Shhhhh! There is a master at work!
That’s almost what I want to say 15 minutes into the 149-minute “Ludo.” This time, Anurag Basu isn’t just the director and writer. He is also co-producer, cinematographer (!!), production designer (!!!) and even a key cameo artiste! Looking at his overall accomplishment in each department (remember Manoj Kumar writing, producing, editing, directing and acting as lead in “Shor” and “Roti Kapada Aur Makaan” and Sanjay Bhansali producing, directing, co-writing and composing for his recent films?), I would say that Basu is indeed a jack of all trades and a master of them all too.
The production design is faultless in its detailing, the cinematography is bewitching, come smutty indoors or the open vistas, and everything in-between and the script totally innovative, though we have seen quasi-masterpieces earlier in this genre in “Sankat City” (2009) and this year’s OTT release “Lootcase.”
To state that “Ludo” leaves the other two far behind is to state as obvious a fact as the moon must shine better than the stars. Simply put, “Ludo” has far greater depth. It has far, far greater imagination. And it has much more innovation.
In fact, it is devastatingly original and supple. It does go here and there towards the fanciful, even surreal zone (like the crane sequence or the train ransom sequence and the two men playing Ludo in an open air—no spoilers please), but then that is all part of a master’s genius.
One grouch—and a major one!—here: Basu’s partner-in-crime (here, literally almost!) Pritam is criminally not in form. WHERE is the genius (AND his combo with Basu, like “Gangster,” “Life In A…Metro,” “Barfi!” and “Jagga Jasoos”) here? An overdose of Arijit Singh and his flat renditions and his “Thyoozhe,” “Tthera” and “Ttum” kind of horrendous diction ruin the music beyond redemption. The tragedy is that this is in many ways, Basu’s most accomplished work and that makes it doubly sad and ironical. “Aabaad Barbaad’ just gets by on the strength of its olde-worlde Pritam composition. Here again the word “Jhoot” is oddly expressed, as is “Itthna.”
Back to the film: as with his cinema beginning “…Metro,” Basu creates a world all his own. Regrettably again for a bit, he does go the web way with some sequences (lines as well as visuals) that would not have been cleared by the censors for the big screen. The Netflix subtitles also needlessly use the F word when there is no equivalent in the spoken lines! All this, Basu-sir, could have been eschewed in this piece of cinematic art.
For art it is. Four stories are linked inextricably as the coins of the game of life have to come together to one point, as per the title. A gangster, Sattu (Pankaj Tripathi) hates it when his right-hand Bittu (Abhishek A, Bachchan) leaves him because of love, marriage and, soon, fatherhood. He tips off the police, who put Bittu away for six years. By teh time he is out of jail, his wife has remarried, his daughter in boarding school, and he comes to know that Sattu is the man responsible.
Soon Bittu encounters an innocent Mini (Inayat Verma), who is an avid watcher of the cult show “CID” on television and has a fertile imagination. She is the neglected child of rich parents who are only into earning money. Bittu and Mini strike a bond. And it is very cute indeed.
A young man, Akash (Aditya Roy Kapur) wants to save casual acquaintance Shruti (Sanya Malhotra) from trouble on the eve of her marriage. They have had a casual sex fling in a seedy hotel and the video (slyly filmed by the hotel) has gone viral. He approaches Sattu, a “lawyer,” for help.
A young loser, Rahul (Rohit Suresh Saraf), and a nurse with a similar jinx, Shrija (Pearle Manney) stumble upon each other in th course of their misadventures and also upon a huge cache of loot. They think they have disposed of the crook who has robbed it, but to their dismay, they have failed, and are on the run.
The only unworldly and absurd tale is of Aloo (Rajkummar Rao), who is madly in love with Pinky (Fatima Sana Shaikh), who always takes him for granted. She marries Manohar Jain (Paritosh Tripathi) and becomes a mother. And Aloo goes to unrealistic and silly lengths to help her when Sattu murders builder Bhinder (Saurabh Sharma) and due to an ironical twist, Manohar is arrested for it.
The film opens with two strange men discussing what is to happen. As the film proceeds, they get into an interesting discussion on what is virtue and what is sin, and they continue their discussion until the end. Who are they?
Money and greed, the two ultimate motivations for most crimes, occupies center-stage in almost all these stories. And naturally Sattu is there too, the wryly humorous yet vicious and totally amoral criminal. And the masterstroke is “coincidence”—which Basu dismisses by implying that nothing like that exists. People meeting each other, and moving away after their purposes of meeting are done with, all happen for a reason.
Ingeniously crafted and technically superb, “Ludo” is marked by terrific lines and some unforgettably-crafted frames and sequences. Bhinder’s murder; the sequences at the mall where Rahul works; the relevant side story of Shambhavi (Gitanjali Mishra); the bridge sequence between Sattu, Rahul and Shrija and even the interactions between Sattu and his hospital nurse Kutty (Shalini Vatsa) are highlights.
A slew of superlative performances dot this game of checkers (Checkers is also another name for Ludo). Abhishek A. Bachchan is fantastic as the embittered Bittu with a hesitant human still thriving somewhere within. His last scene with his school-going daughter is magnificently conceived, executed and acted.
Pankaj Tripathi steals every scene he does from his co-actors. His climax scene is stupendously imagined again. Sanya Malhotra is a total delight as Shruti, followed by Aditya Roy Kapur as the often-confused Akash. Shalini Vatsa as Kutty is more than remarkable, as is Pearle Manney as Shrija.
Saraf impresses in the low-key role of Rahul, as does Ishtiyak Khan as the beleaguered and slightly OTT cop. However, Rao is just alright in his rather silly character as Aloo, though a generally blank Shaikh does a couple of demanding scenes well.
Do not miss this one—it is leagues ahead of Basu’s multi-track “…Metro” and leaves me with a strange sense of pride—I have ALWAYS considered Basu to be one of the brightest directors Hindi cinema has seen among the millennium arrivals and he has yet again proved me totally right.
Produced by: Anurag Basu, Tani Basu, Bhushan Kumar, Divya Khosla Kumar & Krishan Kumar
Directed by: Anurag Basu
Written by: Anurag Basu & Samrat Chakraborty
Starring: Abhishek A. Bachchan, Rajkummar Rao, Aditya Roy Kapur, Fatima Sana Shaikh, Sanya Malhotra, Pankaj Tripathi, Pearle Manney, Rohit Suresh Saraf, Inayat Verma, Asha Negi, Saurabh Sharma, Gitanjali Mishra, Rahul Bagga, Paritosh Tripathi, Aman Bhagat, Shalini Vatsa, Anurag Basu & others