Ludo on Netflix: Anurag Basu’s latest “NOT for all tastes” experiment needed better bits

Posted on January 7, 2021

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ludo

This is a film that works better in the head. It’s overly thought out rather than felt through, which is something you could never say about ‘Barfi’ or ‘Jagga Jasoos’.

Spoilers ahead…

Life is Ludo. Ludo is life. That’s the nutshell of Anurag Basu’s latest “you may not like the film as a whole but, by the end, I dare you not to look at it with grudging respect” exercise. The film didn’t work for me, and I say this as one of the biggest champions of Jagga Jasoos. But the constituent parts are so wild, so original, so amazingly whimsical, so concerned about not falling to cliché, and so not concerned about “will the audience like this?” that I ended the film with… grudging respect. If you have to fail, then this is how you do it. Ambitiously. Gloriously. At-least-a-few-screws-loose-ly. By strapping on a pair of wax wings and flying towards the sun just to see how high you can get until the wax melts off. I would like this director to have a little more discipline. But then, we wouldn’t get a Ludo.

This is a film with sutradhar-s. One’s dressed in white, the other in black. They talk about paap and punya. They talk about Kauravas and Pandavas and who the good guys really are. A character (named Alu!) is introduced in an episode of the Ramayana being enacted on a nautanki stage. Our mythology may be having something of a moment. In the older films, before Hindi cinema became “Bollywood”, it was practically a given that our myths would be referenced and worked into the plots and the characters. But now, in the post Dil Chahta Hai-era, we are finding the dog that followed Yudhisthira to heaven becoming the emotional and narrative anchor of the superb Paatal Lok. Unlike the older films (which were broader), these newer narratives are after very specific beats from mythology. Let’s hold on to this thought and revisit it five years from now.

Why Ludo? Why not the ups and downs-filled Snakes & Ladders, of which, you could similarly say: Life is Snakes & Ladders. Snakes & Ladders is life! Because Ludo has a design conceit. It’s a game for four players, and each player has their own colour. It is no accident that the car we find Akash (a surprisingly decent Aditya Roy Kapur) and Shruti (Sanya Malhotra) in is yellow. Rahul’s (Rohit Suresh Saraf) blazer and Sheeja’s (Pearle Maaney) nurse’s uniform are blue. There are two more story threads: Bittu’s (Abhishek Bachchan) is in red, and the Alu (Rajkummar Rao)/Pinky (Fatima Sana Shaikh) track in green. All these characters, all these lives, keep crissing and crossing, and so do the colours. At one point, the frame splits into four, each one coloured by a Ludo colour. At another point, a man who is killed is found bathing in a bathroom whose door is green. Why? Because… Death is Ludo. Ludo is death.

Each of these colour-coded narrative tracks is about love (fulfilled or unrequited): the love for an ex, or the love for a daughter you’ve never seen because you’ve been in jail. And each of these “love stories” comes with a complication, mostly in the form of Sattu (Pankaj Tripathi). He’s a small-time gangster. He’s also the “dice”, whose every move affects red and yellow and green and blue alike. In case we didn’t yet get the cosmic-ness of Anurag Basu’s version of the board game, he gives us a song sequence from Albela, featuring Bhagwan (the actor; but then, this C Ramchandra chartbuster may have also been picked because there’s an actor here named after… God). Which song does this director pick? No, not Shola jo bhadke. No, not Shaam dhale khidki tale. He picks O beta ji, the song about kismat/destiny: “Kismat ki hawa kabhi naram kabhi garam” goes a lyric, implying that life is a box of chocolates and you never know what you’re going to get. “Mile kisi ko sukhi roti / kisi ko puri halwa.”

Ludo is a film that works better in the head. It’s overly thought out rather than felt through, which is something you could never say about Barfi or Jagga Jasoos. The cast is half-okay (the biggest disappointment is Abhishek Bachchan, who wears the same dour expression throughout, and also suffers from a series of over-sentimental scenes) – but this is a film that needed better bits rather than a better cast. Some incidents are howlarious, like that green-door bathroom bather who just won’t die. Others sound funny when you hear the one-line in your head, but on screen, they don’t land. Mostly though, I was left with the feeling of a vibe that I just wasn’t able to catch. I know this isn’t about logic. It’s about the peculiar magic only Anurag Basu is able to conjure up. A character says as much: “Kuch rishton mein logic nahin hota. Sirf magic hota hai.” My problem is that I didn’t feel this magic, either. For a lot of its running time, Ludo feels bloated. It feels like a bored game. But hey… grudging respect.

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