A ten-year-old girl is tasked with saving her family and the residents of her Punjab village in the new folklore horror film Kaali Kuhi. Directed and co-written by Terrie Samundra, Kaali Kuhi is now streaming on Netflix, and we caught up with Samundra in a new Q&A feature to discuss the making of her new movie, including filming in Punjab (two hours away from her grandfather's village), working with a talented and committed cast, and exploring social issues and sparking important conversations with the resonating, heartbreaking story of Kaali Kuhi.

Thank you for taking the time to chat with us, Terrie, and congratulations on your new movie, Kaali Khuhi! How did you come up with the idea for this film?

Terrie Samundra: I’ve always been drawn to the darker undercurrents of the human story, with a love of genre cinema. With Kaali Khuhi, I was interested in exploring a gothic darkness, one that comes from quieter spaces and dark childhood folktales; stories told in secret, passed down from generation to generation.

From a young age I was surrounded by women who shared old tales and ghost stories. Navigating the narrow pathways and alleys of our village, I had a mental map of every ghost story from different homes. One that my mother told me has always haunted me, from when she was a little girl. It’s the story of a young woman and her baby girl who lived at the bottom of a well on the edge of an old field. They stayed to themselves and harmed no one, but if villagers used the well, soon after they would fall ill and die. Growing up, I also heard stories of “kudi mar,” the practice of female infanticide. These stories were most of the time masked with the intricate layers of cultural complexity rooted in patriarchy and long-seated traditions. Piecing the stories together, I learned the history of gender discrimination and violence woven into my own family's story. That legacy of pain and trauma carried down through generations.

The seed for Kaali Khuhi began when I started to imagine what it would be like to actualize the liberation of a painful past, and set free the trapped ghosts of a cultural poison using the visual art form of cinema. The idea of Shivangi, a young girl called to free her village from its horrific past, began to materialize. Shivangi, destined for the hero’s journey, embodies deep empathy and a supernatural connection to the tortured spirits.

How long did it take you and co-writers David Walter Lech and Rupinder Inderjit to write the first draft of the screenplay, and how many drafts did you go through before it was time to film?

Terrie Samundra: It took Walter and I about two months to write a ten-page treatment of the story, outlining everything in detail. We then wrote the first draft of the screenplay in a month to meet a deadline. It was much, much quicker than how we usually work. And from there to pre-production, it went through many subsequent drafts.

Every screenplay we write, we have a different process. Sometimes we begin with a kernel of an idea and see where it goes, but the lengthy treatment worked really well for Kaali Khuhi, and we’re doing the same with our current script we’re writing.

Once we got into pre-production, we brought on Rupinder, who is the dialogue writer. Walter and I had written the script in English, but when we began to prepare the shooting script, I worked with Rupinder to translate and write the dialogue into Punjabi and then into Hindi. There are hundreds of languages and dialects in India, and dialogue writers are part of the process. It’s a bit different and interesting for people new to that system.

You filmed Kaali Khuhi in Punjab, India, in the same village where you were raised. What was it like to come back to your hometown to make a movie? Did you involve your family and friends in the film?

Terrie Samundra: My grandfather’s village is actually about two hours away from where we shot the film. In 2008, I made a short film called Kunjo in my family village. It was one of my life goals, and it was empowering to make the film with people who I’ve known my entire life; my family and my larger village, in my ancestral home. Punjab has changed a lot in the past ten years, and my village is very different than even when I made that short film. Although I had hoped to shoot Kaali Khuhi there, we wanted a village which looked like how mine did when I was a child. It also needed to look and feel timeless, as if suspended in a folktale, and without modern trappings.

The village of Naushera, where we shot, was perfect. The old pre-colonial structures, traditional Punjabi brick, and narrow alleyways lend to the layers of the story. The village is a very important character and has an interesting history. It sits right on the border of Pakistan and India, dividing our Punjab right down the center, which carries a heartbreaking heaviness.

Punjab has in many ways become a character for my work; much like suburban Illinois for John Hughes, Baltimore for John Waters, or Oregon for Kelly Reichardt.

You collaborated with a talented cast on this movie. What was it like to work with Shabana Azmi, Sanjeeda Sheikh, Satyadeep Misra, and Riva Arora to bring this story to life on screen?

Terrie Samundra: The entire ensemble was wonderful and our casting director, Aadore Mukherjee, deserves all the credit.

Working with Shabana is a director’s dream. I grew up watching her films and she was always Satya Masi in my mind, so when she said yes to the film, I was thrilled. She also enjoys working with new directors and was very supportive of me. Every day on set before we rolled camera, we would sit and talk about her pages, and she would dig into every line and story beat with me. The craft and passion she brings to the set and screen is unlike anything else.

