Now streaming on Netflix, Kaali Khuhi takes place in a village within the Indian state of Punjab, where female children were once killed as soon as they were born — a dark ritual from the past. When a young girl named Shivangi (Riva Arora) visits her ailing maternal grandmother, a series of horrific incidents affect the residents of the cursed zone. I recently discussed Kaali Khuhi with director Terrie Samundra.
Dipankar Sarkar: The wandering spirit in Kaali Khuhi conceals a secret that neither Shivangi nor her mother, Priya (Sanjeeda Sheikh), has any way of unraveling. But Darshan (Satyadeep Misra), his mother, and Satya (Shabana Azmi), who lives in the adjoining house, are well aware of the bitter truth. How did the idea of the film occur to you?
Terrie Samundra: I’ve always been drawn to the darker undercurrents of the human story, with a love of genre cinema. Punjab is almost always shown to be bright, colorful and romanticized. There is truth in that, but with Kaali Khuhi I was interested in exploring gothic darkness, one that comes from quieter spaces and dark childhood folktales; stories told in secret, passed down from generation to generation.
From a young age, I was surrounded by women who shared old tales and ghost stories. Navigating the narrow pathways and alleys of our village, I had a mental map of every ghost story from different homes. One that my mother told me has always haunted me, from when she was a little girl. It’s the story of a young woman and her baby girl who lived at the bottom of a well at the edge of an old field. They stayed to themselves and harmed no one, but if villagers used the well, soon after they would fall ill and die. Growing up, I also heard stories of “kudi mar,” the practice of female infanticide. These stories were, most of the time, masked with the intricate layers of cultural complexity rooted in patriarchy and long-seated traditions. Piecing the stories together, I learned the history of gender discrimination and violence woven into my own family’s story. That legacy of trauma and pain carried down through generations.
The seed for Kaali Khuhi began when I started to imagine what it would be like to actualize the liberation of a painful past and set free the trapped ghosts of a cultural poison using the visual art form of cinema. The idea of Shivangi, a young girl called to free her village from its horrific past, began to materialize. Shivangi, destined for the hero’s journey, embodies deep empathy and a supernatural connection to the tortured spirits.
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DS: Satya is a woman who has recorded the plight of the daughters disappearing from the village in a scrapbook. Can you explain her characterization within the framework of the storyline?
TS: Satya is a woman who lives with deep guilt — she was present at the birth of her niece (Sakshi) and is forever haunted by the memory of the moment when she had the child in her arms. She believes she could have escaped with her. She and her sister come from the same world and same family yet are very different in their approach to dealing with their past. One buries her emotions and goes along with the program, the other carries her heart on her sleeve as well as guilt and resentment. Both women are caught in a cruel system.
Because Satya lives in the past, burdened by the idea that she could have changed the course of her own life and — most importantly — saved her niece’s life if she had only the courage to stand firm in her own beliefs, the idea of “only if” haunts her. This is a universal notion all humans struggle with. We are all riddled with the choices we’ve made. But what Satya has done is to chronicle the stories of the village through her fairytales. This is her form of witness and empowerment. A village woman who writes is a powerful act itself. She has also found redemption by adopting and raising an unwanted girl, Chandni, so in many ways, she has found her forms of resistance, strength and healing.
DS: Does Priya’s illness indicate that the village has been cursed, and why didn’t you provide her character with a backstory?
TS: We learn a lot about who Priya is and her relationship with her child, her mother in law and her husband in the first few scenes of the film after the cold open. We also learn more about her when her mother-in-law is talking to her about their shared history, and again when Priya tells Shivangi that Shivangi is perfect as exactly who she is.
All characters have a backstory, but it doesn’t always need to be explicitly spelled out or spoken in expository dialogue. I never saw any reason to give any more information about her in an expository way, when the cinematic language and her arc reveals so much more.
DS: When Shivangi goes to the pharmacy to fetch medicine for her, she gets to know about the deceased girl Sakshi. Was that the only purpose of the scene?
TS: The purpose of the scene is multifold. On the way to the pharmacy and the return, there are visual metaphors, such as the puddle of now dead frogs and the empty lanes shrouded in mist, which again follows the narrative arc of the village and characters. When the girls turn the corner and arrive at the pharmacy, they come upon a crowd begging for help and medicine. Here, we understand the villagers are falling ill and see the larger picture. There are two women who talk amongst themselves about what’s occurring and they both have different ideas. They share personal stories that Shivangi and Baby overhear. Directly after, Shivangi shows the book that she’s secretly taken to Baby and asks her what the names are that are written in it. From inside the book, a photo falls out which is a photo of her Dadi, pregnant, and her father as a young boy. On the back of the photo is the name Sakshi, only a clue. She doesn’t know yet.
