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Interview Hindi

This was the film that I dreamed of making, says Terrie Samundra on her debut feature Kaali Khuhi

The writer-director shares her influences and addresses some of the criticism that has come her way.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Terrie Samundra’s first feature film Kaali Khuhi (2020), starring Shabana Azmi, Sanjeeda Sheikh, Riva Arora and Satyadeep Mishra, recently released on Netflix. Her short films Kunjo, Ice Cream Wallah and A Short tale of Xuan, have all been screened at film festivals across the world and garnered several awards. 

Kaali Khuhi traces the experiences of a ten-year-old girl, Shivangi, who goes to her family’s village when her grandmother suddenly falls ill. But she realises that there is more to the illness than what meets the eye and learns of the gruesome practice of female infanticide in the village. As things start to spiral out of control for her family, Shivangi must save them and the village from a restless spirit who seeks retribution.

Samundra describes the film, in which socio-political commentary is interwoven with elements of horror, as being a surreal, arthouse, quiet film that straddles various genres instead of being an out and out chiller. “I love gothic storytelling. I’m not that interested in a creature feature or slasher films and really love atmospheric films. I am a fan of what you’d call elevated horror or grounded horror. I love The Babadook, which is such an interesting exploration of a mother going through grief. My goal [in the film] wasn’t just to build a lot of scares but it was about building a space that you could explore and I also think it’s a slower film than [the kind] most Indian audiences are used to,” she said, talking about the inspiration for the treatment and atmosphere of the film.

Speaking about her influences and the world that she wanted to build, she said, “I think there are already certain perceptions, so I knew going in that it was not going to be a film for everybody and that it was going to be challenged, but it was something that I deeply cared about and I wanted to try and I was excited by it and I got a lot of creative freedom and I’m very grateful for that. The film is almost of the same lineage as many of the Punjabi stories that I grew up with and the books that I read but instead of literature, I’ve translated it into cinema and I’ve subverted it a little bit using this gothic, ghost story. And if we talk about social issues, it’s such a keystone of genre filmmaking. it is used all the time to talk about really difficult issues like class, racism and capitalism. I think in India, it [horror] was coupled before with sex and what’s considered B [grade] cinema.”

Kaali Khuhi received a mixed response with people largely expecting more horror tropes and an explanation of events, which was hinted at but not overtly laid out. Samundra observed, “The thing with this film is that normally, a film like this would go to a film festival. I come from a film festival world, that’s my smaller cinephile community and this film released to a giant global audience in India so it would meet with people who did not know what to expect. Also, people are not used to seeing young girls as lead protagonists in feature films. There are no guns, no sex, no music and dancing, so there’s a lot of things that swayed different people in different ways but this was the film that I dreamed of making and I got a lot of creative freedom from Netflix and the executives and we knew that we were trying to do something different, so the response has been really interesting for me. A lot of young women, who have loved the film, have been reaching out to me. I’ve also got a lot of women who shared their personal stories that are connected to the history of the film story, which has been really powerful.” 

For the film, Samundra drew on ghost stories that she had heard as a little girl from her mother and other women in her family, growing up in Punjab. Kaali Khuhi draws on this film matriarchal lineage but one line of criticism has also been that the onus of female infanticide seems to be placed onto women.

Responding to this, she said, “I feel that that’s very fair and it’s something important to talk about. As I wrote the film, that was never my intention. There were things that were left on the cutting room floor and I take responsibility for that and I think that maybe because I was so deeply into the story. I felt that I did not absolve Darshan. I was interested in the complexity where he seems to be mild in the beginning but regardless of him being tame in the beginning, you see that he will do anything to not only hide but uphold the family’s history. I can see that this critique of the film through a feminist lens is important and I think it’s certainly valid. When I set out to tell the story, I wanted to keep it really contained and small and I was exploring the relationship between the women in my family and so, looking back that it’s a valid critique for sure.”

A still from Kaali Khuhi

Speaking about the casting of Azmi for the role of the Maasi or aunt, Samundra said that the actor was certainly her first choice and spoke about the ways in which Azmi developed the character. “I think she [Azmi] is such a phenomenal actor. She liked the script and asked me a ton of questions. She has such a curiosity for people and stories. She really challenged me and she’s such a master of her craft. She felt that Satya Maasi should have a uni-brow and built the character with the voice, the walk, everything. I remember one time we were getting ready to shoot and wardrobe had brought in a kurta for her and she said, this looks too new and so we got scissors and razers and were making the edges rough and old. She loves all those details and it doesn’t matter if you think the camera will pick it up or not, that’s the nuance that she works in,” she said.

As a writer-director, Samundra is energised by the creative fields and sees them as being essential to her being. Addressing the notion of art engaging with social issues, she said, “For me, art serves so many purposes and I have such deep respect for creators and artists. Whether artists realise it or not, there is a responsibility. I can't not make films and write. It’s something that’s important to who I am as a person and the way that I live. I don’t think that everything has to have a deep social message but I believe that the personal is political so even if it’s something that’s giving you joy, I think that’s powerful.”

Although the pandemic has made things difficult in an already unstable industry, Samundra has a few series lined up. Divulging a few details about one of the projects, she said, “ There is one series set in India that I’ve been working on for some time. It’s very different so we’ll see...it’s genre, deeply feminist… all of my work is helmed by young women or older women or girls but those are the characters that I’m interested in. It’s a sci-fi project that takes place in Punjab and Yuba city, which has a large Punjabi population.” She added, “It’s a pretty fickle industry but I’m always writing stories and developing screenplays.”

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