Saving and protecting the area where they live from evil and destructive behavior is a powerful motif that drives many successful horror and genre films. That compelling theme is a major driving force, both on screen and off, behind the new mystery drama, ‘Kaali Khuhi.’ The horror movie not only shows how a young girl saves her family and her neighbors from restless ghosts from their village’s past, but also supports up-and-coming filmmaker, Terrie Samundra in her fight against the centuries-old tradition of female infanticide in her native rural village in India.
Samundra, who grew up not only in rural India, but also a small farming town in Missouri and coastal California, made her feature film writing and directorial debuts on ‘Kaali Khuhi.’ The thriller, which has been sparking important conversations worldwide about the need to discuss and reevaluate outdated social issues surrounding women, was co-written by the filmmaker’s husband, David Walter Lech, as well as Rupinder Inderjit. The drama is now playing on Netflix, as one of the streaming service’s original movies.
In the dark fields of a rural village, ‘Kaali Khuhi’ follows a man as he breaks apart the remains of an old boarded up well that houses secrets of a horrific past. His act unleashes a spirit which has cursed this village in the past. Taking the form of a little girl, the spirit returns to wreak havoc. She sneaks her way into the house of a respected old woman, causing the woman to have a heart attack.
When Shivangi (Riva Arora) gets word that her grandmother has suddenly fallen ill, she travels to her village with her parents to care for her. There, Shivangi finds herself at the crux of a gruesome legacy and unforeseen future as the village is haunted. Events unfold revealing dark secrets. As the adults quickly grow incapable of helping, the fate of the village rests solely in Shivangi’s hands.
Samundra generously took the time recently to talk about co-scribing and helming ‘Kaali Khuhi’ during an exclusive interview over the phone. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed that the movie’s script was inspired by her feelings about the need to end gender violence in India, as well as personal experiences that her family has had in their village there. The writer-director also discussed how she enjoyed working with Arora and the rest of the young actors on the thriller, especially since there aren’t many films in India that are driven by elements of the loss of innocence in children before they come of age.
The conversation began with Samundra explaining what her inspiration in scribing the screenplay for ‘Kaali Khuhi’ was, and how she approached creating the plot for her feature film writing debut. “This is my first feature, so it was super exciting to have it greenlit from the script stage with Netflix; they gave me a lot of creative control,” she revealed.
“The script was very much inspired by family stories, my catharsis about how I feel about gender violence in India and personal family experience. I really wanted to go back to my village in India where I lived as a kid, and I have made films before,” the scribe, who has been writing, directing and producing short films since 2003, further shared. “I knew I wanted to make a feature film there that’s this Gothic ghost story.
“It was always meant to be (made) on a small scale, and as a result, I knew that things had to be contained. The village really exists as a character for me for a lot of my storytelling,” Samundra shared. “It’s changed a lot, so while we were location scouting, we found another village that was about an hour-and-a-half from mine, and looks like what mine did about 10 years ago. But the village was really a central character in developing the script.
“Shivangi, in some ways, allows me to channel myself, and my mom, sister and aunt. I loosely built characters that I knew,” the writer revealed. “Since the story is horror and genre…there were a lot of creative liberties that I also took.”
In addition to talking about penning the script, Samundra also delved into making her feature film directorial debut with the drama. She mentioned how working on the screenplay influenced her helming style on the set, and also described her overall directorial approach.
“I co-wrote the script with my husband, who’s also my creative partner. I write other things, both solo and with other writers, but he’s my primary creative co-writer,” the filmmaker divulged.
Once Samundra and her husband finished working on the story, “I had taken a look-book to producers. I had a pretty strong vision of how I wanted to execute the screenplay. It’s a very surrealist story, and I think another director could have taken it in a completely different route,” she noted.
“But moving from working on the script to directing to post-production always (makes the story) become something different,” the helmer pointed out. “You’re always learning to work within your parameters. We were shooting on location in this tiny little village…in the heat-our days were 110-120 degrees,” which presented some challenges to the cast and crew, especially since the story “was encased in this cold, dark fairytale, in which it was always raining. So we had to build that environment everyday. Also, we shot for 32 days, and pretty much half of our days were nighttime shoots.”
Despite the challenges the cast and crew faced while shooting the movie, Samundra shared that they still “had a lot of fun on set. I really love working with young actors and child actors. My daughter, who’s nine, came with us. At the time, the three main girls who are in the film, as well as my daughter, all became really close friends.”
The filmmaker added that her “intention was to build a really safe space for them, so that they could play and explore the story. But I also tried to shield them from the horror elements of the story that were too horrific and violent. I feel that kids are really more attuned with, and grounded in, the story than most adults. The three girls were in touch with this supernatural space that the adults are not, and that was so fun for me as a director.”
