Terrie Samundra’s directorial feature debut, KAALI KHUHI, recently premiered on Netflix. The film tells the story of a young girl who discovers a curse in her father’s ancestral Punjabi village and must face the ghosts of the past in order to save herself. I had the pleasure of speaking with Samundra about her work, and she discussed how personal the film is to her, the importance of seeking out films by international directors and female directors of color, and how she worked to create “a beautiful ghost story” that will spark conversations and stick with viewers long after the credits roll.
Can you talk a little about what drove you to tell this story?
Terrie Samundra: This story is very personal. I had made a short film in my village in Punjab before and I knew that I wanted to go back and make a feature film there. And you know, I grew up in the village. And I’ve always been kind of interested in more Gothic, kind of darker undercurrent storytelling. And then, you know, growing up in the village. I think from the outside perspective, and even in India, the way that Punjab is shown and perceived, it’s just like a very jovial, bright-colored, happy place. And, you know, in a sense, it is. But of course I was interested in where my imagination led me when I was a kid, which, you know, it was dark and eerie. And there were houses that we knew that were haunted, like the house next to our house. And I just grew up with all these ghost stories and wives’ tales and folklore. And then at the same time, I’m always interested in this more feminist perspective in my work. It just naturally comes out, and it’s what I’m interested in exploring and what I’m always interested in as far as characters and who’s telling the story. And in my own family, we have a history of gender violence, and we also have a history that’s very much connected to what the underlying issues of the story address. So, you know, in that way it just all kind of came together. Also just my anger of female infanticide and gender violence all kind of got channeled into the character of Shivangi, who’s this 10-year-old girl, the protagonist. That was my main inspiration.
That leads me into one of my other questions: we learn about the history of the village and the curse that’s on the village through the eyes of Shivangi. How important was it to you, not just to have a female character experience this, but one that was so young?
Terrie Samundra: I think it was really important to me. You know, I remember being a little kid and meeting…you know, I don’t want to make it so personal, but it is personal. I remember being a child and meeting one of my mother’s elders, my great-great-aunt, and I remember her asking my mom about her daughters and basically saying our family is cursed because there were really no boys. So I think that really affected me. I also really love that age. It’s like this age where you’re just about to come of age and, you know, the world just expects you to grow up so fast. And there’s this really thin veil where Shivangi is called by this ghost who is a reflection of herself, and she’s able to tap into that world and also carries a lot of empathy. And I think that we become desensitized to that more and more as we get older. This little girl — from the beginning, we learn that she’s got this vivid imagination, and there’s this foreshadowing because her mother says to her, “One day your imagination is going to get us into trouble.” And in a sense, it does. And also being that age, it was important for the character to be so young because in essence she frees the ghost, but really, she’s freeing herself. She’s giving herself agency and allowing herself her own life and claiming her existence and her space.
One of the things I liked so much about the movie was this emphasis on evolution of attitudes and evolution of agency from generation to generation as we see it from the elders, and then to Shivangi’s grandmother and her contentious relationship with her mother, and then Shivangi trying to figure things out in this world. Are you hopeful, especially with the way that the movie ended, that the new generation will find a way to end female infanticide?
Terrie Samundra: You know, I’m using this one act with this female infanticide, but it’s really all-encompassing of overall patriarchy within not just Punjabi or Indian society, but generally humanity. And also I was interested in exploring the relationships between the women, and that comes from a really personal place and from within my family. Now, you know, there’s one thing I’ve been thinking about, because unfortunately there’s one scene that we had to cut. And that’s just part of filmmaking and the compromises that you make. And in that scene, you see the men of the village. It’s a very dark, quiet scene. And I do think that that was really an important piece for me. But I have been asked by specific feminist writers and critics: “Where is that? Where is that piece? You know, did you want to address that?” And actually, the intention was to address that. But more so I was interested in the relationship between the women because not only are they enacting this, but they’re also victims of the larger problem. And you see that in the two different characters, one in Dadi and one in Satya Maasi, and they both react differently. One becomes cold and hardened, and the other lives with this deep guilt and shame and eventually is able to pass the torch and guide the younger generation to actually take action and do something. Which, you know, she lived with the guilt that she was not able to do that.
