By now, certain motifs have become synonymous with an Anurag Basu movie. Basu – arguably the most “visual” filmmaker of his generation – is known for invention that broadens the scope of storytelling on the big screen. If his last two outings (Barfi!, Jagga Jasoos) are any proof, it’s clear that the filmmaker painstakingly builds a universe – through colours, pockets of silence, musicality, and melancholy. You don’t just see an Anurag Basu film; you deeply feel each frame, digging for clues and searching for meaning. In many ways, you appreciate an Anurag Basu outing for its sheer attempt. The problem with Ludo, his first film since the career-threatening debacle of Jagga Jasoos (2017), is that the filmmaker squanders that very reputation.
A multi-narrative film, Ludo follows four lives that intersect to ultimately disastrous consequences, essentially becoming the real-world manifestation of four tokens scurrying across a ludo board. (“What are human beings? Just different coloured tokens on the board of life,” states the unnamed narrator, played by Basu himself, in the film’s opening scene).
Sattu Bhaiyya (Pankaj Tripathi), the eccentric local decides the extent of misfortune that befalls each player in the game. This is a film about life and death that wants to be meaningful and meaningless at the same time, translating in earnest the futility of finding logic in unpredictability and the method to madness by way of four different genres. But even though Ludo might come across as the filmmaker’s most structured outing, at least in its world-building and stakes, its undoing remains that it is his most chaotic film.
A metaphor taken too far
For one, Ludo’s premise, built on the metaphor of the board game, where a single roll of the dice by one person has a ripple effect on the others, stops being compelling after the first hour. Individually, the parallel storylines – a promiscuous young woman becoming the victim of revenge porn; two misfits who don’t speak the same language on an adventure together; a pained criminal yearning to be reunited with his family; and a timid, emasculated man still hoping for a happily-ever-after with the girl of his dreams even after she marries someone else – don’t have much bite.
With every plot escalation, it becomes clear that Ludo is the kind of film invested in the eventual destination.
And yet, Basu can’t help but indulge himself: Every moment is crammed with a lifetime worth of backstory, references (a reference to Coronavirus is made early on in the film for no reason other than it can be made), and unnecessary complications that derail from the purpose of the film. With every plot escalation, it becomes clear that Ludo is the kind of film invested in the eventual destination, a climactic moment where these protagonists will convene under one roof and face their conscience by confronting each other.
Their journeys, excessively labyrinthian and sluggish, feel like a means to an end. It’s difficult to not get the sense that Basu (credited for story, screenplay, cinematography, and production design) worked backwards to serve the film’s ending, ensuring that the pieces of the puzzle fit. The lack of interest shows in the narrative where events occur, but don’t drive the plot.
It doesn’t help that Basu falls back on his trusted storytelling device of the voiceover to compensate for characterisation, explaining emotions rather than their origins. This puts the viewer at a considerable distance from not only the proceedings but also the protagonists.
Riddled with imperfections
Essayed by an eclectic ensemble cast of Rajkummar Rao, Abhishek Bachchan, Sanya Malhotra, Fatima Sana Sheikh, Aditya Roy Kapur, the film is marked with inconsistent performances that draw a blank for the most part, with the exception of Rao and Tripathi (both of whom have played similar characters in the past) whose physically alert turns offer a peek into the film that Ludo could have been.
The lack of interest shows in the narrative where events occur, but don’t drive the plot.
Even when Basu’s films have been riddled with imperfections, there has always been a distinct energy in the filmmaking that is difficult not to be swayed by. Ludo feels like a step down in that direction. The writing consistently devolves into cliches. For instance, Basu’s interpretation of one-sided love feels like it is in need of an update, as does his idea of violence (subdued women suddenly take to guns right during the climax).
The moments in the film, which runs at a sluggish 159 minutes, that really sing – a suspicious wife following her husband wearing a nightie, or an old, injured don being shut into submission by the aggression of an otherwise caring nurse – are few and far between. At one point, Basu as the film’s narrator, tells his much-younger companion matter-of-factly, “Do you want a straight answer for a tricky question?” That pretty much sums up the film’s intentions. Yet, you can’t help but wish Anurag Basu didn’t make every question look trickier than it should be.