Sanjeeda Shaikh and Satyadeep Misra’s vulnerability and honesty to the roles and story created grounding and authenticity for the other young actors. It was also a dream for me to work with the local Punjabi actors like Jatinder Kaur and Samuel John.

I had worked with Riva Arora six months prior when we shot a test scene of the film. She is such a young, bright star, and we knew that we wanted her to play Shivangi. Chandni was the hardest role for open casting. It’s a demanding role for a child actor and Rose Rathod killed her audition. She was uninhibited and got the character changes quickly. Hetvi Bhanushali was perfect for Sakshi, the ghost. She’s a dancer and her physicality was critical to her performance. She’s also incredibly bright and intuitive. We had a lot of fun behind the scenes and my daughter Yamuna, who came to India with us, became close friends with all of them.

You’ve directed short films before, but Kaali Khuhi marks your feature-length directorial debut. What did you learn while making Kaali Khuhi that you’ll bring to future projects?

Terrie Samundra: It was a masterclass in firsts on so many levels. We were working with the things that everyone always warns you about, like kids, animals, rain, night shoots, and more. There were so many things that could go wrong at any moment, so I knew I had to be flexible while at the same time keeping focused on what we had to get to make our scenes and our days. Constant problem solving and flexibility while working under pressure and with little time is critical, and is where I probably learned the most about myself as a director.

Looking back at your time on set, is there a favorite or memorable moment that stands out?

Terrie Samundra: Shooting the final scene was one of my favorite moments. I had a very strong vision for the end and wanted it to carry an emotional weight. We knew we had very little time, about 15 minutes max, between dawn and when the sun came up behind the fields, so we had to be exact in planning. We also had to be clear with coordinating all the 20 girls, the action of the main characters along with Twinkle, the buffalo, who was unpredictable. We had already been on set all night and it was the final scene of that shoot, so we were running on adrenaline and no sleep.

My cinematographer, Sejal, proposed the idea of the crane shot, and filled the fields with fog. Our costume designer made matching dresses for all the girls. One of the most beautiful things was that my daughter, Yamuna, was in the scene. Behind the scenes the three girls and Yamuna had become close friends and on so many levels shooting the last scene was a cathartic experience. Everything fell into place, even Twinkle was on her best behavior and walked perfectly off screen.

Ultimately, what do you hope viewers take away from Kaali Khuhi?

Terrie Samundra: The story and the character of Shivangi were my personal explorations and ways to channel my anger and frustrations. Genre has always been used to explore social issues. I think people new to the medium may not have that context. It allows space to explore darker, painful, and horrific issues within story and cinematic context. When young women reach out to me about how the film moved them and was personally powerful, I feel the work is done.

The film now exists outside of me. So if there are conversations, if it sparks thought, and also touches a personal space, then I feel we’ve accomplished what we set out to do.

What has it been like to partner with Netflix to release Kaali Khuhi?

Terrie Samundra: It feels exciting to have the film out on a platform for the whole world to see. I’m grateful to Netflix for saying yes to my first feature and supporting my vision. It also means a lot to me that people from all over the world are watching and have access, that it’s not restricted to a small festival or theatre. I love film festivals and I miss going to theatres, but having a film on Netflix that people can see at any time is thrilling.

I’ve been receiving a lot of messages from people who love the film and share with me how it resonates with them; especially young women who have opened up to talk about their connection to the gender violence and history of female infanticide in their own families. That’s been incredibly emotional and also a place of dialogue and healing. I also love hearing from Indian viewers who are excited about art house genre in Indian cinema for larger audiences.

With Kaali Khuhi now streaming on Netflix, what other projects do you have coming up that you’re excited about, and where can our readers follow your work online?

Terrie Samundra: There are a few things in the works, but with COVID so much is up in the air and uncertain. As filmmakers, we’re always navigating that fine balance of holding on and letting go, knowing things could fall apart on a project at any moment.  I’m writing as much as I can, it’s a place of creative freedom, especially while productions are unpredictable.

We have two pilots and two features that are out and we’re also developing a new feature.

You can stay updated about my work on my website, but I love connecting with other filmmakers, writers, artists, and film geeks , so you can also connect with me on social media.

[Photo Credit: Above photo of Terrie Samundra courtesy of her website.]

  • Derek Anderson
    About the Author - Derek Anderson

    Raised on a steady diet of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books and Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Derek has been fascinated with fear since he first saw ForeverWare being used on an episode of Eerie, Indiana.

    When he’s not writing about horror as the Senior News Reporter for Daily Dead, Derek can be found daydreaming about the Santa Carla Boardwalk from The Lost Boys or reading Stephen King and Brian Keene novels.