Ludo - Could have Easily been Snakes and Ladders
Anurag Basu has made an anthology film before. It was Life in a Metro (2007) which put together different stories harping on different kinds of relationships strung together with lively performances by an ensemble cast though not top grade and Preetam Chakraborty’s lilting music. He first drew attention with his soft erotic thriller Murder (2004), a small budget film with newbie actors which turned out to be a huge box office surprise turning Mallika Sherawat and Emraan Hashmi into stars overnight.
Ludo is made on a much larger budget because its production values are fantastic which are reflected in the colours of the brilliant cinematography (Anurag Basu), its ensemble actors drawn from several top-grade actors ranging from Pankaj Tripathi through Abhishek Bachchan, a fantabulous Rajkumar Rao and many others who may shoot up to become overnight stars because the film will become a hit on Netflix.
The film opens on a vast field in the back of beyond where two mysterious men, one a bearded philosopher and the other a relatively younger man, sit down to play Ludo on a board that suddenly becomes larger as the bearded guy begins to spout mythical philosophies on virtues and sins often drawing from our mythological epics. This scene is repeated like a metaphor intercutting between and among the four colourful stories of strange characters with stranger occupations in stranger places which offer pleasant relief from beautifully furnished interiors, lavishly decorated and plastic offices with endless corridors, manicured gardens and trees and lakes and flowers we get to watch in high-fi films from Bollywood.
Akash Chauhan (Aditya Roy Kapoor) is a handsome young guy who tries to make both ends meet through intriguing jobs ranging from ventriloquism through dubbing for shows right up to working in blue films. His story marks his journey with Shruti Choksi (Sanya Malhotra) the girl who acted with him in the said film and is engaged to be married to a multimillionaire businessman in five days flat. He is trying to save her marriage before it happens and what kind of a roller-coaster ride of adventures this leads to, mark their story. For the first time, one finds Aditya Roy Kapoor deliver a lively and convincing performance spilling over with humour and satire. Sanya Malhotra is a wonderful find to play the girl with the never-care attitude waiting for a rich guy to hang on to because that is how she has been trained since childhood.
Bittoo (Abhishek Bachchan) is a criminal released after six years in jail. He finds that his wife and baby girl have moved on and are being looked after by a friend of his. He had decided that he will not get back to his criminal life and has cut off from his boss Sattu Bhaiyya but ponders because his family has moved away. He develops a friendship with the little Mini (Inayat Verma) who, fed up with her parents neglecting her, plans a kidnap of herself to draw their attention. She asks Bittoo to help her execute the plan.
This segment is the best in the entire film spilling over with warmth, affection and the intelligent yet innocent mischief of a little girl pitted against a known gangster. While Bachchan is striking as the dark and silent man musing over the wrong choices he made in life, the little Inayat is a sprightly and sparkling little girl who mouths realities of life much better than the two ludo players do. This segment is also a telling comment on ow how little children have internalized crimes like kidnapping and have learnt to accept it as a normal part of life.
Aloo (Rajkumar Rao) is a marvellous reversal of the Devdas icon who presents a very happy-go-lucky image of himself. He forever gets into a Mithun Chakraborty jig though he is a diehard fan of Bachchan because his Pinky who is happily wedded to another is a fan of MIthun. He runs a dhaba along the railway tracks where the others are his neighbours and breaks into his dance even while taking orders from his customers in his unique style.
Pinky (Fatima Sana Sheikh), with baby in arms, approaches him for help because her husband is in trouble. He wipes his tears and tightens his belt to help her to the extent of helping her husband do a jail-break. Here is one actor who never fails to amaze us with his magic spontaneity with every film, never mind the size of the role or its importance in the film.
Rahul Awasthi (Rohit Verma) works in a shopping mall and is humiliated and insulted everyday by his boss. Shreeja Thomas (Pearl Maney) is a Malayalee nurse poked endlessly by her colleagues who make fun of her terrible Hindi. Rahul and Shreeja suddenly happen to fall together and manage to grab a bag of loot belonging to the terror-striking Sattu (Pankaj Tripathy) and his goons, shove Sattu off a bridge into the waters below and begin their run.
The different strands of the film are held together by the dreaded don Sattu Bhaiyya who appears from time to time to remind us who the master of the show is. There is a comic scene showing how the police too are terrified of him. Sattu survives the drowning and lands up with one leg on a sling and the other with a gun strapped on his upper thigh. He is taken care of by a senior Malalayee nurse Lata Kutty (Shalini Vatsa). These two develop a soft corner for each other. In fact, all this blood and gore and killing and violence is generously dotted with a lot of intelligent humour even in the serious scenes. The goons are more funny than scary. This is what makes Ludo an enjoyable entertainer.
The film thrives and thrills in this hit--run-and-chase game often running into each other cut into by Sattu’s goons trying to chase these heroes and heroines involved in some criminal act or another so rapidly and without pause that everything becomes quite confusing including the many goons in Sattu’s employ who, it seems, has finally found his lady love in Lata Kutty. Pankaj Tripathi is in fear of getting badly typed as the soft-spoken, cool, negative character in many of his films both for the big screen and for OTT. He adds a generous dose of comic punch to his portrayal of a man who never balks at using his gun to kill and not to threaten.
The inordinate length of the film leads to its unmaking in the second half. The focus entirely on crime is a bit unnerving but cinema is not supposed to be a model lesson in moral values. There is too much of gun-toting by every other member of the cast including the sweet-looking Pinky who surprises her Devdas Aloo with her ability to pick a gun and point it at the attacker.
The music adds tempo to the happenings and the songs and the soundtrack are well composed and positioned well. While the production design also by Basu is truly good. The sound design, specially the metaphor of the running of the trains symbolizes the speed that defines the lives of the four protagonists. On the positive side, Ludo can be slotted into the genre of the action thriller because “action” is both its driving force and its pulling-down factor. The acting is so good by the entire cast that it is worth watching the film just to watch the actors perform.
The repeated metaphor of the philosophical allegories presented through the game of ludo has no connection with the stories and sub-plots of the film. The four primary colours of the game used as allegory for the four characters in a win-loss game with Sattu Bhaiyya as the die, does not work at all. At most, it is more like a terrible tribute to Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957). The title Ludo just does not belong to the film which may equally have done with “Snakes and Ladders.”