Originally written by Roopa Barua for A potpourri of vestiges.
Summary: Four folk tales from Assam re-imagined as a narrative about four mothers, each facing demons of her own.
Mother-in-law: “Where is my son-in-law facing?
Wedding attendant: “I do not know which side he is facing.”
(Dialogue from Kothanodi: The River of Fables)
Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown? Psychotic, bizarre women that defy stereotypes of sexuality and gender in this gripping tale of magical realism woven together beautifully by director Bhaskar Hazarika. Based loosely on Burhi Aair Sadhu (Tales by a Grandmother) by noted Assamese writer Lakshminath Bezbarooah, this is a dark Assamese tale of sordid lust and macabre desires, some of which are anthropomorphic in their form and excess.
A story with four overlapping tales of women – Tejimola, a young girl with a travelling father played by Adil Hussain and a wicked stepmother played by Zerifa Wahed; Dhoneshwari (Seema Biswas), who wants to marry her daughter off to a serpent for the riches she thinks will come to her; Ketaki (Urmila Mahanta), a weaver who gives birth to an outenga (a sour Assamese fruit); and Malati (Asha Bordoloi), who kills all her newborns at the request of her superiors, and her husband Poonai (Jatin Bora). All of this is set in Assam in a bygone era.
The lust and greed of vermillion-smeared married women contrast with the frailty of a little girl with one parent and one step parent; the issue of giving birth in the proper context and to the right kind to inherit this world contrasts with lovers caught in the lunacy of a moonlit night; all weave into the visuals to take us through a sordid storyline where spiders, leeches and serpents share screen time with the characters. If a serpent that suppossedly brings riches is good enough to be married off to a daughter, so too a blood-sucking leech is apt food for a hungry stepdaughter. All’s fair in this game of love and lust that is being played onscreen!
Women in their various avatars – as a mother, stepmother, lover, daughter and stepdaughter – all come under the scanner in this blended concoction of witchy logic and dark magic. A mother who only greeds for her daughter and wealth, a stepmother who is busily trying to unshackle herself from the chains of a stepdaughter, a daughter who pines for her travelling dad and mothers who are giving birth to all life that does not seem right. Women shown in all their images that are not the epitomes of the ideal. But this helps in the crafting of a story which has its roots in Assam where the worship of Shakti, aniministic forms of worship and black magic still reign supreme.
The sound of the traditional Assamese instruments bhor taal and taal reverberate through the film and bring in an eerie vibe to the sound. The surrealism of the plot heightened by this instrument adds multiple nuanced layers to a story where the women are already in a disturbed world.
Taking folk tales that have been around for years, mixing them with a dose of surrealism and then blending it completely into the landscape of Assam, director Bhaskar Hazarika has crafted a story that questions the stereotypes of women in a nineteenth century landscape… of the roles they play, of their domination over the males in their clans, of their sadistic and masochistic behaviours ensuring their own survival. Special credits need to be given to Assamese writer Arupa Patangia Kalita for the minimal dialogue, cinematographer Vijay Kutty for taking a serene landscape and giving it just the right treatment for making it sinister, and editor Suresh Pai who keeps the suspense and surrealism going on through to the end of the film.
As Spanish director Pedro Almodovar once said: “When I was very young, I was already a fabulador. I loved to give my own version of stories that everybody already knew. When I got out of a movie with my sisters, I retold them the whole story. In general they liked my version better than the one they had seen.”
This is essentially what Bhaskar Hazarika has done. He has retold a few stories about Assam in his own unique way. Kothanodi – The River of Fables is a minimalist gripping work by him that will set the benchmark for good storytelling in film and would be an inspiration to the budding talent in India.