Yeah, there were a lot of really interesting relationships and dynamics, but that one, I think because they were within the same generation, I thought was so fascinating.
I did want to touch on the cinematography a bit, because it’s really beautiful. It’s crisp but it’s moody at the same time, and it seems like you would have run into some difficulties because there are a lot of nighttime scenes, a lot of rainstorms. Can you talk a little bit about your approach to shooting that and how you achieved all these beautiful shots in what seems like would have been pretty challenging circumstances?
Terrie Samundra: Yeah, it was really challenging. In writing the script, it was always supposed to take place in the winter. And then of course, in a fictitious village, it’s supposed to have this very fairy tale-like world where it’s timeless and classic, so you don’t even know what time it is, really, what year it is, exactly. And we wanted to build that. Like, as they go into the village, it becomes almost like, you know, this space that’s surrounded by this mysterious fog and mist. So we actually had to shoot in the hottest time of the year in Punjab. It was, like, peak summer. And peak summer is 110, 120 [degree] days. I mean, it was insane, and we were shooting in a tiny little village which is right on the border of Punjab and Pakistan. I mean, it was incredible. It was beautiful. You can see the border fence into Pakistan. But it’s a very rural village. And, you know, we’re working with kids. Almost half of the production days were night shoots, so we had to build this cold atmosphere and we had to use rain machines. And my DP — my cinematographer, Sejal Shah — he’s incredible, and he actually doesn’t really do a lot of lighting. He considers himself somebody who’s anti-lighting. So we barely shot with any practicals. I mean, it was just the magic of the way that he shoots. And you know, he just gave me the world that I set out to shoot. We knew from the beginning that we wanted it to look cold, we wanted it to look blue. I knew that I didn’t want…we didn’t want to have any fade to black. We didn’t want a lot of drastic camera movements. There’s no handheld, and I’m usually a big fan of handheld. So there were just rules that we set out for ourselves from the beginning so that when we got on set we were able to execute them really clearly. And also, although the film falls into the horror genre, I was very clear in my intention that this was going to be a beautiful film. I wanted to make a beautiful ghost story. So regardless of the horrific things that were happening, we were going to use beautiful cinematic language to create this atmosphere and this surreal world. So, you know, the cinematography is so important to the film because we were not interested in disseminating a lot of information. We wanted to create an experience. It’s an experiential film. The sound, the score, the cinematography. Those are really critical storytelling elements.
Honestly, I’m astonished that there was so little lighting involved because it is really beautiful. And the mood is immediate from the beginning, and it stays there throughout. It is that beautiful ghost story that you talk about. So you surprised me with that answer because I’m even more impressed with the movie now.
Terrie Samundra: Yeah. I mean, he is just amazing. Like, he just really didn’t want to work with lights, and it was like, “Okay, let’s see how we’re gonna do this!”
You said it’s not a typical horror story, but there is a lot of tension. There is an overarching mood of, not just sadness, but fear. Quite a bit of the film takes place at the house where Shivangi’s grandmother lives. How did you maintain tension shooting on a pretty limited locale for a lot of those scenes?
Terrie Samundra: Yeah, we kept it very, very minimal. It was two houses, a couple of lanes, the fields, and a couple of other locations, but we kept it very small. I think the tension was built into the way that it was shot. So we were not showing too much. And what I really hope for — and, you know, some audience numbers are up for this and some are not — but it’s always my hope that, outside of the frame, the story is also continuing. So, you know, you’ve got the frame, then you’ve got the outside-of-the-frame story, and I think that we really built that. Because once you get into that world and you get into that village, you know, from the experiences that I’ve heard from people, they really felt like they were sitting inside of the space. So it was not just this kind of one-dimensional screen, and I think that that really built that tension. We also shot into mirrors. Sejal, my cinematographer, really wanted to use mirrors and doorways. So I think that was really helpful in building that tension in that space. We used a bed, we had a staircase, we had different levels in the house. And that upstairs room, that was another personal storytelling element from my own family. The house next to us was haunted, and there was a room upstairs that I had been told so many endless stories about. And then in our own house we had a very similar layout, and the room upstairs was a room that had quite a bit of history. So I think the house having the staircase and those two upstairs and downstairs rooms also helped to build that tension. Because right away from the beginning, when Shivangi’s walking through the alleyway and then she cuts to the house and she looks upstairs, you know that there’s something bigger going on.
