Note: This review contains spoilers for the latest Netflix release Ludo.
A general disclaimer before I dive into my critique—if you’re merely looking for some light entertainment to keep you occupied during a pandemic Diwali weekend, Anurag Basu’s Ludo works brilliantly. It features excellent display of comic timing by stalwarts like Pankaj Tripathi and Rajkummar Rao. It also includes some provocative satire about the state of media and politics in the country. This is precisely why I found it disappointing that, in spite of the well-written dark humor and stellar acting by the ensemble cast, the women of the film are portrayed in such a shallow, one-dimensional manner.
First of all, there is the fact that Ludo is primarily shown through the gaze of its (upper-caste) male protagonists. On paper, the film is narrated from an omniscient point of view by two seemingly supernatural beings (including Basu himself in a cameo) waiting to reap souls in the ‘Ludo’ game that is life. However, the focus of the screenplay is mostly on the men’s thoughts and feelings. We rarely get to know why the women behave the way they do, except for little Mini, and Nurse Shreeja, but more on that later.
This is perhaps also the reason why the actresses, including Fatima Sana Shaikh and Sanya Malhotra, are given second billing in the opening credits. I guess in that sense, Basu is pretty open from the beginning about whose story(s) is really important here.
Let’s start with Alok Kumar Gupta, alias ‘Alu‘ (Rajkummar Rao), a small-time scamster turned small-time restauranteur. Alu has been madly in one-sided love with Pinky (Fatima Sana Shaikh) since adolescence. However, Pinky constantly emotionally manipulates him into performing various chores for her, and then cuts off contact after marrying a more socially respectable man. When Pinky’s husband is wrongfully arrested for murder, she again turns to Alu for help, knowing very well that he cannot bear to see her in distress. It is only when Pinky sees the true colors of her adulterous husband that she finally chooses Alu. Notwithstanding this ending, the entire sub-plot reinforces the Luv Ranjan & Co. induced, pop culture stereotype of how nice guys are perennially ‘friendzoned’ and finish last.
Then we come to Akash (Aditya Roy Kapoor), a historian-turned-standup comedian who falls in love with Shruti (Sanya Malhotra). From their first date, Shruti makes no bones about the fact that she’s a gold-digger. She is just about to get married to the billionaire of her dreams when Akash stumbles upon a sex-tape featuring them. This leads them to go on a journey for finding out which hotel filmed the tape. Again, similar to Alu’s storyline, the film keeps suggesting how Akash is the ‘good guy’ whose love and nobility is completely invisible to the emotionally unavailable, materialist Shruti.
Notably, Shruti was also the name of Ileana D’cruz’s character in Basu’s earlier film Barfi!. The Shruti in that film also dumps the love of her life to marry a ‘safer option’. However in Barfi!, Ileana’s character was lent an element of grace and nuance which is sorely missing in Ludo.
Finally, the most heartbreaking story is that of Batukeshwar ‘Bittu’ Tiwari (Abhishek Bachchan echoing his Yuva persona), the former right-hand man to the mobster Sattu (Pankaj Tripathi). Bittu quits crime for domestic bliss with his wife Asha (Asha Negi) and baby daughter Ruhi, only to be jailed in an attempt-to-murder case. While he is in prison, Asha inexplicably leaves him for his friend Bhanu (Bhanu Uday). When Bittu is released, Asha is unwilling to let him see their daughter. In fact, Bittu learns that Ruhi believes Bhanu to be her father. Moreover, when Bhanu is kidnapped because of his failure to repay Sattu’s debt, Asha insists that it is Bittu’s responsibility to somehow recover the money. I could just imagine men’s rights activists self-righteously fuming at this scene.
The obvious common thread in all the aforementioned sub-plots is men getting into a holy mess to save the virtue or suhaag of their former lady loves. The latter are all shown to be selfish, materialistic and unfaithful in varying degrees. Arguably, in a way it’s praiseworthy that the women are written as such complex, grey characters. It is actually high time that Bollywood starts showing women as capable of being equally flawed as men, instead of being self-sacrificing paragons of virtue. However, a crucial difference is that when Bollywood writes stories about flawed men, e.g. Kabir Singh, it makes an active effort to explain those flaws, or offer some justification that can rationalise the character’s behaviour for the audience. We see no such effort when it comes to the women of Ludo.
