The popular board game that has become especially popular during lockdown gives Anurag Basu a framing device for his second anthology feature after Life… in a Metro (2007). In the Netflix original film Ludo, four separate stories are set into play by a gangster’s roll of dice. Written by Basu and also lensed by him and Rajesh Shukla, Ludo is a colour-coded saga of crime and consequence, with a bit of pitiless comedy thrown in.
The villainous Sattu (Pankaj Tripathi) is traipsing across Ranchi calling in his debts. Among those who come into his cross-hairs are Akash (Aditya Roy Kapur), Bittu (Abhishek Bachchan) and Rahul (Rohit Saraf).
Akash wants Sattu to help him make a sex video disappear. The video features Akash and part-time lover Shruti (Sanya Malhotra). Since Shruti is going to marry the man of her dreams, Akash gallantly decides to rescue the woman he loves.
Bittu has recently been released from prison and is aching to meet his daughter. Bittu’s ex-wife is steeped in debt, which brings Bittu in contact with Sattu, who happens to be his former boss.
It’s a small world. Rahul (Rohit Saraf), a put-upon salesman, has had the misfortune of witnessing one of Sattu’s crimes. Rahul will later get entangled with Sheeja (Pearle Maaney), a Malayali nurse who works in a hospital in Ranchi despite not knowing a word of Hindi. While the fate of Sheeja’s patients remains unknown, she turns out to be adept at more than just giving injections and changing bed pans.
On the periphery of this manufactured whimsy but drawn into it because of his thumping and bleeding heart is Alok (Rajkummar Rao). Alok’s devotion towards his childhood sweetheart Pinky (Fatima Sana Shaikh) compels him to step in when Pinky’s philandering husband gets embroiled with Sattu. A Mithun Chakraborty imitator with a mullet and a tendency to breakdance when he is distressed, Alok is a self-confessed “emotional fool” – which can be said about most of the characters in the 150-minute movie.
A force greater than Sattu binds man, woman and child – money. Nearly everybody is after it, from Bittu, who wants to meet his daughter, to Alok, who wants to help Pinky, to Sheeja and Rahul, who see the opportunity to escape their circumstances. Akash doesn’t care too much for lucre, but Shruti does – enough of an excuse to shoehorn their sub-plot into a narrative that doesn’t have a place for it.
Ludo has the strengths and weaknesses of Anurag Basu’s previous films – memorable characters, strong isolated scenes, slick production values, a soundtrack by Pritam, an unwieldy and overstretched narrative, and the feeling that individual shards of fun are not adding up to a coherent mosaic.
Basu’s screenplay includes ruminations on “sin and virtue”, the importance of second and third chances, and the irrational nature of life itself. Top-angle shots emphasise the feeling that we are watching a board game in progress. But the collision of players on the ground is often forced and merely an excuse to watch a bunch of well-written and performed scenes. “When luck suck everyone fuck,” Sattu observes (the dialogue is by Samrat Chakraborty).
Three stories stand out in the busy and only occasionally funny movie. Bittu becomes a willing accomplice to a girl his daughter’s age. The precocious and adorable Mini (Inayet Verma) forges a sweet bond with Bittu that pushes the hoodlum towards redemption. Verma and Bachchan are this movie’s best pairing.
Alok’s hopeless ardour for Pinky results in a steady supply of wackiness. Alok is described as a “use-and-throw” type, but there is nothing disposable about Rajkummar Rao’s superb blend of pathos and bathos.
The dependable Pankaj Tripathi ensures that the monstrous Sattu is a twinkly-eyed charmer. Little wonder, then, that Sattu captures the heart of another Malayali nurse. Sattu and Latha (Shalini Vats) have more fun together than the other nurse and her hapless companion, and qualify as the second-best couple in the movie.
Although the strand involving Akash and Shruti goes nowhere, it allows Aditya Roy Kapur to deliver one of the movie’s biggest surprises. Stripped of his usual mannerisms and correctly cast as the gentle and cool man Shruti should be marrying, Roy Kapur delivers the goods, for once.
The criss-crossing between characters is observed by a pair of commentators, including Anurag Basu. The duo settles down for several games of Ludo as plot strands intersect, unravel, and then bunch together again. This is so that we can delay the climax and go on and on, Basu’s character says – a reference both to the pornographic clip that has yoked Akash to Shruti together as well as the bloated narrative itself.