Shabana Azmi: We must create zero tolerance for female infanticide
We speak to Shabana Azmi and the lead cast of Kaali Khuhi, a Punjab-set horror film out on Netflix
An early prototype of the feminist horror film in India was Vishal Bhardwaj's Makdee. Unfolding in the rural North, the 2002 film followed a young girl trying to rescue her intrepid twin sister, who she believes is trapped by a witch. In the end, the witch is revealed to be an impostor mining for lost treasures under the village soil.
Makdee, though essentially a children's film, packed enormous scares into its Scooby-Doo narrative, drawing a genuinely frightening performance from Shabana Azmi, who played the eponymous 'makdee chudail'. So startling was Shabana's performance (seen, by this writer, when he was just eight) that it's both nostalgic and a tad underwhelming to watch her in Kaali Khuhi (2020), a fertile but tepid horror film streaming on Netflix India. Dropping her Makdee locks, Shabana assumes the role of Satya Maasi, an elderly woman chronicling the crimes of her Punjab village. When a young girl, Shivangi (Riva Arora), arrives next door, she helps her free the village from an age-old curse.
Shabana says she was drawn to the film for its pertinent messaging on female infanticide. "I find it shocking that, in the 21st century, female infanticide exists and yet we carry on with our lives as if everything's normal. We need to create an awareness in society for zero tolerance for female infanticide. To do it through a feature film is perhaps the strongest way to put the message across."
There's a scene where Satya Maasi tells Shivangi that she represents the 'new generation', and thus can end the circle of oppression in her village. This, Shabana agrees, is the central premise of the film. “All over the world, it's the youth that has been the harbinger of change," she says. "For instance, the way our generation has traditionally looked upon the LGBTQ community is vastly different from how young people of today view it. For them, it's not even an issue. So it's only natural to hope that they will be able to break the vicious cycle of infanticide."
Shabana recalls the strenuous experience of shooting Kaali Khuhi, filmed mostly at night and featuring ghastly set-pieces, including one where she's sprayed by blood from a buffalo's udder. The animal, nicknamed 'Twinkle', is shown being herded to safety at the film's end. Riva, who has previously appeared in films like The Surgical Strike, Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, and Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, admits feeling 'scared' of her bovine co-star. "She kept mooing and making sounds in our last scene.... The moment they called cut, I just ran like a rocket," laughs the 10-year-old.
Actor Sanjeeda Sheikh, who essays Riva's mother, ranks horror as her genre of choice (she'd also done the web-series Gehraiyaan). "It's always challenging to react to unnatural instances and still keep it real. So this is certainly a space I enjoy most. Of course, when a horror film comes attached with a relevant social message, it makes it more exiting," Sanjeeda shares.