Feature: Kaali Khuhi
Cast: Shabana Azmi, Leela Samson, Sanjeeda Sheikh, Satyadeep Mishra, Riva Arora
Directed By: Terrie Samundra
Run Time: 1h 30m
Girls both dead and alive drive events in the supernatural horror drama Kaali Khuhi. Terrie Samundra’s debut feature is seen largely through the wide and increasingly terrified eyes of 10-year-old Shivangi (Riva Arora).
Compelled to return to her father’s ancestral village in Punjab after her grandmother (Leela Samson) falls ill, Shivangi meets a girl her age (Rose Rathod) and another girl who isn’t from this world (Hetvi Bhanushali).
The well of the title has thrown up its secrets, manifested in the form of the scary girl with the red dress and the single plait. The spectre especially prefers a room at the top of the house. Characters are drawn seemingly against their will to this dark corner, where lie clues to the haunting.
It is written by Samundra and David Walter Lech, doesn’t exactly conceal its mysteries. An early hint of the ghost’s motivations is provided in the opening scene itself. One of the keepers of the secret is Darshan’s aunt Satya (Shabana Azmi), who has conveniently recorded her experiences in a readily available book.
The brittle relationship between Shivangi’s parents Darshan (Satyadeep Mishra) and Priya (Sanjeeda Shaikh) provides another clue into the past horrors that are forcing their way into the open.
The truth behind the events supposedly implicate the entire village, but except for a couple of scenes, there is little sense of a community both responsible for as well as battling its demons.
A crone with one false eye who keeps turning up to provide unintended laughs is a misfire in a narrative that makes all the right moves before losing its footing.
Despite swapping its elliptical possibilities for literal-mindedness halfway through, Kaali Khuhi maintains consistency in other ways. The performances are steady and strong, especially from Sanjeeda Shaikh and Satyadeep Mishra. Shabana Azmi is typically terrific as the woman bearing a terrible burden.
Samundra judiciously uses Daniel B George’s tense background music and keeps the scary sound effects and jump scares to the minimum. It is hoped that the results of Shivangi’s investigation will provide the ultimate shock, but the plotting isn’t smooth or complex enough to achieve the effect.
As Shivangi runs around the weirdly depopulated village, forcing a reckoning of its sordid past, there is less than meets the eye but always something to rivet the gaze. Cinematographer Sejal Shah conjures up unforgettable vistas of cold and creepy beauty.
Shah’s magnificent lighting and jittery framing maintain the conceit of suspense long after the mystery has been cracked open. Whether in long shot or close-up, Kaali Khuhi always looks sinister and portentous even though it doesn’t always feel that way.
We with all our heart give the film 3 stars.