Kaali Khuhi, starring Shabana Azmi and Riva Arora in pivotal roles, is now streaming on Netflix and it is the most recent film to join the likes of Stree, Pari and Bulbul—movies which had previously experimented with the tropes of horror to push forward a social message. To showcase the female rage against patriarchy through symbols of gore and supernatural is no easy job, and Kaali Khuhi somewhat manages to achieve the feat halfway, before falling flat on the narrative in its latter part.
Kaali Khuhi is Terrie Samundra’s directorial debut. The film also stars Sanjeeda Sheikh, Satyadeep Misra, Leela Samson, Hetvi Bhanushali and Rose Rathod. Set in a village in Punjab, it deals with the theme of female infanticide that is still prevalent in some areas of India. That the film was released when a huge part of the country is celebrating goddess-worships like Durga Puja and Kali Puja is then either a chanced occurrence that fits too conveniently or a conscious decision on part of the filmmakers to drive the point home.
Darshan (Satyadeep Misra) lives in the city with his wife Priya (Sanjeeda Sheikh) and daughter Shivangi (Riva Arora). When informed of the deteriorating health conditions of his mother (Leela Samson), Darshan decides to pay her a visit. Thus the entire family arrives at a small village in Punjab, and from there begins the supernatural narrative of the film. The village has a well which harbours ominous secrets as it is told to us in the very first scene itself. And it is from this well that we get the title of the film as well (Kaali Khuhi means Black Well in English).
It is through Shivangi’s character that the trope of horror manifests itself. Shivangi constantly hears eerie sounds coming out from different parts of a rather unpopulated village. She befriends a girl of her age named Chandni (Hetvi Bhanushali) and also meets her father’s aunt Satya (Shabana Azmi). With their help, Shivangi then embarks on a journey to unpack the mysteries surrounding the supernatural happenings, only to realise that it is the villagers’ past misdoings that have come to haunt them at present.
Showing Women As Flagbearers of Patriarchy
It is no news that patriarchy couldn’t have possibly survived had women, too, not have participated in upholding its oppressive structures in place. The film pushes men to the margins and shows us three generations of women, all different in their own ways. There is Leela Samson’s Daadi who is one of the flagbearers of patriarchal oppression, constantly taking jabs at her daughter-in-law for not giving birth to a son. There is Shabana Azmi’s Satya Maasi, who for the longest time had been enraged at the village customs, and even though she herself couldn’t rebel against them, she proves to be the ally to those who can.
We also have Sanjeeda Sheikh’s Priya who is a modern woman with ambition, one who is willing to fight back against those wanting to cut her wings. And finally, we have Riva Arora’s Shivangi, the upcoming millennial on whose shoulder lies the responsibility to understand both her mother and grandmother alike, and then carry the battles of feminism forward. The best part about the film is that it does not bring in a male knight at the end who saves these women from themselves. Instead, it sets out to remind that it is in these women and girls that the power resides to lead the war against patriarchy. And the laudable acting on part of all these actors helps to accentuate this message in the best ways possible.
What Doesn’t Work
In an attempt to show that there are also women who willingly participate in upholding patriarchy, the film entirely places the blame for all patriarchal structures on the shoulders of women, completely letting men off the hook. It somehow forgets, or rather is unwilling to own up to the fact that it’s men who are the primary victimisers and the main benefactors of patriarchy. To thus portray the likes of Darshan as mere helpless observers to this oppressive power structure is one of the major loopholes the script has, both in terms of theory and praxis.
In terms of the supernatural element in the plot, the film could have done a much better job. The second part drags for too long and leaves quite some narrative strands untied at the end. The suspenseful visual imageries, dark colour palettes, folkish tone and tense background music make most of the shots compelling, yet by the time the climax happens, the film turns too dramatic. But despite these shortcomings, one should still give Kaali Khuhi a try, for such experimental horrors are praiseworthy attempts on part of Hindi cinema to strike up conversations on topics that are otherwise largely neglected.
Picture Credit: Netflix ScreeenGrab
Views expressed are the author’s own.