There I lay my head on the pillow, snuggled into my blanket ready to surrender to the world of talking animals and strange beings my mother was about to conjure for me. It was delicious.
Then one day, I found my sister reading a 1000 page fat book with tiny font and pictures. Strange, I thought. In my world only children’s books (or textbooks and magazines) had pictures and never in tiny font. Tiny font was ‘meant for grown-ups’ territory, one to be stayed away from, so boring. But curiosity got the better of me and I went down the rabbit hole a-la Alice and landed in a wonderland of rolling peas, talking trees and 3/6/12-headed dragons. It was a much-to-be-thumbed Book of Ukranian Folk Tales.
None of it was incredulous; magic never is when you are a kid. Just curiouser and curiouser. It was a real world, with real people living in real houses and doing real things, but that world was full of strange phenomena. It brought magic right onto my doorstep. These weren’t Disney’s amusement park-like fairylands visiting me, but home-grown magic churned like butter from daily life with all its shades intact. Kothanodi – River of Fables is something like that.
It opens on the darkest tone possible. A man is burying a living infant in a mysterious forest full of strange, eerie sounds. Wails and whispers are all around, suggesting something sinister is on. And you are intrigued to know more. This seems like more than a fable, more than folklore, you say, when suddenly an elephant apple comes rolling along. It is following a woman, carefully, loyally. A loving father is taking leave of his young daughter as a suspicious-looking step-mother looks on. A python is stealthily being caught in the forest and next thing we know it is being welcomed into a household to be wedded to a human girl. The setting is tribal, somewhere deep in the interiors of Assam, along a river that carries the fables from the shore of one house to another, from one mother to another.
A narrative connect of four mothers weaves four different folktales into one solid film. The screenplay is based on events and characters described in popular Assamese folk tales compiled in the anthology ‘বুঢ়ী আইৰ সাধু’ or Grandma’s Tales, by Assamese literary luminary Lakshminath Bezbaroa, and first published in 1911 (source: link). Each story soaked in the ethos of its space and time, flows in and out of each other.
The mother-daughter thematic motif makes it tempting to dig deeper to look for hidden sub-text of social comment, only to find it is a formal element instead. This realisation dawns as the film draws towards its unique and dreadful conclusions and with it takes away the pressure of decoding it, replacing it with the pleasure of magic realism.
The joy of the film lies in its naturalistic setting and use of melodrama to suitably evoke earthy, home-grown environs of tribal India where witches and teachers, merchants and snake-grooms, mothers and talking dead bodies, live together. The emotional decibel of the film is tuned in balance, with a heightened measure of melodrama where required (in Tejimola and snake-groom stories), and controlled where necessary (the elephant apple story and buried babies stories.) The play then, of the baby burying scene (which plays out in all its eerie glory), cutting in between stories to unsettle the mood a bit, lest the fable become a dream removed from reality, becomes interesting. The joy of a fairy tale is in its mirth and that of a fable in its mystique, while folklore is rooted in common, realistic setting. The more rooted the setting the more absurd and mysterious does the magic seem. Yet, surprisingly more real. You can touch it, almost. And in River of Fables we don’t question the magic, we just let it happen, like we did when we saw it when we were young.
Perhaps, the biggest achievement of the film is bringing magic into the adult, mainstream language back by seizing it from children’s territory to a very adult world and adult problems and demystifying it by laying bare its darkest shades, without sugar-coating, something we don’t encounter often in children’s fables or popular folklore. And here the film does not differentiate or take sides with white or black magic, rather treats it like yin and yang. Exactly how it is. I hope this isn’t reduced to an over-simplified argument of fanning superstition.
The film would have been lesser if not for the gravitas that Adil Hussain, Urmila Mahanta and Seema Biswas lend to their characters and the story. They carry the inter-woven, longform narrative with assured grace and control that is a pleasure to watch.
Certain portions of the film, especially the eerie sequences, do have a tacky, under-done feel, partly in budget, partly in design and partly in imagination. Yet, it does not become a hindrance in enjoying an otherwise delectable fare much like that other gem in the same genre ‘Goynar Boksho’.
I lost my Ukranian folk tales book to a raddiwala because parents mistakenly thought I was too old to be interested in them anymore. River of Fables lessened the ache a little.