Once upon a time, between the 11th and 18th centuries, witches roamed the earth. Christians, Muslims, Hindus, animists of all stripes… all good believers responded to this plague of evil by rounding up the suspected witches and putting them to death. Whether they were hanged, burnt, beheaded, etc., this constituted a perfectly reasonable response to a perfectly real and in no respect exaggerated supernatural menace. At least, that’s the story our movie gives us. So for the moment we’re going to have to put aside any reservations we might have about what the survival (or, more likely, revival) of pre-Axial Age religious practice during that period really meant, and just — y’know — go with it.
Among the worst and most powerful of these enemies of all faiths was a child-eating witch named Kaalo, who stalked the desert of Rajasthan in northern India. Eventually she was stoned to death and buried by the outraged people of Kulbhata village. But powers of darkness released her from her underground crypt, and allowed her to travel through the sandy earth as an undead fiend. The residents of Kulbhata fled, leaving their town to be reclaimed by the desert as the centuries passed. From that time on, nobody ever followed the ancient road through Kulbhata… at least nobody who lived to tell about it.
Fast-forward to the present day. A crew of workers looking to widen and modernize the long-unused road are attacked by their own power tools and killed. Next, a party of four travelers, waiting at the roadside nearby for a bus, are possessed by the evil spirit and send wandering into the arid wilderness. And then comes the bus… a bus that just happens to be named Kismat (“Destiny”)
Aboard the bus is a standard crew of horror movie victims. In addition to the driver and the conductor, there’s the wise old Pandit and his wife. There’s the newlywed couple. There’s the wannabe-Hollywood photographer Hasmukh (who insists on only speaking English), and his beautiful model. There are four young men on their way to a wedding — Raghu, the leader; Chandan, his sidekick; Guddu, who’s always stoned; and Chhotu, who’s usually the butt of his friends’ jokes. There’s Shona, a little girl on her way to her grandmother’s house (though it’s much too hot in the desert for a Riding Hood). And rounding out the list is a tight-lipped, square-jawed, two-fisted tough guy named Sameer. Sameer is headed home after being estranged from his father for years. He wants to demonstrate his worthiness to return home by building a well for his village… and to do that, he’s travelling with a load of explosives hidden in his backpack.
Now, Sameer himself resembles a load of explosives in a rumpled backpack, and when he finds little Shona is sitting in his seat he’s not exactly pleased. But Sameer is no match for the sassy little girl, who isn’t intimidated by him in the least. A grudging friendship begins to build between them, one in which it’s clear little Shona has the upper hand.
When the bus reaches the point where its four last passengers were to be picked up, all that’s waiting by the roadside are four abandoned suitcases. Though the conductor and the passengers look all around for the missing travelers, the four are nowhere to be found. Not that any of them are particularly good at searching… they all manage to overlook the fact that the road ahead has been swallowed up by an enormous sinkhole… one that appears to lead directly to hell. It’s only when Shona almost falls into the sinkhole that anybody notices it’s there.
Well, says the bus driver, that means they’re going to have to continue by the other road. The Pandit turns pale when he hears this… the other road leads through the abandoned ruins of Kulbhata. Nobody who passes through Kulbhata ever makes it to the other side! The others think this is ridiculous; but the Pandit reaches into his bag and starts building a charm from chili peppers, a lemon and a knife. As the others watch in disbelief, he hangs the charm at the front of the bus. He demonstrates with his lighter that the charm cannot be burnt… proof that the goddess Kuldevi is now protecting them. As long as the charm stays intact, evil cannot reach them inside the bus.
Neither we nor the Pandit are terribly surprised when the bus had a flat tire right in the middle of the ruins of Kulbhata.
The Pandit and his wife stay in the safety of the bus, while the others explore the ruins. The photographer Hasmukh leads his model through several inexplicable changes of wardrobe, before complaining that the area has a kind of “M. Night Shyamalan” atmosphere to it (shudder). Shona and Sameer go off to skip rocks into a puddle. Guddu rolls an enormous joint. Meanwhile, the newlyweds go off to do what you’d expect newlyweds to go off and do, and ne’er-do-well Chhotu decides to go off on his own and spy on them.