For example, when Asha tells Bittu that, “Even when we were with you, we were always living in fear,” the film could have defined this ‘fear’ more explicitly. Was Bittu an abusive husband? The film certainly suggests that he has anger management issues, given his violent reactions when Asha leaves him, and when she later reveals that Ruhi perceives Bhanu as her biological father. However, this can easily be explained as a man’s righteous rage over losing his family. Even in the flashback where Asha returns her mangalsutra to Bittu, she is silent about her motives for leaving him. Her compulsions for marrying another man, even though the flashback showed them as a happy couple, are left open to interpretation. The only way a viewer can plausibly rationalise her betrayal is the stereotypical notion that women have a tendency to be faithless in times of crisis and separate their children from their husbands.
Similarly, in the case of Shruti and Akash, the only reason she offers for ignoring their mutual chemistry is that she has been raised to believe that marrying a financially secure husband is important. If the film had been written by a woman, it is likely that it would have dived deeper into her reasons for subscribing to this belief. Maybe she grew up with a father who was financially irresponsible, and that affected her? Or maybe it’s because of the historical notion that irrespective of whether a woman works, the husband is the primary earner in the household. Ludo could have inverted this stereotype by showing Shruti decide to stand on her own feet. Instead we don’t even know what Shruti’s career goals are, apart from getting married, which is what she ultimately does (and gets pregnant as well) in the climax. On an ironic side note, the hotel discovery road trip where she redevelops feelings for Akash is also funded through her fiance’s credit card.
Further, although Akash is certainly a nice guy, he’s not exactly the most practical husband material. He has no drive or ambition, and his financial discipline motto is, “I don’t have enough to save, but not so less that I need to borrow either!” Great philosophy to quote on WhatsApp, but maybe not so convenient when it’s time to pay the kids’ school fees. The whole Akash-Shruti subplot ties in with Bollywood’s First-World tendency to romanticise living ‘each day as it comes’. This inevitably means demonising characters with a more realistic philosophy towards money, particularly when those characters are women.
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To give credit, there is some character development in Fatima Sana Shaikh’s Pinky, who evolves from being an ordinary housewife to developing a taste for crime. She even comes close to critiquing the entire ‘friendzone’ theme of Alu’s story by telling him that he cannot expect her to mathematically reciprocate the favours he did for her. However throughout the plot, her goals remain self-interested. It cannot be said if their ‘happy ending’ is a subversion of the ‘girls never pick the good guys’ trope, or a wish fulfilment fantasy for all the Alus who think that their one-sided love will be successfully reciprocated one day.
Lastly, Ludo shows the female point of view briefly in the stories of Mini, a neglected child who is ‘kidnapped’ by Bittu, and Shreeja (Pearle Maaney), a Malayali nurse (in itself a stereotype) who runs away with Sattu’s money. However Shreeja’s story is woefully inadequate. We are expected to believe that she magically develops feelings for her partner-in-crime Rahul (Rohit Saraf), in spite of the language barrier between the two. In fact, it’s not even clear how they co-ordinate a plan to steal Sattu’s money without having a proper conversation with each other. We are also expected to sympathise with Rahul when he develops an intense fit of jealousy on seeing Shreeja dancing with a fellow Mallu who’s a DJ at their hotel, and drags her back to their room. In response, Shreeja indignantly asks, ‘Are you my boyfriend or husband that you should behave like this?‘
But would being a boyfriend or husband excuse such behaviour?
The film generally treats intimate partner violence pretty casually. When Alu and Pinky confront her husband’s mistress Sambhavi, Sambhavi’s husband slaps her. However, instead of being a horrifying moment, the scene forms part of a comedic sequence in which Sambhavi and her husband demand money in exchange for testifying in favour of Pinky’s husband. Since Sambhavi is the duplicitous ‘other woman’, we aren’t really supposed to feel any sympathy for her.
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Of course, Ludo is by no means the most misogynistic film that has released in the recent past. On one hand, the moral ambivalence of its women, and the lack of judgement cast upon them deserves appreciation. However, allowing such skin-deep treatment of women characters to pass under the radar also amounts to approving the covert misogyny running through the script. If this is the standard to be expected even from a well-written film by a presumably liberal film-maker, there’s a long way to go before passing more substantial hurdles such as the Bechdel Test.