Something bad is going to happen… begins the movie Kaali Khuhi, streaming on Netflix. Darshan’s (Satyadeep Misra) mother is ailing in a village in Punjab; with his wife Priya (Sanjeeda Sheikh) and 10-year-old daughter Shivangi (Riva Arora), he sets on a journey to check on his mother.
Right from the opening scene, the movie creates an ambience of mystery. Even before we get introduced to these characters, plays a montage that goes as follows. During a dark night, a villager opens up a black well (the titular significance), he gets pulled into it. It is raining; another villager finds a young girl walking alone and offers to give her a lift. She reaches the village and knocks on a door; this is where Darshan’s mother (Leela Samson) lives. The spectre chooses the room on top of the house.
Then we see Shivangi sucking on a gola. There is a well and there is a deadly secret resting deep within it…
So, back from where we began. On reaching the village, they find the grandmother in coma and the neighbour, aunty Satya (Shabana Azmi), looking after her. We get a glimpse of discord between the couple, as Priya has reservations about her mother-in-law and doesn’t want to be there while Darshan is determined to tend to his mother.
Amidst all the conflict is the protagonist Shivangi. She can sense trouble between her parents, she feels the presence of a spirit around, some eerie events begin to unfold… a girl hiding under a bed, a dead rat in the cupboard, a reflection on a mirror… and Shivani sets out to solve the mystery. In her support are Satya maasi and her friend Chandni, an orphan girl taken in by Satya. Soon Shivangi becomes aware of the village’s past, a sin that is committed by her family and many others, something which has come back to haunt the entire village now. Highlighting the practice of female infanticide prevalent in the country, the story makes it obvious from the very beginning.
With a grey palette, the film is rather rustic, but instills constant scare with its tense sound effects. Although its narration falls weak and there are too many loose ends, its visual strength (kudos to Sejal Shah’s powerful cinematography) and background score (by Daniel B George) carry the film till the end. At the centre of the narration are women of three generations, representing the past, present and future. While Shivangi is the new generation fighting patriarchy, her mother is repulsed by it, but bears with it nonetheless; the older generation is shown as having played an equal part in promoting patriarchy. In fact, the movie shows those women as the main culprit whereas the beneficiaries of the custom have been the men.
Performance wise, although the characters are sketchy but the actors have lent sincere efforts. Shabana Azmi, who maintains a record of the disappearing daughters of the village in a diary, is unwavering as she carries such a painful history. The hero undeniably is Riva Arora. She may not be as polished as an actor, but her innocence and willingness to unravel the mystery take the story to its end. The other two child actors Chandni (Shivangi’s friend) and Hetvi Bhanushali (the ghost) are also praiseworthy.
In sum, such message-driven stories need to be told!