A gangster lies in a hospital bed, neck in a brace, both arms and one leg in casts. On the adjoining bed lies a man who’s under arrest for the murder of a builder, actually committed by the gangster. Outside the window is the long yellow neck of a crane. It’s being operated by a Mithun-impersonating waiter who’s been asked by the love of his life, who’s married to the murder suspect, to effect a jail break.
No one in Hindi cinema today makes films like Anurag Basu. Even when the results are unwieldy—as is the case with Ludo—it's the sort of vibrant mess that’s unique to him. Post-Barfi (2012), it’s become possible to identify a Basu film from just a few frames, a distinction he shares with Sanjay Leela Bhansali. In Ludo, as in Barfi and Jagga Jasoos (2017), he creates a visual and sonic world that’s almost cartoon-like, dressed up with primary colours and bright sounds, in which he sends characters in search of family or some vital connection.
After an unnecessary framing device, the first of the film’s intersecting stories is introduced with an overhead shot of a floor like a chessboard and a green door kicked in by contract killer Sattu (Pankaj Tripathi), who shoots a man in a bathtub. Ventriloquist Akash (Aditya Roy Kapoor) finds out there's a video of himself and Shruti(Sanya Malhotra), a one-time casual partner, having sex that has surfaced online; when he discovers she’s getting married in a few days, he goes to warn her. Rahul (Rohit Saraf) is a put-on store employee and Sheeja (Pearle Maaney) an equally harried nurse who get mixed up with Sattu. Dhaba-owner Aalu (Rajkummar Rao) is approached by Pinky (Fatima Sana Sheikh), his one true love, and the wife of the man arrested for the murder that Sattu commits, for help. There’s also Bittu (Abhishek Bachchan), an ex-con just out of prison, who bonds with a young girl who fakes her kidnapping to get her parents’ attention.
It’s a lot—and this is before the stories start to intersect. Ludo is two-and-half hours long, yet with so many characters it still manages to feel hurried. Some of the narrative joins are clever but more often it feels like Basu is simply throwing his odd couples together to see what happens. There’s nothing like the elegant structure of Pulp Fiction (1994), the granddaddy of the hyperlink film, or the merciless loop of Amores Perros (2000). But Ludo is similarly ambitious, jumping not just between stories but also across time frames, going forward, then back, making detours and sideways hops.
I was reminded of one hyperlink film in particular—Thiagarajan Kumararaja's Super Deluxe. That 2019 Tamil film had four or five seedy intersecting narratives, and an eye for eccentricity and colour codes (the palette for Basu’s film is provided by the red, green, blue and yellow pieces on a Ludo board). If Super Deluxe and other gritty Tamil comedies like Jigarthanda (2014) are a source of inspiration, the inclusion of Pistah, a supercharged track from the 2013 Tamil-Malayalam bilingual film Neram, might be a nod in that direction. There are nods in other directions as well: the father of a kidnapping victim getting instructions on a moving train is reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low (1963). And Shruti saying “I know where I’m going” is a possible tribute to the 1945 Powell-Pressburger film of that name, which also has a young woman who must choose between a wealthy suitor and an exciting but broke companion.
Some of the sub-narratives work better than others. The Bittu track is blatantly sentimental, the scowling thug gently steering the chatty young girl out of trouble. The Rahul-Sheeja bits derive excitement from their collisions with the other plots. Rao is funny as the hopeless romantic who can’t say no to the woman who’s not only married but has a child, but it’s difficult to get a read on Pinky, who spends the whole film in tears or close to it. In a film full of men coming to the rescue of women, Sattu’s relationship with a no-nonsense nurse (Shalini Vatsa) is a welcome reversal, with the gangster made a little more human by her kindness.
The only pairing that really sparkles is Akash and Shruti. Their first scene is wonderful—she thinks he’s taken the video and is there to blackmail her; even as she starts hitting him, he can’t stop laughing. Malhotra somehow makes her status-obsessed, honest-to-a-fault character winsome. Shruti is blithely blunt, telling Akash “You’re really not photogenic at all” when they first meet (she means he looks better in person). Even better is her frank assessment of his prospects: “The problem isn’t that you aren’t rich. It’s that you will never be rich.” Akash accepts all this with a rueful smile—he loves her but, unlike most Hindi film heroes, he doesn’t want to burden her with that.
The whimsicality that’s become such a big part of Basu’s filmmaking since Barfi pervades every scene here. This might not have been a problem had the musical jokes and whacky frames been woven around something substantial. But Ludo is all filling, no pastry. It’s not clear that Basu has an exit plan, or even wants these stories to end. And so we get two quasi-Mexican standoffs, the cinephile director’s way out of screenplay trouble. In Barfi and Jagga Jasoos, there was a central quest; here there’s a maze. Despite the many incidental pleasures on offer, Ludo gets lost in itself.