Synopsis – Shivangi, a 10 year old girl, is put to the ultimate test to save her family’s village from the restless ghosts of its horrific past.
My Take – Keeping up with the trend asserted by the Anushka Sharma starring/produced, Pari, which was skillfully followed by Amar Kaushik‘s Stree, Dibakar Banerjee’s terrific short in the Ghost Stories anthology, and Anvita Dutt’s Bulbbul (also produced by Anushka Sharma), comes another addition to the new wave of Indian horror films imbued with a purposeful social consciousness. Here, the idea is to scare you but also to make you think beyond the horror onscreen and consider the horror in life.
At first glance, director Terrie Samundra and her co-writer David Walter Lech‘s intentions seem noble, as they cast an important glance on a social undercurrent by weaving a story set in rural Punjab, thematically rooted in the dehumanizing practice of female infanticide that was once a daily norm and a lived reality in the village.
However, while the film somewhat manages to achieve the feat of showcasing female rage against patriarchy through symbols of gore and supernatural halfway, it ultimately falls flat, thanks to its stilted writing and direction that is just too bland to eventually make any difference.
Plus despite being marketed as a horror film, the film sorely lacks in the scares department, leaving us just feeling uneasy with its dim atmosphere and a few sequences of gore. Furthermore, the narrative is so slow and simplistic, that even a performer like Shabana Azmi seems to be struggling to keep us engaged.
The story follows Shivangi (Riva Arora), a 10 year old, who upon being the informed of the deteriorating health conditions of her grandmother (Leela Samson), heads from the city along with her parents, Darshan (Satyadeep Misra) and Priya (Sanjeeda Sheikh) to their village in Punjab. Upon reaching the small village that she barely remembers visiting as a child, Shivangi is quickly reintroduced to her father’s aunt Satya (Shabana Azmi) and befriends an orphan girl of her age named Chandni (Hetvi Bhanushali) who lives with Satya right next door.
However, Shivangi also finds herself in the middle of multiple conflicts. On one hand, her parents don’t seem to be getting along, and on the other, she starts to notice strange, creepy things, like a little girl sitting under the bed, an eerie sound from the terrace, a dead rat in the cupboard, among others. And as she begins to unearth the mystery bit by bit she comes to realize that an age-old curse has come back to haunt and avenge them.
The 90-minute film has an ambitious heart. Like numerous storytellers before them telling a tale of and for children, director Samundra and her co-writer David Walter Lech too use compelling visual imagery and a folksy tone to comment on a very real problem and it does that by giving voice directly to those affected by the patriarchal practice of killing female newborns. Here, director Samundra thankfully steers clear of Bollywood’s horror flick clichés i.e. screechy noises, jerky camera movements and overbearing background scores, and largely relies on the power of suggestion to instill fear at first, then revulsion and finally hope in the viewer. The setup and the idea are both instantly compelling and because the place is captured with such immaculate visual fastidiousness, I eased into the world quite early on.
However, the writing is so slim that it wholly brings the film crashing down whenever even two characters have an exchange. Neither is there a striking line of dialogue that undercuts a history of a character or his/ her motivations with subtle eloquence nor are the eventual situations particularly persuasive.
It also gets painfully simplistic when it places the blame for patriarchy entirely and completely on women’s shoulders and lets men off lightly through the vehicle of Darshan who is shown to be helpless – and at worst, an apathetic observer – in the face of an existing system.
Darshan being a character whose agendas are so deliberately muddled that I had no clue why he was doing what he was, and I don’t mean it in some fascinating manner but a rather painfully vapid way. Plus it doesn’t help that the film moves at a super slow pace and hence makes for an unbearably dull and tedious experience.
The presentation is too garish and simultaneously bizarrely insipid that even at a runtime of ninety minutes, it feels like one long-drawn, awfully protracted state of affairs. The climax, particularly, is too on the nose and perhaps even a little too dramatic for a film that has very realistic roots. One might even say that, at times, the film tries a little too hard to make its point. The result? A bunch of loose ends that can’t be tied together, leaving the viewer with questions even after the film has ended.
But if one thing that works completely works here is Sejal Shah’s masterful cinematography which along with the accompanying sounds, cause an eerie effect. The film does not aim to scare you but definitely makes you uneasy with its plot that is based on an evil still in practice today. Adding to that is the foggy village, where the rains are used as a prop to induce a sense of discomfort.
Even the sounds of the pounding rain and the temple bells fill you with dread about what’s to come next. The brilliance of visuals and sounds leaves little scope for jump scares or any other horror film trope, which is rarely handled deftly.
Performance wise, Shabana Azmi‘s strong onscreen presence adds depth to the unraveling chaos, and brings a finesse into the story with her experienced act. Riva Arora has too much of a daunting task to carry a film. Though she isn’t the most polished child actor out there but she does a phenomenal job of carrying the film on her shoulders. Hetvi Bhanushali also does an able job to support her. Unfortunately, Satyadeep Mishra, Sanjeeda Sheikh and Leela Samson do not have much to do and are utterly wasted. On the whole, ‘Kaali Khuhi’ is a mildly interesting watch that squanders its potential with its weak narrative.
Directed – Terrie Samundra
Rated – R
Run Time – 90 minutes