Anurag Basu spent his early career making broody thrillers for loaded producers. It’s perhaps why his recent works burst forth with such a childlike zest. Barfi, Jagga Jasoos, and Ludo represent a trio of juvenilia, like a mid-life dash for lost adolescence. All three films get swept up in an almost instant swirl of madness. The emotions, however, always shine through.
Ludo begins with introductions, narrated by two sutradhar-like characters, one of them played by Basu himself. Akash (Aditya Roy Kapur) is a budding ventriloquist trying to erase a sex tape with an ex-flame off the internet. He's followed by Aalu (Rajkummar Rao), a sometime con running a dhaba with his chums (Rajkummar's Mithun-style reading of the menu had me giddily replaying the scene). No such levity in Bittu (Abhishek Bachchan), an angry hoodlum recently released from jail. And lastly, there's Rahul (Rohit Saraf), a small-town boy as benign as his name.
With the chips firmly laid, Basu proceeds to jumble them up. It's love that topples the board. Akash tracks down Shruti (Sanya Malhotra) and tells her about their leaked sex clip. When she alleges he's there to blackmail her, turning up just a few days before her wedding, Akash is defiant but also asks her for the Ola money. Aalu, likewise, is short on cash but long on mush: he agrees to help out Pinky (Fatima Sana Sheikh), whom he used to love, despite knowing she's married now and has a child.
A fatherly longing also grips Bittu when he meets Mini (Inayat Verma), a little girl of roughly his own daughter's age (whom he's never met). Discovering that Mini has staged her own kidnapping and run off from home, Bittu sees a chance to solve both their problems. Rahul, meanwhile, is rendered homeless after losing his job at the mall, the same place frequented by Sreeja (Pearle Maaney), a nurse from Kerala.
Tying these disparate arcs together are the antics of whimsical gangster Sattu Tripathi. Narratively, he serves the same purpose as the debauched cop in Super Deluxe (2019). However, as envisioned by Basu and brought to delirious life by Pankaj Tripathi, Sattu is a delight to watch. He throws a dark jacket over a white kurta and chains, tops it off with sneakers and yellow shades, and carries a pistol holstered to his thigh. "Murder kar diye ekdum," he nods at Akash's Bachchan mimicry. “You killed it!"
Akash is there to seek Sattu's help with his porno problem - an arrangement that takes a backseat when there's an explosion and several characters are injured. Rahul, who was picked up by Sattu and his men in a previous scene, escapes with Sreeja with a boxful of fake notes, while Sattu lands in hospital. In a parallel track, Pinky's husband is arrested on a murder charge, leaving Aalu to arrange a huge amount of money in a short time.
Basu's 2007 film, Life in a... Metro, also featured four intersecting stories in a hyperlink format. Ludo is much lighter and chirpier in tone, though a common thread emerges. One of the director's pet themes is the tussle between modernity and love. Akash is described as a 'love-letter in the times of Tinder'. Mini's parents are busy careerists with no time for their child. The internet is frequently contrasted with older times: Sattu listening to Kismat Ki Hawa from Albela (1951) on the phone, Akash looking up Shruti’s rich fiancé on his laptop.
There are at least two scenes underlining the inherent filminess of these characters. Told that her husband is having an affair, Aalu asks Pinky if she ever thought something is amiss in her — a line he likely recalls from the 80s movies he watches. Elsewhere, Bittu, a tough, experienced criminal, has no clue how to make a ransom call; he's guided by Mini in exact Bollywood terms as he rings up her dad. Abhishek gets some memorable moments in the film — including a long silent stretch where he meets his daughter the first time — while Rajkummar is charmingly loud as Aalu (his sniffling asides whenever something emotional happens are a hoot).
Late in the film, there's a lull as multiple characters wind up at a resort. Humouring Shruti at the bar (they've teamed up to find the hotel room they were taped), Akash lets slip some of the bitterness that's been brewing in him. It gets worse the next morning, when he blames her for leaving him for a rich guy. Aahana's response to him is precise: "This is all I've been taught since a little girl," she says, ".....to marry a rich, handsome Mr Perfect." Sanya is brilliant in the scene, conveying her character's rage and confusion while cutting the smug Akash down to size.
As a genre piece, Ludo often falls short. The ending doesn't come together as favourably as Basu might have hoped. Unlike most multi-narrative films, there are no deep revelations about the interconnectedness of our fates. What is offered instead is the sheer thrill of the ride, an invitation to laugh and smile, and the kind of throwaway wisdom only found in Hindi films. It’s Sattu who sums it up: "You do good... good do you."
CAST: Abhishek Bachchan, Rajkummar Rao, Aditya Roy Kapur, Pankaj Tripathi, Sanya Malhotra, Fatima Sana Shaikh
STREAMING ON: Netflix