* With Shabana Azmi in the lead role, the fantasy horror film has opened to mixed reviews. While some critics panned the 90-minute production for a weak script and characterisation, several others praised it for Azmi’s performance and the visual tone

Film-maker Terrie Samundra grew up listening to folk stories of Punjab. Even when she moved to Los Angeles, she went back to those tales, narrated by her mother during their stay in a village near Jalandhar, Punjab, in order to keep memories of her childhood alive. But it was not just those stories that she took with her to the US . Samundra’s mind was never free of the blood-curdling reports of female infanticide in Punjab. Her first feature film — Kaali Khuhi (black well), which released on Netflix last week — puts the issue under spotlight. With Shabana Azmi in the lead role, the fantasy horror film has opened to mixed reviews. While some critics panned the 90-minute production for a weak script and characterisation, several others praised it for Azmi’s performance and the visual tone.

Here are edited excerpts from an interview with Samundra before the launch of Kaali Khuhi .


Director Terrie Samudra is based in Los Angeles


What was the seed for the film and how did it land at Netflix, considering it is more regional (Punjab) in its setting?

I had already made two short films set in my village in Punjab. Though Kaali Khuhi is set in a fictitious village, its aesthetic is inspired by this small village in the Kapurthala district. I wanted to do a feature set in that same rural backdrop. Stories about ghosts I had heard growing up were part of the inspiration too. I have always been interested in the grounded aesthetic of a fairy tale. That, coupled with my concern and anger for issues such as female infanticide, came together in this project, that Netflix immediately said yes to.

Why horror? What instruments were you looking for when you decided to go with this genre for a subject as serious as this?

I could have just taken my camera and made a documentary about this. But as a storyteller I found it more liberating to use fictional tropes, the power of surrealism, for example, and other allegories. Because my objective, I felt, was to create a good story and hold the audience’s attention. I don’t just want to disseminate didactic information. I want to pose questions that I hope the viewer will take away. Because that is what would start a conversation.

This is your first feature, and it also comes with the challenge of helming a sensitive subject. What have been your learnings?

Every day was a challenge in a beautiful way. But that challenge is really what the film-maker lives for. This feeling that you are creating something. And when certain things come together, magic happens, as they say. You feel it. Everyone on the set can feel it. We shot in peak summer, half of our production days were night shoots. We were working with all kinds of things — animals, cow dung, fake blood and three kids as the main stars. So it was never a dull day, so to speak.

You had quite the range of acting experience to manage as a director. On the one hand you had Shabana Azmi; on the other, a 10-year-old girl. How did you draw performances from both?

Working with someone like Shabana- ji is a lesson in itself. When she was on set, everyone brought their A-game, because she just inspires it in you. As for the kids, they are stars. I think it is a misconception that kids cannot be good storytellers. I think they are very perceptive and the kids on my set were just excellent. They, of course, did not know everything that was happening in the film, and I wanted to keep it that way, but that did not stop them from delivering performances that I am very proud to have overseen.

Punjab has a long history of female infanticide, dating back to colonial years when the British had to pass laws to prevent it from recurring. Did this become too personal or painful?

My mother was a Punjabi poet and a writer. This tradition of storytelling and poetry was passed on to me. But she was also a staunch feminist. I come from a family with lots of women and girls, and I am lucky that I grew up in a household where we were encouraged to ask tough questions. My mother wanted it to be that way. It obviously came from a place of her having fought her own battles for agency. So the inspiration may also have been personal. As for the actual stories of infanticide, I had heard these over the years and I did my research as well.

Punjabi families and culture have often been fetishised for its humour by mainstream Hindi cinema. The region’s own films now lean towards comedy, which is a big sell. How crucial does such cinema as yours then become?

My family is quite fun too. Punjabis are big on humour... But you are right, Punjab has such a painful history, so many stories that are just waiting to be told. Comedy, too, has its place. I can’t say with confidence that I can do a comedy, but it certainly takes a special something. There are short films and indie films being made on more serious subjects, by film-makers such as Gurvinder Singh. But there is obviously lots to explore, a lot that needs to be said and shown. If Kaali Khuhi , opens the doors for similar stories to be told from the region, I would be really happy.

Manik Sharma writes on arts and culture