Netflix’s new film Kaali Khuhi starring Shabana Azmi raises the twin spectres of female infanticide and internalized misogyny. Does it succeed?
Kaali Khuhi, on Netflix, is a movie that attempts to use horror on screen to explore the real life horror of female infanticide, and it is a worthy attempt. However, the message doesn’t come across strongly enough, and the blame is laid almost entirely at the feet of other women.
When I saw the trailer for Kaali Khuhi, I was truly terrified, and was unsure about whether I wanted to see the movie. However, I also knew that the film dealt with female infanticide – an evil that I think has no place in our society, and so I wanted to see how the film would approach it.
It also had the amazing Shabana Azmi as part of the cast, so I was sure it would be good.
Having watched it, I am conflicted.
Recently, many Bollywood movies have used horror as a framework to explore social issues. Pari, Stree, and Bulbbul, are examples of movies that have strong feminist messages. Even Phillauri, which was a rom com, revolved around a female ghost, and had something to say about the evils of both, colonialism and the patriarchal idea of a woman’s ‘honour’ being in her ‘virginity’.
Horror certainly can be a powerful medium of self-expression. For those who are traditionally marginalized, horror can be a way to reclaim power, and assert themselves. In the West, movies like Get Out have used horror as a way to speak about racism.
Kaali Khuhi aims to do the same, for female infanticide.
India is responsible for 45.8 million of world’s missing females over last 50 years, and that as recently as 2019, 132 Indian villages reported not even a single girl being born for three months. Needless to say, sex selection based on misogyny is a plague on our society.
Speaking to Film Companion’s Gayle Sequeira, Shabana Azmi, who plays Satya Maasi, says, “It’s outrageous. This is not something that only happens in villages, but in metropolitan cities too. Clinics have hoardings saying that sex selection is banned, which means that it was being practiced in the first place. Why do we not focus on it with the same horror that we do when we hear about murder?”
In Kaali Khuhi, Riva Arora stars as the ten year old Shivangi. Her grandmother (Leela Samson) falls ill, and so her father (Satyadeep Mishra, playing Darshan), takes her and her mother (Priya, played by Sanjeeda Sheikh) to their native village to take care of her. Once there, things start spiraling out of control quickly, and it falls on her to save her family and her village from the sins of their past.
The film certainly has its spine chilling moments, but it isn’t quite as terrifying as I thought it would be, which for someone who does not enjoy jump scares, was a big plus. Which is not to say that there wasn’t blood and violence – just that it was a lot more muted than I expected it to be. It is creepy, without being overwhelmingly frightening.
The scenes involving infanticide were sensitively shot, conveying the horror of the practice, without dwelling on the violence of it. The cinematography is excellent, and I particularly appreciated a shot, set on a bridge over a stagnant body of water, where a dead body spontaneously combusts, and the woman’s son, knowing that it is futile, still tries to put the flames out. His despair (at not being able to complete the last rites for his mother), and his guilt (from the knowledge that it is punishment), are both framed beautifully in that scene.
Also to be appreciated is the fantastic cast of women. Apart from a couple of male actors, it is a movie that largely gives screen space to women, and each of them has a clear, well-defined role. There are no cardboard figures here. Be it Priya’s understated rage, or Satya maasi’s palpable guilt, or Riva’s innocence and quiet determination, they shine through.
And yet, the message against female infanticide doesn’t come through strongly enough.
For starters, the film bizzarely refuses to clearly name the problem, and keeps referring to it only as an ‘evil tradition’ that must be stopped. The sudden ‘reveal’ (which I had already guessed) that leads to the climax, and the ambiguous ending don’t really help either. I appreciate that there wasn’t any filmy melodrama, but I also think that things could have been a bit more on the nose.
Another issue that I have with the movie is to do with the fact that it lays the blame for infanticide solely on women. In Kaali Khuhi, it is women who make regressive statements, women who urge other women to kill their babies, and women who do the killing. The lack of men (even though it contributes to a strong female star cast) in this context is baffling. Even Darshan, who is quite a misogynist, gets an out – he was a powerless child, when the event around which the film turns happened. He still suffers for it – but at least he gets the opportunity to defend himself.
Internalized misogyny is a reality, and women do give patriarchy oxygen. I get that, and I appreciate that the film takes that on. But to discuss female infanticide, and not talk about how the male desire for sons plays a role, does not make sense to me. In real life, women are often pressured by their spouses, to give them a son. To either abort or kill their female child, or to repeatedly give birth till a son is born. Why the film chooses to ignore this, is something I cannot understand.
Despite its shortcomings, the film does give one a lot to think about. If you like your horror nuanced, Kaali Khuhi is a good watch.
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