No time can be more appropriate to release a film called Ludo when the household board game that it shares its name with, has become more popular than ever during the lockdown. But Anurag Basu’s latest work, which releases today on Netflix, isn’t really about playing the game. It’s about the characters who constantly dabble between sin and virtue in the hope of a second chance. And it’s about this enigma of the filmmaker who creates wondrous worlds of whimsy every time he writes a script.
We caught up with Anurag Basu who returns to filmmaking after three years (Ludo was initially meant to release earlier this year in theatres) and the domino to his four quarters, Pankaj Tripathi, just in time for the film’s digital release. Both share a great camaraderie and a common work ethic. Here’s what we discovered -
Anurag sir, your reputation precedes you when it comes to taking time on projects, but you managed to wrap up Ludo quite quickly…
AB: People forget that Gangster and Life… in a Metro etc all came out within a span of a year or so. Jagga Jasoos took time, yes. But that can’t always be the reason people presume that I take time on my films. There were many reasons for Jagga’s delay. But the truth is that I do make my films in a relaxed way, I do take some time. I started my career in television and worked really hard in that part of my career with quick turnarounds. I don’t need to be working at that speed anymore. I make films with ease now.
As the film follows multiple plots, there is a significant ensemble to cast as well. How did you put it all together?
AB: I find it easier to write a few names whom I can envision as part of my cast while I am writing the film. The actors who were cast eventually were all names that I already had on paper. I am extremely fortunate that I never had to approach my second choice.
Pankaj Tripathi was also cast in the same way. I called him one day and told him about Ludo, and he just said yes.
Pankaj sir, if you could tell us about your character ‘Sattu’ in the film…
PT: The kind of character I play in Ludo is one that exudes light and energy. Ludo is played with dice and the number you roll determines your pawn’s destiny, how it moves forward. It enters every story and twists it, and then moves on.
AB: To put it simply, Sattu har story mein ungli karke gayab ho jaata hai (He’s the guy who enters every story, does some mischief, and then leaves).
PT: And many-a-time, it’s on purpose.
Many of the actors have stated in previous interviews that Anurag Basu makes films much like this unpredictable googly. Actors reach the set and are told what they’re going to do, many details are changed at the last minute. Pankaj sir, was that your experience as well?
PT: Quite true. I didn’t have any clue about all the action I’d have to perform! Every day. I’d reach the set and be told - “today, you will fall from here… today, you will jump from there.” Dada came up to me and said, “sorry, I planned a lot of action scenes and didn’t tell you!” One day, I reached the set and saw a massive crane with wire ropes and chains. I asked a boy on set, “which film is being shot here?” He said, “yours, sir.” This is the first time I’d seen such massive machinery. Then I realized it wasn’t just my film, it was my scene and I had to hang from the crane. Dada does things like these.
So you didn’t get any time to prepare yourself...
PT: Nope. He just said, come to the set, eat and be merry. I guess not much preparation is required for an action sequence. You have to be well-rested when you arrive. Everything else is done by the technical team.
That sounds like your training from Mirzapur. Anurag sir, is that the character (“Kaleen Bhaiya”) that you saw and thought of casting Pankaj Tripathi as Sattu?
AB: No. Mirzapur hadn’t even been released at the time. Yes, they’re both gangsters but otherwise, Sattu is very different. When I met Pankaj for the first time, I asked him, “is there anything you haven’t done already?” This really put me under a lot of pressure because I promised him that Sattu would be something different. He has been instrumental in creating and putting a spin on his own character as well.
PT: Sattu is different from Kaleen Bhaiya even in terms of pacing, premise, plot, costume, everything. There is no comparison.
The character was constantly reinvented as the shooting went on. So what was it, Pankaj sir, that made you say ‘yes’ to playing the role so easily?
PT: I have been a big fan of Anurag Basu’s cinema for many years, and it was a huge opportunity to work with him. I’d have said yes no matter what role I was playing. He creates such a whimsical world. When we started working on Ludo, I realized that I am also a fan of his work ethic, process, and methodology. The kind of vibe is that we made the film having a lot of fun and with immense ease.
This is just the beginning. I will ask him to sign an agreement with me so that I can be a small part of each one of his films in the future (both laugh).
With Barfi and Jagga Jasoos, Anurag Basu’s cinema has come to be synonymous with a certain visual aesthetic, light usage, and colour palette, etc. Ludo doesn’t look like a continuation of that. This is often seen in Western cinema and the concept of auteurship when it is easy to identify a filmmaker’s work just on the basis of look and treatment.
AB: Ludo is a different genre altogether. Barfi and Jagga Jasoos look a certain way because that goes with the story. You can’t base your film on an aesthetic. It has to be the other way around. Nothing is greater than the story. My aesthetic, my treatment, my look cannot go beyond the story’s demand. When you can be true to the story, then everything else falls into place.
People forget that my films before Barfi didn’t follow an aesthetic either. Metro, Gangster, Kites… they were all different in look. I think I am still finding that one singular voice, but I also feel that my inner filmmaker will die the day people think that my aesthetic is becoming predictable. I can’t limit myself like that.
Ludo was initially supposed to be a theatrical release, and all your films have had a good run at the box office. What is the kind of reach you are expecting with the film now being released on Netflix?
AB: The OTT-partner is as important as your cast in this day and age. The platform should be as excited and passionate about your film as you are. I think Netflix has done a fabulous job in mounting the film on its platform. There are only pros, in the present day, and no cons to releasing Ludo on Netflix. People can’t go to the theatres and the film needs to reach them because it’s ready.
Pankaj sir, some of your major releases from the last few years have been online - Sacred Games, Mirzapur, Criminal Justice, Drive, Ludo, Gunjan Saxena - it's a significant list. How has the streaming revolution changed your life?
PT: Your question answers itself. People know me, they know I’m an actor in Indian cinema and television. I even get messages from people abroad. The revolution has certainly been instrumental in giving opportunities to not just actors like me, but also filmmakers and technicians. I also hope to see a change in the kind of cinema that is being produced, that it only gets better with time.
Music plays a huge part in all your films. Your collaboration with Pritam is legendary. And this film is co-produced by T-Series.
AB: The writing and the music of Ludo have been created simultaneously. The challenge was to justify the music in the structure and genre of the film. We had to ensure that the music doesn’t hinder the pace. Pritam, of course, has rediscovered himself. He surprises me every time! The background score is also incredibly fresh. He is a tremendous friend and along with my wife Tani, he convinced me to work on this script. Bhushan (Kumar) has also been extremely supportive of the film and Pritam’s music.
The classic song from ‘Albela’ - “Qismat Ki Hawa Kabhi Naram” - is part of the whimsy of Ludo’s world.
AB: This has always been one of my favourite songs. Initially, the scene in which Pankajji is riding in his minivan and singing the song was meant to have an original song similar to this one. We tried to get the rights to draw inspiration from the song because it really embodies the main philosophy behind Ludo’s story. Eventually, after we acquired the rights, we just went with using the song because it’s so resonant on its own. I enjoy all the songs from Albela… it’s a classic album.
Has it been a while since the two of you met? No offline promotions these days, unfortunately...
PT: It’s been a few months since we met.
AB: Yes, but we do chat up in the middle of these telephonic and video interviews (both laugh).
Ludo is streaming on Netflix. It co-stars Abhishek Bachchan, Inayat Verma, Rajkummar Rao, Fatima Sana Sheikh, Aditya Roy Kapur, Sanya Malhotra, Rohit Saraf and Pearle Maaney.