You’re a member of the Nyx Horror Collective. Do you see positive changes happening in the film industry, and in the horror industry specifically, for women and especially women of color?
Terrie Samundra: I am so actively always searching and watching genre and horror from women, women of color, Black women, international filmmakers. That is something that I am so mindful of and actively seeking out. So, in my small world, I see that as a change. Now, I don’t know in the larger scope if that’s actually happening. I want to hope that it is. And I know that on my end, when people have conversations with me — whether they’re people that are producers or executives or people who are developing work — they’re very excited about it. And for example, just even…it’s not horror, but Watchmen was just so phenomenal. And I love comic books. I love Image Comics in particular. And I think I’m starting to see more and more of development in that space, even with things like Paper Girls or…I’m trying to think of some others, but I know there’s quite a number of things in development. I know there are some Octavia Butler things that are being developed, you know, Afrofuturism and Black feminism horror things that are being developed. So it’s super exciting. I’m always looking for Latinx filmmakers. There’s great stuff coming out of Central and South America and also women working here in the U.S. So I’ve seen that work. But you do have to seek it out. I mean, even, like Lovecraft Country. You know, Lovecraft Country is just so exciting to watch. And I think Misha Green’s such a phenomenal creator and writer. And everything that Monkeypaw is doing is just so amazing, too. So I hope so. I hope that there’s a real shift happening. Because I certainly know, as an audience member, it’s what I want. And it’s what I’ve always wanted.
I’m also a huge comic book fan. Is there anything that you specifically would like to develop yourself as a filmmaker, or is that too far off on the horizon to talk about?
Terrie Samundra: Yeah, there’s a couple of things that I’m looking at, but most of my work is original. So I’ve got a couple of pilots and some features that are being sent out, but there are a couple of things that are moving into development. And I would love to be in either the writer’s room for them or direct for them, you know, because I’m both a writer and a director, Yeah, I mean, there’s such great stuff out there. I love Monstress. I love Saga. And, of course, like all that Marvel stuff and everything. That’s all fine. That’s great. I know that people love that. But, you know, I think that with graphic novels and comics, it’s just such a space to explore and play. And there’s so many things that comic writers and graphic novel writers are doing…they’re bending just even gender norms. I read comics where there’s characters that are either shifting between genders, they have no gender, they’re gender-neutral…there’s just very, very complex conversations. Of course, like Octavia Butler…that was in her work, and also Ursula Le Guin. So it’s nothing new, but it’s certainly new in what I see on television or in cinema. And I’m excited to see that in television and cinema because certainly it’s being done in comics.
Yeah, like you said, I think a lot of times maybe the general filmgoing public only thinks of the Avengers movies. But there’s so much, especially in indie comics, that’s so interesting across all genres that people are working on. So that’s exciting.
I do have a final question for you: what do you hope that audiences take away from this film?
Terrie Samundra: First of all, it’s always story first. I want people to have an interesting experience. I know that it’s not the most comfortable film to watch. And not everybody wants to hang out with a 10-year-old girl for an hour and a half. But my intention was to create a film that doesn’t give everything away and that you have the space to bring your own self to it. And what I’ve heard, in particular from women who’ve watched it, is that the ending was pretty emotional for them, which is exciting for me. Because it’s not just leaving them with dread. It’s leaving them with a sense of hope and self-agency. And then I hope that I leave people with a question and maybe a place to start a conversation. I like films that stick with you, that keep you thinking and that maybe you want to return to and that you definitely want to have a conversation with another person about.
KAALI KHUHI is now available to stream on Netflix.