Dark waters

trisha gupta | Updated on January 20, 2018

Four in one: Elements from different Assamese folk tales have been woven intothe tapestry of the film. Courtesy: Metanormal Motion Pictures


Trisha Gupta

Bhaskar Hazarika’s striking directorial debut, Kothanodi turns the magic realism of the Assamese folk tale into something ominous

A man buries newborn babies in a dark forest. A woman gives birth to a vegetable, and is driven out of her village. A young girl called Tejimola is tortured by her evil stepmother. A captured python is welcomed as a bridegroom for a young woman.

Bhaskar Hazarika’s debut feature Kothanodi (River of Stories), just back from Busan and London for its Indian premiere at Mumbai’s Jio MAMI festival, weaves elements of four Assamese folk tales into a weird, unsettling tapestry. In its matter-of-fact melding of the supernatural with the everyday, Hazarika’s film follows in the footsteps of previous attempts to translate folktales to the Indian screen. Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969), though not itself a folktale, was based on a folk-style story about a pair of tone-deaf musicians, by Ray’s grandfather Upendrakishore Raychaudhury, who was famed for his retellings of Bangla folk tales. Ray’s adaptation struck a cheerfully irreverent note, giving his ghosts a caste system, and making the Bhooter Raja, the King of Ghosts, speak in Ray’s own voice, with a layer of metallic vibration akin to the sound of a fast-forwarded audio cassette. The late Vijaydan Detha’s retellings of Rajasthani folktales have been the other big source of folktale adaptations in Indian cinema. The least watched of these are Shyam Benegal’s Charandas Chor (1975) — in which Smita Patil made her debut — and Prakash Jha’s terrifying moral fable, Parinati (The Inevitable, 1989). Another of Dan Detha’s tales forms the basis of two films that couldn’t be more different from each other. Mani Kaul’s Duvidha (1973) is a classic of the Indian New Wave, where the dazzling white light of the Rajasthani sun alternates with dark shadows and quivering silences. Amol Palekar’s Paheli, which took on the same story in 2005, is a rather too-well-appointed mainstream drama, but Rani Mukerji and Shah Rukh Khan managed to imbue the relationship between young bride and shapeshifting ghost with affecting chemistry (despite the distractions of too much Tanishq jewellery). A ghost was also crucial to Anup Singh’s beautifully crafted Qissa (2015), whose disturbing plot about a girl raised as a boy by her stubborn father shares much with another Dan Detha tale, Dohri Zindagi (A Double Life).

But where all of these films deal with the supernatural either bouncily or in a haunting, melancholy register, Hazarika’s chosen rasa is bhayaanaka. Shot in the Assamese island of Majuli, Kothanodi immerses us in a watery world of bamboo forest and river, its brilliant greens set off by the scarlet of women’s sindoor-filled partings and paan-stained mouths. The sunlit lushness of this world does not, however, preclude the possibility of dark things lurking beneath the surface. In one long early sequence, as a solitary woman makes her way across the verdant Assamese landscape, crossing field and water and forest, a vegetable rolls along behind her. It is an ou tenga, an elephant-apple, a staple of Assamese cuisine. What could be more innocuous than a vegetable? And yet, as the ou tenga manages to find its way across marsh and river, even persistently rolling up the bamboo stilts of the Mishing-style house in which the woman lives, it fills us with a sense of foreboding. On the soundscape, too, the chirping of birds is overlaid by jeering children; lapping water by the threatening creaks of bamboo.

Unlike in the Western horror film trope of something external disturbing the placidity of a rural idyll, here the sources of danger are concealed within the everyday. In the true magic realist tradition of the folk tale, anyone and everything might be magic. Vegetables might contain spirits, a snake might be a god — and conversely, children might be devils, or women witches. Sometimes the protagonists misidentify one for the other. Sometimes the film plays on our fearfulness: our inability to tell whether something is simply what it seems to be, or a magical creature yet to reveal its true form. Sometimes this feeling is twisted into another sort of chilling statement, such as when a mother tells her daughter, “Can one be scared of one’s own husband?”

Hazarika adapted the stories from Laxminath Bezbaroa’s Buri ai’r Xadhu (Grandmother’s Tales); shortening some, altering others and emphasising their macabre qualities. Some tales work better than others. Perhaps the least effective is the one about the buried babies, partly because its climactic sequences suddenly expose the film’s low budget. The tale of the python’s wedding was for me the most powerful, aided by a bone-chilling performance from the ever-stellar Seema Biswas. The other well-known actor in the film is Adil Hussain ( English Vinglish, Life of Pi, Umrika) who bridges two tales — he is both the father of the tortured Tejimola, and the curious merchant who becomes interested in the mysterious ou tenga.

I found it striking that Kothanodi’s makers went out of their way to produce what they conceive of as a timeless Assamese landscape. Populated by beautiful wooden almirahs, carved canoes and hand-drawn grindstones, this pre-technological idyll seems clearly datable to the 19th century. There are no telephones, no cars, no buses, or even bicycles. The greatest treasures are gold jewellery and woven textile, for which women are ready to die — and to kill. This is a seemingly pristine world, unspoilt by modernity — and yet not untainted by evil.

(Trisha Gupta is a writer and critic based in Delhi)

Follow Trisha Gupta @chhotahazri

Published on October 23, 2015

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