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DS: The film raises the issue of female infanticide and indicates that women are the actual culprits who carry out the heinous crime. We don’t see the participation of any male members. Why is it so?
TS: This is a singular story — it’s not a documentary on the practice of female infanticide. It’s about one family and a small village’s history. Women were present at birth, and they were just as many victims of the patriarchal practice as others. But to dismiss that they did not participate would be unjust and naive. I neither wanted a group of men telling women what to do or to be the heroes of the film. This comes from a personal exploration of my own family. I wanted the women front and center. I also do not believe Darshan is absolved. I’ve noticed that there is a natural tendency to see him as a victim, but throughout the story, he has many opportunities to speak up and he doesn’t. He chooses and benefits from the system.
The film was never meant to indicate that the actual culprits are women, but it’s an important point of discussion. I believe if that’s the takeaway, then it’s a simplistic misreading of the story. I’ve always been a firm believer in choice and self-determination for women. That to me is the core of feminism. It’s the liberation of humanity. Our liberation is interwoven, and women and girls continue to be the victims of a deep-seated oppressive system. We are all bound by this fabricated web of power and control known as patriarchy, which rots the core of everything and I believe it takes all of us to dismantle it.
DS: There is a certain level of minimalism in the design and style of the sets and locations. How did you decide upon the production design of the film to give it a stroke of authenticity?
TS: I worked with an incredible production designer, Monica Bhowmick, who designed everything. She has impeccable taste, is very detail-oriented and her research and specificity lend to the authenticity. On her team was art director Sameer Vidhate. Their entire team is phenomenal. The production design was critical to this film because it’s built as immersive and experiential, and the minimalism in the design reflects the style and aesthetics. The house and village are characters in the story. The bricks, the talisman, the elements in the room upstairs, the book... each detail is a story clue that Monica and her team created. Even the winding alleyways, an extension of the house and staircase, lend to a feeling of a maze in which Shivangi finds herself.
DS: The actors in the film range from a debutant child actor, Riva Arora, to a veteran actress like Shabana Azmi. How did you decide upon the casting of the film?
TS: We worked with Aadore Mukherjee, who is an amazing Mumbai-based casting director. She was committed to serving the story and characters most importantly. Our producers, Anku Pande and Ramon Chibb, were also instrumental in the casting and secured the exact actors we wanted.
I was over the moon when I found out that the screenplay resonated with Shabana Ji. She brought so much gravitas to the character of Satya Masi and built that character in a way I only dreamed of. It was truly an honor to work with her and our other stars, Sanjeeda Shaikh and Satyadeep Misra. Their vulnerability and honesty to the roles and stories created grounding and authenticity for the young actors.
I had worked with Riva Arora six months prior when we shot a test scene of the film. She is such a young, bright star, and we knew that we wanted her to play Shivangi. Chandni was the hardest role for open casting. It’s a demanding role for a child actor, and Rose Rathod killed her audition. She was uninhibited and got the character changes quickly. Hetvi Bhanushali was perfect for Sakshi, the ghost. She’s a dancer, and her physicality was critical to her performance. She’s also incredibly bright and intuitive, and sometimes she helped me to work with her co-stars in certain scenes that required physicality. We had a lot of fun behind the scenes, and my daughter Yamuna, who came to India with us, became close friends with all of them.
We worked with a Punjab-based casting director, theatre director Rajinder Singh, who compiled a fantastic group of regional actors for smaller roles. It was a dream for me to work with the two sisters Pooja and Amita Sharma, as well as Jatinder Kaur and Samuel John. Samuel does a lot of revolutionary street theatre, and he’s one of my heroes.
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DS: There is one sequence where a corpse is being taken to the crematorium when it suddenly catches fire. The pall bearers abandon the body and flee. Can you explain the importance of this particular scene?
TS: This scene can be read in many ways. When Dadi dies, it’s the son who leads the procession, and it’s the son who will perform the final rights of the mother.
This is the point at which Sakshi, the ghost, begins to spin out of control. Here, the ghost takes revenge by taking this final right from her brother and her mother. We chose for the spot where the body spontaneously bursts into flames to be in the middle of a bridge, a visual reference of Dadi’s spirit caught in limbo between worlds.
Sejal had also spotted the birds nesting below the bridge while location scouting, and because the birds are an important metaphor, it was a perfect “coming home” for Dadi, directly occurring in an almost underworld, a mass of young sparrows.
