Neither a child in peril nor the involvement of Shabana Azmi is enough to make you feel invested in the thinly written and exhaustingly paced Netflix horror film.
Kaali Khuhi is a deathly dull film that doesn't even have the decency to be bad. It's too serious for its own good. Does it not realise that the story it's presenting teeters on the edge of ridiculousness?
Watch the trailer for "Kaali Khuhi" here
Even in its final act, which positively challenges the viewer to not snort with laughter, the new Netflix India film wears such a stern expression that you wonder, for a moment, if it believes that it is in contention for Oscars or something.
In recent years, horror cinema has seen the arrival of bold new directors, who aren't ashamed for having a passion for the genre. Filmmakers such as Ari Aster, Jordan Peele and Robert Eggers have brought a much-needed respect to horror movies. Done well, they're no longer seen as schlocky entertainment meant for teenagers, but legitimate works of art deserving of awards consideration.
Like most cultural waves, this one, too, has washed over India a year or two later than anticipated. There's been little to write home about so far, barring a couple of Malayalam wild cards.
Technically, Kaali Khuhi is above reproach. It's actually wonderful to look at. The hazy, muted colour palette adds a lot of atmosphere to the film. The natural light makes the whole thing look rather rustic, and takes away the sheen that a lot of local horror films seem to be coated in.
But the screenplay is an unmitigated disaster. It's almost like director Terrie Samundra took what she had and filtered it through Google Translate, the end result creating a sort of cultural dissonance that we recently observed in A Suitable Boy. Even though Kaali Khuhi is set in a Punjab village, I remember only a single word of Punjabi being spoken in the entire film — delivered inelegantly and inauthentically by Satyadeep Mishra.
He plays a sourpuss of a man named Darshan, who is informed that his ageing mother has taken ill, and is in immediate need of medical attention. Darshan, who lives in the city with his wife and young daughter, stuffs them into a car and drives them all to his childhood home in the dead of night. "Khoteya!" he yells in a fit of road rage at another driver on the highway, thereby signalling to the audience that he is indeed Punjabi (albeit a rather well-mannered one), in case you were having any doubts.
When the family arrives at the village, it is clear that something sinister is afoot. Darshan's mother is comatose on a bed, rendering Leela Samson, the actor who plays her, almost as useless as she was made out to be in her final days as chief of the Central Board of Film Certification. Ironically, the reason behind Samson's decision to quit the CBFC was that she objected to the release of Messenger of God, the Ram Rahim Singh Insaan propaganda film that she believed promoted superstition.
There's a lot of that in Kaali Khuhi, most of it revolving around girls. The film gets its title from a mysterious well in the village, which is where, we later learn, several female babies were thrown in an occult ritual. Most of the authority in the village seems to be wielded by a woman named Satya maasi, played by Shabana Azmi. She scowls at Darshan's daughter, his wife, and even the trees. That's her Resting Aunty Face.
Neither Satya maasi nor Darshan and his wife and daughter (whom the film decides is its protagonist 40 minutes in) evolve in any meaningful manner. These people aren't characters, they're a collection of character traits — to call them underwritten would be an understatement.
At an hour-and-a-half long, Kaali Khuhi is a deceptive beast — it lures you in with its intriguing logline and accessible runtime, but watching The Irishman in single sitting would be a cinch compared to completing this in one go.