Ludo begins on a prophetic note. The local don of the area, Sattu (played by Pankaj Tripathi), celebrates a not-so-clean kill by singing along to Bhagwan Dada's song, O Beta Ji, from perhaps the biggest hit of his career, Albela. The actor, whose dance steps reportedly inspired Amitabh Bachchan early in his career, found immense fame and wealth after the film – a 25-room sea-facing bungalow in Juhu, Mumbai, and a fleet of fancy cars. And then, as it happens in life and tragedies, he lost it all. The man who lived so lavishly spent his last days in a dingy chawl, doing bit roles in films, forsaken by his famous friends.
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Anurag Basu uses the song many times in Ludo, to underline how fate is a cruel mistress. With word and in spirit, the song becomes a part of the metaphor that Ludo is intended to be. It is a strange metaphor to pick when your story is weighing good and evil, and cause and effect while throwing chaos theory in the mix by way of mythology. Yes, Basu is overreaching, which is perhaps his best and worst quality as a director. The befuddling but zany Jagga Jasoos is a case in point -- few films are as polarising as that musical about a boy detective.
Ludo, despite its missteps, keeps it breezy, with its cast helping it to stay the course. With Pankaj Tripathi, Rajkummar Rao, Abhishek Bachchan, Shalini Vatsa, Fatima Sana Shaikh, Sanya Malhotra and Aditya Roy Kapur, it takes some time to set its world, and reveal the connections.
Ludo explores the idea how our lives form a skein of action and reaction, often a random act defining our course. Keeping with the Ludo metaphor, all characters signify the four colours of the game with Pankaj's character playing the dice, or the catalyst. Just as the flap of a butterfly's wing can produce a typhoon half a world away, a murder by Sattu sets into motion a series of actions that will jeopardize the lives of several characters.
Sattu, the don of Ranchi, kills the local builder after delivering a crispy line about 'making a fres start'. He kidnaps the sole eyewitness, a diffident mall employee (Rohit Saraf). On the way to his den, he also threatens the ex-wife (Asha Negi) of his former right-hand man Bittu (Abhishek Bachchan), who has just been released from jail.
Sanya Malhotra's character comes to meet a rich doctor as a prospective bridegroom, and finds Dr Akash Chauhan (Aditya Roy Kapur), who has a doctorate in Mongolian architecture and drops jokes about cows and capitalism as a part-time ventriloquist. Their tryst finds itself on a porn website with the dhoti-and-leather-jacket wearing Sattu as their only hope.
Pinky's (played by Fatima Sana Shaikh) life has also been irretrievably changed after the incidents of that night. As her husband is put behind the bars, she turns to her high school crush Aaloo (Rajkummar Rao) to get her husband out. Between pelvic thrusts a la Mithun Chakraborty and running a dhaba, Aaloo is actually pining for Pinky and nothing is too farfetched when it comes to making his ladylove happy.
As all of the characters come up with hair-brained schemes to dig themselves out of the hole, their lives keep intersecting. Basu weaves in romance, drama, thrill, tragedy, whimsy and slice-of-life in one film, while keeping it essentially a black comedy. The world is whimsical and absurd, with a sharp joke around every corner -- sometimes said by the characters, but mostly aimed at them.
People are run over by trucks, cars end up on train tracks and cranes ram into hospitals -- the physical comedy and broad humour are very much a part of Ludo's landscape. It all ends in a bonkers climax where everyone ends up at the same place and the bullets fly.
Basu manages to stir emotions at a primal level using colours, a device he has employed in his earlier films as well. Here, the characters are illustrated via the hues -- Abhishek's red stands for anger and passion, Rajkummar and Fatima's green signifies survival, Aditya and Sanya's easy-going romance fits perfectly with the yellow while Rohit and Pearl Maaney's blue portrays their childlike innocence.
For a film that gets so much right, the only jarring note is the title itself. 'Life is Ludo and Ludo is life,' the film's director tells us at the beginning, as he plays the game while wearing a chihuahua of a fake beard. For a game that was at best a 'time pass' during the dreary lockdown, that level of commitment is indeed commendable.