Unfortunately for Chhotu, something else is watching him. He’s grabbed by something that emerges from underground, and is dragged off screaming. The others go to look for him; Guddu, stoned out of his mind, actually sits on the lip of the hole his friend was dragged into, without realizing where he is.
They eventually find Chhotu’s broken body thrust back up out of the earth, like a particularly ugly desert shrub. Nobody knows just what to do with him: they can’t just leave him, but on the other hand they can’t bring him back on the bus. Finally they wrap Chhodu in a shawl and tie him to the roof of the bus. Guddu is particularly hard-hit by his friend’s death, but everybody’s reeling in shock: no one can explain how he got killed, or how he ended up where he did… and in that condition. The conductor muses sadly that he had no idea what he was getting into when he painted the name Kismat on the bus…
…and then he is dragged away by an enormous flying creature — something traveling so fast the others barely register it as a blur.
It’s not long after that Kaalo the witch makes her first full attack on the bus. The Pandit’s charm may keep her from entering, but that’s a mere inconvenience: it doesn’t stop her from using her enormous iron pike to break the bus’s windows and go spear-fishing through the roof. Once she catches sight of Shota, she pauses her attack to leer hungrily through one of the few remaining windows. Her long, sticky pink tongue lolls out of her mouth and runs slavering up the glass. Twice. Kaalo has found her dinner!
When the others realize Kaalo has chosen the little girl as her victim, they immediately decide to try to save themselves by tossing her out of the bus. Sameer won’t let them: he promises to kill the first person who tries. The Pandit hurriedly informs the panic-stricken passengers that it doesn’t matter: anybody Kaalo sees is marked for death. And now she’s seen them all.
There are a number of good things about Kaalo that deserve special mention. At the top of the list is the monster Kaalo herself. She’s the CG-enhanced cousin of the wonderful rubber-masked creatures from the 1980’s movies of Mohan Bhakri and Vinod Talwar. When she slobbers over the bus window, or drools heavily with the anticipation of sinking her teeth into little Shona, or when she spreads her enormous CG wings and swoops down on her victims, she’s a joy to behold.
It’s not as though she’s strikingly original. Her obvious inspiration is the creature from Jeepers Creepers, right down to her bus-bound victims; and her one claim to originality as “the first ever day horror” is also bogus, as I’m sure a little research would have turned up some other hideous sun demon somewhere in motion picture history. But she’s a good old-school monster when she’s menacing her prey in full view; and when she’s speeding through underground tunnels with the point of her pike tearing through the earth above — like an iron shark fin — she still manages to come off as a palpable menace.
The pairing of Sameer and Shona is also one of the movie’s strong points. The Tough Guy and the Smart Kid can be cloying, but Aditya Srivastava (Sameer) and Swini Khara (Shona) manage to make the cliché bearable. Part of the reason is that the very young Khara is already an experienced actress: she made her debut as a very young girl in Vikram Bhatt’s glossy action flick Elaan (2005), and has worked regularly since. Cinema is in her bones. As for Sameer, he has his own incredibly cool theme music (a variation of the movie’s one-and-only song): whenever he has a surge of adrenaline, just before he charges into battle (usually to no effect), men’s voices in close harmony start singing a song in praise of Lord Hanuman. It’s awe-inspiring, and by the third time it happens all we need is a single chord to tell us the action is about to begin.
The rest of the cast is made up of one-dimensional characters; but then again, they’re supposed to be one-dimensional characters, so I guess it’s ludicrous of us to expect much more of them. Still, there are a few well-realized moments involving the others: for example, the way Chhotu’s napping in the sun on top of the bus is mirrored later by his corpse being strapped to the roof. Even pot-addled Guddu is given a humanizing moment, as he climbs blearily up to Chhotu’s body to keep him company. But these well-handled moments are the exception. The rest of the movie is filled with nonsense like Hashmuk’s fatal search for his lost hat. Even the Pandit’s big moment — which would have felt a little over-extended if it had been limited to about 15 seconds — is stretched out to a full minute through slow-mo, flashbacks, and reaction shots, and the result verges on parody. Perhaps it is parody. There’s such a thing as poor parody.
