Whether cinema reflects life or life reflects cinema is a question I have never pondered about – as a lay viewer, I have been satisfied with being entertained. If the film is racy and vibrant enough to keep my attention, then I easily ignore the inconsistencies, the inadequacies and even the loopholes.
And hence, quite simply, this is not a movie review.
I watched “Ludo” on Netflix on the eve of Diwali. It was a lazy, sprawled out and particularly quiet evening, with no calls or meetings, no frenzied texts, and no impending deadlines. It was the beginning of a watertight mini vacation, away from the continuous prodding of uncertainty and work demands which have come to define much of this year’s professional world.
Ironically, I chose to watch Ludo on an evening which had dialled down the uncertainty. Ironic, because Ludo the movie, just like Ludo the game, is all about luck, chance, and uncertainty. There is little you can do in terms of strategy, and even that can blow off in the wind at any – and every – roll of the dice. You can neither plan a victory nor avoid defeat in Ludo, and the movie shows exactly that.
Initially, I had trouble keeping up the multitude of characters and their backstories in the film. The film opens like the doors of a choked-up dam, and stories flow out like cascades of overwhelming water held behind the wall for too long. Consequently, the characters whizzed in and out before I could grasp them; the only instantly unforgettable actors were Pankaj Tripathi (the goon Sattu) and Rajkummar Rao (the dhaba owner Aalu), both as immersed in their roles as fishes in the (overflowing) water. I was incapable of imagining anyone else in their place.
All games must begin with a random move, and so does the movie, but I always wonder – does it begin with the roll of the dice, or when one of the players picks it up, inadvertently deciding to go first? Does the movie begin with a murder Sattu (a fitting dice indeed!) commits, or is the viral sex tape of Akash (Aditya Roy Kapoor) and Shruti (Sanya Malhotra) the starting point?
Just as players occasionally cross paths during the game, so do multiple stories entangle and disentangle from time to time. The four main players – Alu, Akash, Rahul (Rohit Saraf) and Bittu (Abhishek Bachchan) are the crux of the movie, but the characters in their stories have their own stories with characters that circle back to impact the four main players. Hence, Alu tries to free the husband of his childhood sweetheart Pinky (Fatima Sana Shaikh) from jail, and Akash tries to keep Shruti’s fiancé from discovering their impromptu mission of solving the sex tape puzzle.
Through all these years of playing Ludo, I have frequently noticed that the spaces on the board are too small, and whenever players intersect or land on the same square, some space adjustment is due. I saw it represented in the movie too; there is really no space for wholly independent stories, and the characters are forced to share the small world in which they operate.
Bittu and Sattu share a past, and Sattu sees a relationship blossom with the head nurse of a hospital where he is admitted. Coincidentally (!) one of the nurse’s colleagues is an unintended partner to Rahul in trying to push Sattu off a bridge. Akash’s lawyer brother approaches Sattu when the police do not help with the sex tape; Alu is helping Pinky’s husband who has been held for the murder committed by Sattu, and Rahul joins the game by simply witnessing the murder in the most cringeworthy manner possible.
What emerges is a complex web in a compact space; sure, they are all moving on different paths, but more frequently than not, their interests, problems, and limitations bring them in the same constricted space and lead to crunches and punches before either of them can move ahead and loosen up the situation.
And yet, I still haven’t addressed the elephant in the room, that is uncertainty. Nothing that any player possesses – be it money, smartness, brute strength, sincereness, honesty, kindness, stealth, love, loyalty, or plain decency – nothing ensures their victory. Their decisions are based on their assumption that they are in control, when they simply aren’t, and the googlies which life throws at them just when they think they have achieved a goal are testimony to the disillusion.
I could not predict neither their journeys nor their ends, nor could I guess which of their qualities would actually play a role in determining their fate. In the game as in life, we might possess many admirable qualities, but just as an apple, however rosy and sweet it may be, is irrelevant for baking a pumpkin pie, these qualities could very well be useless for winning the game we are playing.
What then, ticks? Luck. With all faults, follies and fortes operating at full force, luck makes the difference. It’s the same dice that rolls for all, but luck determines who goes ahead, who’s safe, who wins. Luck’s favours are unpredictable and uncertain, and no matter how well a player performs, there is a small voice in his head whispering, “what if?” As the movie shows, not even the dice is spared from it; just as we total up the wins and losses of the game at the end, uncertainty doles out a googly for Sattu as well.
Rahul Bagga and director Anurag Basu, in the roles of Chitragupta and his companion Yamraj respectively, bring a philosophical colour to the movie. Throughout the movie, Yamraj and Chitragupta are rather aloof witnesses of the entire frenzied story, amused at the turn of events and the strongheaded players who march towards their goals with purpose and confidence, blissfully ignorant of the fact that it is the dice which determines their moves.
Furthermore, Yamraj points out that even the dice is a victim of uncertainty; it has a false sense of control on the players, when it is really uncertainty playing them all along. And hence, Ludo the game, just as Ludo the movie, has five, and not four players.
The movie’s climax is as chaotic as the rest of it. As the dust settles, I had the familiar “happy ending” feel of Bollywood as it gift-wraps up each players’ story with a nice ribbon. The only disappointing end is of Bittu, the player who loses the game. I see no point in asking why him; someone had to lose anyway. Yet, Bittu’s gentle heart and unexpected conscience, and the fact that he achieves his goals (helping the girl and his estranged wife and daughter) before his death made me question whether, in his death, he had really lost.
Ludo got me seriously thinking, for the first time in my life, about life and cinema intersecting each other. The movie has come at a time when both luck and uncertainty are bang in our faces. It reinforces what we have known all along – that we cannot control much, not even as the powerful, influential dice. Only the game is certain, and all we can do is keep playing our way.
Gauri Noolkar-Oak is a transboundary water conflicts researcher and has studied river basins in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. She is also the Founder of Lokmaanya.
The views and opinions expressed in the above article belong to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official opinion, policy or position of Lokmaanya.