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Usually when non-Indians think of Indian cinema, they think of Bollywood. However, it’s important to note that the Mumbai-centered, Hindi-language Bollywood industry is just one piece of the Indian film puzzle. India is a country with dozens of major regional languages and thus, regional cinematic traditions.
Through story, setting, and style, director Bhaskar Hazarika’s 2015 independent film Kothanodi (also known as The River of Fables) is a salient and refreshing reminder that not all Indian films are from Bollywood. Set in the northeastern state of Assam (which has its own distinct language from Hindi), Kothanodi adapts four folktales from a traditional compendium called Burhi Aair Sadhu (“Grandma’s Tales”). Though the folktales have traditionally been aimed at children, Kothanodi gives them a darker, more chilling twist.
If your stereotypical Bollywood film is a romance novel, then Kothanodi is Gabriel Garcia Marquez‘s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Kothanodi is a work of Indian magical realism. It has the standard elements: phantoms, self-rolling vegetables, and python weddings, all presented as unremarkable parts of life. Like Marquez’s novel it weaves together a tumultuous patchwork of fantastical, haunting narratives; sometimes you forget which strand or character you’re following. Both One Hundred Years and Kothanodi have timeless, remote, and water-infused settings. In Kothanodi this is the mighty Brahmaputra River, lifeblood of Assam and the namesake “river of fables”.
This deceptively idyllic riverine setting assists Kothanodi on two fronts.
The peaceful, beautiful village life it presents along the Brahmaputra accents the “realism” of magical realism. In such a calm environment, the supernatural blends in until — boom — it jumps out in surprise attack. Don’t be deceived; there are scenes in this movie you probably shouldn’t watch alone at night.
On a more practical level, Kothanodi‘s setting helps it become a more visually stunning piece. Combined with thoughtful camera movement, the river sunsets and brooding forests of Assam imbue the film with an art house feel of the natural variety. A stylistic cousin would be Colombia’s magical realist 2015 Oscar nominee Embrace of the Serpent (though that film is black and white) with its drifting, slightly psychedelic feel. This is nothing like the rambunctious melodramas from Mumbai.
Another novel aspect of Kothanodi is its focus on female perspectives. Each of its four stories centers around a woman. there’s a bitter stepmother, a woman who’s given birth to an outenga (elephant apple — a type of vegetable), a greedy matriarch, and a mother whose husband killed her first three babies. These woman embody a broad range of characteristics — vengeful, vain; compassionate, resilient. Again, it’s a far cry from your average boy-meets-girl love story.
Refreshing, artistic, and diverse describe Kothanodi. It’s a reminder to the rest of the world that Indian cinema has far more to offer than sappy musical numbers and over-the-top fight scenes. If you’re looking for a magical realist glimpse of a faraway corner of the world (especially one that’s not in Latin America), put Kothanodi on your radar.
Kothanodi (Assamese: কথানদী; English: The River of Fables)–Dialog in Assamese. Directed by Bhaskar Hazarika. First released October 2015. Running time 1hr 55min. Starring Seema Biswas, Adil Hussai, Zerifa Wahid, Urmila Mahanta, and Monisha Bhuyan.
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