Even granting that some of the silliness of Kaalo was intentional, there are some things about it that really don’t work. First off — and this may be a deal-breaker for some people, which I would understand completely — it seems as though a poor Uromastyx lizard gets run over by the bus during the movie. We don’t actually see the squish, but the lizard has been lined up right in the path of the oncoming vehicle. The bus looks like it’s traveling much too fast to avoid it. Admittedly, most of the movie is dominated by special effects and visual trickery, so this may be a composite that was put together in the editing room; I just don’t know.
Aside from this, the movie’s main problem is the director’s preoccupation with style — what he thinks is style, at any rate. There’s barely a frame of Kaalo that hasn’t been processed and altered: there are jump-cuts, freeze-frames, missing frames, slow-motion sequences, fast-motion sequences, colored filters, distorting lenses, split-screens… for no particular reason other than the director knows how to do these things, and is insistent on showing us all his tricks. This sort of thing is common in today’s Bollywood, but even by contemporary Indian standards these techniques are applied with a heavy hand. Sometimes the extra effects make sense, as when Guddu (still high) starts seeing himself outside his body… but more often they interfere with the story & the action.
Here’s an example of how this obsession with technique stands in the way of the storytelling: at one point early on, Raghu is walking alone along a dusty path. The camera watches him at ground-level as he walks away. Then, suddenly, the camera rises and begins to follow him shakily. Anyone who’s ever seen The Evil Dead knows what this suggests: something has risen from the earth and is following him. The POV camera (for that’s what we assume it is) speeds closer to him… then appears to be following his feet… then suddenly jumps ahead of him (!), before falling back a bit. Then we get a view of what’s been stalking him: a tumbleweed, which approaches — not from behind him — but from his right flank. Aside from the fact that tumbleweeds don’t have a POV, the use of the traveling camera tells us nothing, and means nothing, which makes it an irritating distraction.
Another example: I can certainly understand why a film-maker might want to re-use the occasional special effects shot. SFX are expensive, so why not get the most out of them? But it’s not a good idea to repeat anything that’s extremely recognizable, or you’ll throw the audience out of the moment. It’s hard to suspend your disbelief when you realize the director is cutting corners. In Kaalo, though, a certain computer-animated sequence is shown once at about 4 minutes in, and again at about 42 minutes in… and it’s the shot with the movie’s title in it. Oops! It’s not very likely we’d forget where we’d seen that before.
Another of the film’s liabilities is the deserted city of Kulbhata… the abandoned, cursed, terrifyingly lonely city of Kulbhata, from which nobody ever returns. Oh, sure, in most shots the ruin is eerie and atmospheric, a desolate pile of brick and stone under the merciless desert sun. But our first sense that Kulbhata may not be as deserted as we’ve been led to believe comes when we see the hole into which Chhotu is dragged… it’s disguised with a rubber truck tire. When Guddu comes and sits on the tire, he sees in front of him a tire swing. Who builds a tire swing in a town that’s been deserted — and haunted by a bloodthirsty witch — for over 200 years? Did the witch need some play time? She’s got enormous leathery wings, for crying out loud… I can’t see how much entertainment she’d get out of a tire swing.
Then there’s this shot:
And shortly thereafter, we see this shot:
So it seems there’s a modern settlement right across the way, and a wind farm — a wind farm! — right in the witch’s back yard. These were easy shots to avoid, so there must have been a conscious decision by someone at some point to include them. What were they thinking?
Oh, but what the hell. Once you get past Kaalo‘s irritating visual style (and a possibly flattened Uromastyx), what remains is a fun contemporary update of the classic Indian monster movie… with far fewer songs.