Recently, I put a call out on Twitter to women and non-binary horror filmmakers to see if anyone had a feature they needed assistance signal boosting, particularly in the face of the global horror story that is the Covid-19 pandemic, spreading as it is well into this current year. Not expecting much but curious, I have been struck by the diversity and quality of much of the work that has come my way, often from parts of the world that I have to admit I have a limited knowledge of in terms of its genre output.
This all led me, through the generous introductions of my colleague Josh Hurtado, to a number of Indian women genre filmmakers, including US-based Terrie Samundra, whose feature film debut Kaali Khuhi (The Black Well) recently premiered on Netflix. Reading about her impressive background, I was struck that this film had somehow completely fallen off my radar. But, looking at a lot of other film critics I know on Twitter who share my interest in women’s horror filmmaking, I saw that I was not alone.
Raised between rural India and small-town Missouri, Samundra’s practice has been supported by such impressive programmes such as the Sundance Institute’s International Screenwriters Lab, with Kaali Khuhi being included in the 2018 Sundance Women in Film Financing Lab. So how did I miss this film? An algorithm glitch, perhaps, or my own scroll-blindness, but regardless, my sense is that if I have missed this film – as attuned to women’s horror filmmaking as I’d like to think I am – I do wonder how many others have missed it, too.
Hidden in plain sight, Kaali Khuhi is a horror delight for those willing to open their mind to genre entries that fall outside typical Western fare. Starring an impressive Riva Arora as Shivangi, she is a young child at the heart of the film’s drama and its unlikely heroine. The film begins as her grandmother falls ill, her distraught father taking Shivangi and her unimpressed mother to the small village where the old woman lies ill. Almost instantly, through her newfound best friend Shivangi discovers that the village is riddled with dark secrets, all of which lead to a mysterious, spooky room on the top floor of her grandmother’s home, marked by the presence of the ghostly, ghastly spectre of a girl around her own age marked by a signature red dress. As Shivangi’s family falls apart, her desperation to unpack the mystery that haunts the village becomes more urgent, revealing that the ghosts of the patriarchy can manifest in ways we might not typically expect, all leading back to the black well of the film’s title.
Kaali Khuhi is on one hand a fun, familiar horror movie that knows the genre’s codes and conventions well enough to take us on a journey that while for many of us in the west unfamiliar with Indian horror might seem at first disorienting, hits all the right buttons. But the real joy of this film is in its telling; shot almost completely in the pouring rain, there is a sensorial intensity to the film that brings that feeling of rushing out of the rain to take cover to life, giving us that sense of somatic urgency that transcends our intellect and hits us more on a level closer to a physical kind of sense memory.
Even more importantly, however, is Shivangi herself; Arora puts in a performance that is hugely impressive for a girl of such a young age. Whether she understood the nuance of the film’s broader themes is ultimately neither here nor there; as the film makes explicit, in Kaali Khuhi, it is the next generation of women who must fight, who must struggle, and who must persevere to overcome the patriarchal ghosts of the past. Their very lives depend on it.