connect the individual narrative strands, some in ways that strain credibility. The dark comedy is further fixated on being ‘quirky’, relying too much on random deaths; eccentric scenes bookending (and overwhelming) earnest, emotional chapters; and yet insisting on explaining the obvious, little details. Some of that is, yes, the point of the film: the in-built chaos in our world, the slippery slope of ascribing values, the eventual futility of finding meanings. But these commendable aspirations don’t emerge naturally from the film, rather look forced on it.

The overall result mimics a film written on MS Excel; it looks more programmed, less felt.

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This monumental flaw also limits the actors – they can only be as good as the material allows them to be. But some of them manage to find their own films. Kapur is easily the best of the lot, assured, funny, relaxed, lending Ludo the breeziness it badly needs. So is Malhotra, a terrific actor, who hardly disappoints. Bachchan, too, cast in a Yuva-like role, in a Yuva-like setting (which coincidentally also had a hyperlink structure) shines in the film’s most tender subplot. A grieving father meeting an abandoned child, he doesn’t overplay the pathos here, instead coming across as a man carrying a weight of loss, desperate to find some (selfish) solace, clinging to anything he can.

The others, including the always reliable Tripathi and Rao, are merely competent. Tripathi hardly misfires, but Bollywood filmmakers must find new ways to channelise his acting depth, rather than just relying on his impassive charm. Rao’s segment is the weakest – repetitive, tedious, predictable – and even a fine actor like him can’t do anything about it. It doesn’t help that he’s quite forgettable himself (something I never thought I’d write about him).

Basu is an impressive filmmaker, someone whose failures also have merits. But he’s way off-track here. Ludo, above all, smacks of smugness and omniscience. The irony is severe: a film intent on dismantling and answering the Big Questions fails to unwrap itself.