Further speaking about the cast, Samundra noted that “Shabana Azmi is a well-known Indian actress; she’s sort of the grande dame of Indian cinema, as she’s been working for 40 years. She was wonderful, and it was a great experience to work with her, because I feel like she really elevated me. As a first-time director, getting to witness how she works so deeply” was also a gratifying process for the director.
Following up on the process of collaborating with the actors once they were cast, Samundra also enjoyed the lengthy time they had allotted to build the characters overall. “I had about seven months prep before we moved into pre-production to work with the actors. Riva and I had done a test scene for Netflix, so I had experience working with her, and I thought she was amazing,” she gushed about the young actress.
Arora’s “so dedicated and natural. It’s a really demanding and physical role, as we were working nights, and getting muddy, dirty and rained on. It’s a very physical role, so she was phenomenal for our test,” the filmmaker shared.
When the young performer signed on to star in ‘Kaali Khuhi,’ “she had long hair, and I wanted her to get a little haircut that she has in the film, which is kind of an homage to my favorite Korean and Japanese horror films. Also, the haircut fit the character, and gave her a bit of uniqueness from the other characters,” Samundra continued.
But the helmer didn’t require Arora to do much rehearsal for her portrayal of Shivangi because “kids can get really stagnant when they think you want them to deliver things in a certain way. So I wanted to keep it really open and fluid,” Samundra shared.
“Once we solidified the other two girls, I got them together to eat pizza and ice cream, and just hang out and build a camaraderie and friendship,” the filmmaker added.
“They’re all such unique actors in the way that they work. The young girl who plays the ghost is a dancer, and she’s very physical in this role. She only has two lines in the film, and she brought this physicality to the role, which was perfect,” Samundra also shared.
“Then Rose (Rathod, who plays Chandni) had the exact look that I wanted for her role. She had to do some crazy things, as (her character) gets possessed. When I first met her, she basically acted her possession scene out, which blew me out of the water,” the helmer revealed.
“So those three girls were the core of what I wanted to build. There aren’t a lot of films in India that have kids as the leads,” Samundra noted. “Here (in the U.S.) there are a lot more shows, like ‘Stranger Things,’ that feature characters right before they’re coming of age.
“The girls in our film were about 9 and 10-years-old, which is a special, magical age. But you also feel like society is pressuring you to grow up, and you’re just about to lose this innocence,” the filmmaker pointed out. “So it was interesting to witness that on camera, as well as behind-the-scenes. We had a lot of fun…on set, behind-the-scenes.”
With the drama now streaming on Netflix, Samundra followed up on her experience of collaborating with the streaming service on the thriller. “When I initially set out to make the film, it was never my intention to go to Netflix, because it’s a small, arthouse, indie film. I’m used to making guerilla-style short films, but of course, you need money to make a feature film,” she noted.
“I went through the Sundance Women’s Financing Lab with the project. At the same time, one of our consulting producers here said, ‘You really need an on-the-ground producer in India,’ which I knew, and I had met with a couple of people,” the director revealed.
“It’s a Hindi-language film that takes place in India, which it was always meant to be. It’s very different working there than here, and I had previous working experience there, so I knew that” going into this film, Samundra added.
So the consulting producer “introduced me to Anku Pande, who was our producer in India. Anku had gone to AFI, and we had similar sensibilities in cinema,” the filmmaker continued. “So she read the screenplay, and she was so wonderful and professional; she never made me any promises. She said, ‘I’m going to try to do whatever I can, but I can’t make any promises until we get the greenlight and financing in place.
“So Anku took the project to Netflix India, and Netflix USA here had already read the screenplay, and they had liked it, as well. That happened by coincidence; I wasn’t going around town, pitching it to everybody,” Samundra noted.
“So Anku took it to Netflix India, and at the time, they had already set up an office there. One of the main executives there also read the script and loved it, so she said yes to it,” the helmer added.
“They really took a chance on me, as I’m a first-time feature director, and this isn’t a traditional film at all for India; it’s a really surreal story that isn’t appealing to the masses and all audiences. Indian cinema really isn’t known for Gothic ghost and moody horror stories,” Samundra noted.
But Netflix India still “greenlit the project, and it’s one of their originals. Then they gave us a lot of creative freedom to choose the cast that we wanted, and pretty much every single person we wanted said yes. (Netflix) also gave me a lot of creative freedom in the editing, as well as my team, including my director of photography (Sejal Shah),” the filmmaker divulged.
“So for me, as a creative, it was a really wonderful experience to have that faith from them, because I was essentially working in a studio system. But I was also getting a lot of freedom, which studios sometimes don’t give,” Samundra concluded.