If in Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal, Antonius Block challenges Death to a game of chess, Basu’s Yamraj prefers Ludo. The quest, however, is the same, to understand the meaning of life, death and afterlife, the ideas of good and evil, heaven and hell, it is Basu’s version of a Danse Macabre.
An absurdist drama, a screwball comedy, a love anthology, Ludo is another genre-bending film where Bergman meets Tagore meets the Coen Brothers! It is very different from Basu’s previous films, thematically, it comes closest to his 2007 film, Life in a Metro, but with its visual innuendos, the buoyant music, the physical comedy, the colour scheme, the leap-of-faith moments, the Mise-en-scène, the fantasy world throbbing with real emotions, the whimsical production design, and even the use of a narrator as a plot device, it is very much part of the Anurag Basu universe.
“I don’t know! With every film, my effort is to create a different world. But maybe some elements of me seep in unconsciously. As for the narrator in the movie, it is a tool of convenience. It makes the writer’s job easy. I was actually trying not to use it, but the stories were getting too complicated to explain. However, I have decided to use this plot device sparingly in future. But to be honest, I am not sure what this ‘Anurag Basu world’ is!” says Basu when we catch up with the director over a Zoom call. Although, if you have carefully followed his films, by now you are aware that Basu is essentially a man with a plan in the garb of a whimsical eccentric.
Talking about the name Ludo, Basu insists it was not something he started out with. “I was juggling with four genres in one film. I was not sure if I would be able to pull it off. To make it easier I incorporated the game of Ludo as a metaphor, also it gave it a structure. Later, we decided to name the film Ludo. But I didn’t overthink it. It was all fun and game.”
The colour-coded world of Ludo, as with most of his recent films, is beyond the conventional, and it is a world that might require a bit of acclimatisation. Post the box office failure of his magnum opus Jagga Jasoos, a genre-bending milestone in Indian cinema, which today the audience is rediscovering thanks to Netflix, wasn’t it difficult to find the conviction to pick another unconventional story? “Post Jagga, I just went on a drive and wrote a few scripts and came back. I had four scripts and none were ‘safe’ stories. All were of different genres. I couldn’t decide which one to make. This script was, in fact, third on my priority list of four. One day, I narrated all of them to Pritam and he immediately picked this one. It also happened to be the first choice of my wife Tani. Honestly speaking I was confused, but I plunged into it and slowly realised that it was indeed the right decision,” he says adding that the box office numbers of Jagga put a dent in his pocket bit never on his conviction to keep making the movies he believes in. “Yes, I agree, post Jagga it was difficult to make these decisions, but I always had the conviction and confidence in my stories. The stories I wrote after Jagga were all unconventional. Actually with each story I was hitting it out of the park.”
But at the same time he is cautious enough to not become too self-indulgent. “I am very much aware that it is not my personal journey. Filmmaking involves a crew and you need that crew to believe in you. In fact, this film has an ensemble cast and all were my first choices. Even after Jagga, all these brilliant actors had faith in me and nobody questioned my belief in these stories, although this again is an odd film. The structure of the film itself is so different.”
The film has a stellar star cast that includes the likes of Abhishek Bachchan, Rajkummar Rao, Pankaj Tripathi, Aditya Roy Kapur, Fatima Sana Shaikh, Sanya Malhotra, among others, but according to Basu, getting all of them on board was a breeze. “Everything just fell in place. This was the cast I had in mind when I wrote the film; I didn’t have any second choices. Thankfully, that wasn’t needed! When I approached them, everyone just readily agreed!” reveals Basu, who has also gone ahead and cast himself in an important role this time.
Point it out and he laughs: “Arre, there was this one-day shoot pending when the lockdown was announced. It got very difficult to get actors and shoot the sequence. It was a small unit as it is. So I cast the one person who couldn’t say no to the part!” But, he insists that he would not have stepped in front of the camera if he had a choice. This time it was not a shout-out to the masters of cinema like Hitchcock and Tarantino who are notorious for making appearances in their movies. Mention this and he laughs out loud: “Not this time! My homages are so clean that everyone gets it, it is very in-your-face.”
We delve deeper into these homages, especially his fondness for the comedy devices reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, which has found their way into Ludo as well, and he insists that in many cases the hat-tips are not intentional. “I think it is my love for a certain kind of cinema, especially the silent-era films, that has become so much a part of me that it often finds a reflection in the films I make. Many a times, it is not a conscious ‘inspiration’ or an intentional homage. For Barfi! there was an effort to do that, but not with Ludo,” says the director.
But, Anurag Basu movies are especially delicious for their Easter eggs. While Barfi! was a fine specimen of homage done right, with Basu cherry-picking some of the most famous scenes from classical Hollywood, Jagga Jasoos had the look of Herge’s TinTin comics and the soul of Satyajit Ray’s Hirak Rajar Deshe. Although in Ludo, he keeps these to the minimum, the Abhishek Bachchan-Inayat Verma track in the movie reminds one of Rabindranath Tagore’s Kabuliwala, Basu even names the little girl Mini. It is interesting to note that Stories by Rabindranath Tagore, a 2015 Indian Hindi television series (now available on Netflix), remains one of his best works.
Essentially, his last three movies, set in a quintessential madcap Anurag Basu world, can be regarded as a trilogy that is a ‘homage’ to his own childhood, or to every Bong kid growing up on a healthy diet of classic Hollywood, TinTin, Ray, and Tagore. Next is what? Football maybe!