Folk tales have no fixed origins—in the sense that they do, but we can never trace them back to where they began. They are passed on as an oral tradition from one generation to another, one place to another. With every telling, it changes a little. Every storyteller keeps the essence, add their own bits and pass it on.
When renowned Assamese author Lakshminath Bezbaroa wrote "Burhi Aai'r Xaadhu" (Grandma's Tales), he collected folk tales from tribes and communities of Assam and added his own twist to them. "Burhi Aai'r Xaadhu" would become the foundational fairytale textbook for the people of Assam—a sort of Assamese equivalent of Bengal's "Thakumar Jhuli".
In his 2015 film Kothanodi (The River of Fables), Bhaskar Hazarika takes four stories from "Burhi Ai'r Xadhu" and tweaks them as per his own taste and politics. The title likens the nature of such stories to the flow of the river, in this case the Brahmaputra.
But if you are expecting ebb and flow of the gentle kind, you are in for a shock. Right off the bat Kothanodi lets you know that the ride will be a dark one. A tracking shot over the river at twilight moves at menacing speed, as if it's tailing some malevolent spirit looking for home. Soon an ominous soundtrack (Amarnath Hazarika) will fill the air as we see a disturbing scene: a man (Kopil Bora) burying alive a newborn in the forest at night.
But the title sequence is perhaps the only bravura camerawork (cinematographer Vijay Kutty) in a film that otherwise keeps it simple and lets the stories do the talking. And what strange stories. A young woman (Urmila Mahanta) gives birth to an outenga, a type of a vegetable that follows her around after she is excommunicated on suspicions that she may be a witch. A domineering matriarch (Seema Biswas), consumed by greed and superstition, arranges for her daughter (Monisha Bhuyan) to be married to a python in the hope it'll bring fortune to their family.
Then there is the famous story of Tejimola, a young girl (Kasvi Sharma) left at home with her evil step mother (Zerifa Wahid) while his father, a merchant (Adil Hussain), is away. Every night, the step mother takes a boat to the other side of the river bank for clandestine meetings with the demon, her lover, who has long hair, yellow pupils and silvery skin; he whispers into her ears wicked ideas.
Stylistically, Hazarika's film is almost defiantly austere in the way it doesn't call attention to itself—sometimes a little too austere for its own good. But don't let the stagey look and feel deceive you; Kothanodi doesn't have the production value of Tumbbad or the ultra-stylised treatment of Bulbbul, but retains the rough-edges and crudeness of folk art in all its cruelty and beauty.
These stories are rooted in the traditions and customs of a place, the river island Majuli, interconnected with each other loosely… It presents Assam as a land where such stories have existed for centuries; where man, nature and the paranormal are in a relationship and not always of the holy kind.
The best part of Kothanodi is that inspite of its socially relevant themes, it never loses sight of its primary nature as a bedtime yarn. The stories take their time to unfold and they tighten their grip on you, like the python that wraps itself around the bride on the wedding night.
These stories are rooted in the traditions and customs of a place, the river island of Majuli—where it was largely shot—interconnected with each other loosely.
For instance, the Adil Hussain character, whose daughter is Tejimola is part of another story, helps the young woman who has given birth to the outenga. In one scene he tells her about the strange tales he has heard on his travels. A woman giving birth to a kitten. A woman who was raised by a bird. A girl hatching out of a duck's egg one morning. What is consistent in all the tales is that they are remarkably specific to their respective regions, intimately tied to a landscape: In Maibong…In the far banks of the Bhoroli river…In a village east of Sadiya. It presents Assam as a land where such stories have existed for centuries; where man, nature and the paranormal are in a relationship and not always of the holy kind.
Kothanodi got none of the attention of Hazarika's second film Aamis—one of the most of talked-about indie films from last year—but it has some of its mess-with-your-head provocativeness. It confounds us because it has no easy moral lessons to offer—even though it is 'feminist' in the way it explores facets of motherhood through its four stories.
For instance, in the story about the married couple who have been sacrificing their newborns, when it is revealed that the uncle is not an evil man after all and has been their protector all along, it reaffirms the shamanistic practise that had led to the sacrifice of newborns. And yet there is a little twist to it: all the three newborns that were sacrificed were male, whereas their fourth child, who is allowed to live, is a girl.
There are some bizarre choices that the low budget may account for, but is more suggestive of the director's twisted mind. One such choice is the casting of the boy who comes out of the outenga. He seems to be of a different ethnic origin and looks rather grown for a child to have been been trapped inside the vegetable-a scene that has an almost comical effect on the viewer. But if we didn't have a problem with the preposterousness of a woman giving birth to a vegetable in the first place, he seems to be saying, can we have a problem with these relatively minor things? Hazarika is a mysterious filmmaker with a perverse sense of humour, and I hope he stays that way.