Throughout the film, the folktale of the sparrow and the crow, as a representation of the birth of a boy or girl, is woven into the film. And this scene also touches on that.
DS: The cinematography of the film pays special attention to the colour palettes and delivers a primeval austerity. Shots of the early morning fog also provide a sense of shrouding a harsh secret. Share your collaborative process with your cinematographer.
TS: We set out to build a world that felt like a dark fairytale or womb in which Shivangi travels to. I initially created a lookbook which I shared with Sejal, and we built off of that. I knew that I wanted the world to feel dark and rainy, and tonally blue. The colors were very important. There is little use of red, so when we do use it, it is with intention and very symbolic.
Red comes into play with the golla that Shivangi is eating at the beginning of the film, foreshadowing her connection to the ghost. Also, the color of the ghost’s dress is red. Working with Sejal Shah was a kind experience. He works with light in a very unique way. He calls himself an unlighted. He doesn’t attempt to light a scene but rather un-light it — and in that method, much of the film was shot with natural light.
We shot in the middle of May and June, one of the hottest times in Punjab. To tackle this problem for our main set (Daadi’s house), Sejal and his crew canopied the entire house and sometimes the alleyway with a blue tarp to soften the harsh sun above. This also gave us a filtered blue light lending to the intentional look of the film.
We worked with a storyboard artist for our action sequences. For the rest of the film, Walter (associate director and co-writer) and I came to set every day with a shot list and then with Sejal made adjustments from there. Sejal is beautifully spontaneous and thoughtful with the elements, and in that way, the two methods worked perfectly together. We were able to be both spontaneous, and also stick true to the vision of the film that Walter and I had created.
DS: As we near the climax, we discover that the film derives the title from a mysterious well in the village, which is where several female babies were thrown in as a part of a despicable practice. What was your intention behind the title of the film?
TS: The title comes from a ghost story of my childhood, along with the fact that old wells are part of the landscape of Punjab. A Khuhi is a Punjabi word for a small well, it’s a feminine word. This is a tragic film, and the title feels dark and poetic like the cautionary call of a bird sitting in the fields above an old well before nightfall.
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DS: Why does Chandni gets possessed by the spirit?
TS: As the ghost of Sakshi spins more and more out of control, she takes her revenge upon everyone. Her form is that of a child, representative and reflective of the children in the film. Chandni is also a child that was allowed to live, one given will and life, but she’s fearful and intuitively knows bad things have happened in the past. Her fear makes her vulnerable. As the ghost searches for release from her pain, she lashes out at everyone in the form of revenge.
The possession of Chandni also comes from folktales and warnings young girls are given to not walk out in the evenings with their long hair open. This is said to be an invitation to wandering spirits.
DS: You had judiciously used Daniel B. George’s tense background music and kept the scary sound effects and jump scares to the minimum. What sort of suggestions were shared between you and your music director regarding the score of the film?
TS: Danny and I worked very closely on the score. I shared with him my inspirations, along with my ideas for particular auditory story elements. This film is not traditionally what Danny does, and in that way, it was exciting for both of us. He was open to experimentation and exploration and working in a more ambient space. He’s an incredible composer, and it was like magic for me to witness his working method. I would say one thing and he would directly take that and interpret it musically, with his mastery and language. I’ve always gravitated towards musicians as friends, and I’ve spent a lot of time with them, so behind the scenes, his studio and team were really fun. I just had a great time hanging out with them, and Danny is just a brilliant human and artist.
DS: In Hindu mythology, a buffalo is associated with Yamaraja, lord of death, and justice. Does it have any such significance within the narrative structure, especially at the end where Shivangi walks along with the animal?
TS: Twinkle represents many things. Firstly, she is a silent witness, she’s also tradition, and yes, in some ways she’s mythology. But the mythology is subverted, and instead of seeing it as death, she can also be seen as liberation in life. In the denouement, Twinkle does not stop when Shivangi stops but continues on her path, and I like the idea of wondering where she’s going and where she’s at. I also thought Twinkle brought a breath of fresh air and levity and a tinge of humor and joy.
DS: Is the climax of the film an allusion or a dream sequence?
TS: That’s a great question, and I’m always curious what everyone’s takeaway is with the ending of the film. It varies, which I find exciting and what we intended. I gravitate towards films that create space for the audience to make it their own, and to build a larger world outside the frame and run time.
Dipankar Sarkar is a graduate in film editing from the Film and Television Institute of India and currently based in Mumbai. As a freelancer, he frequently contributes to various Indian publications on cinema-related topics.