Director: Ken Scott
Cast: Dhanush, Erin Moriarty, Bérénice Bejo, Barkhad Abdi, Ben Miller
The morning at a South Mumbai police station is unusually noisy. Four unruly slum children curse their uniformed captors. A four-year-long juvenile-prison stint awaits them. In walks a serene-faced Fakir (Dhanush). He has an odd name and a story to tell. Aja Patel’s face is gentle. The kids quieten down. For the next 90 minutes, the young Fakir describes his extraordinary journey – from Mumbai to Paris to England to Spain to Italy to Libya and back. Walter Mitty would be envious. The analogy is clear: The Fakir is this film, and we – the bitter, tormented humans of 2019 – are the kids in need of a soothing voice. His story, like his name, is scarcely believable. The timing is right. A naive little fairytale can go a long way in reforming us.
Ken Scott’s movie is an Indo-French-Belgian co-production based on a best-selling French novel. The central character, not for the first time, is naturally the West’s version of an exotic Indian hero. He thinks and speaks in English, irrespective of his background and surroundings. He watches Friends reruns in the shanties of Dhobi Ghat. There’s a curious mismatch of tones – the “looking London, talking Tokyo” feeling – that plagues these high-profile cross-pollinated dramas. I get that this is a timeworn commercial decision that enables better global access. But there’s no denying that it is an artistic disruptor. Brushing this compromise of verbal language off as a necessary evil is no different from forgiving the extreme visual language of mainstream entertainers. But the mashup somewhat adds to the inherent magic realism of The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir.
The film is essentially reflecting the intentions of its feel-good Fakir – a man who is customizing the (emotional) language of his own life to appeal to his impressionable listeners. The film doesn’t claim to be authentic or honest at all; in fact, it counts on looking and sounding a little ridiculous, lest we mistake it for a real underdog story (a Slumdog Millionaire, or a Pele). The unreliable narrator is, in a way, the most reliable component of the narrative. Unlike Dev Patel characters in Slumdog or The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, his communicative skills are also the film’s communicative skills. The Fakir’s surname is even perhaps a nod to the ultimate cinematic embodiment of homegrown magic realism, Life of Pi. But the look of Pi Patel’s journey, just like Walter Mitty’s, is a result of the protagonists’ psychological conditions; Aja Patel’s, meanwhile, is a deliberate flight of fancy, and one that therefore marries the grammar of his narrative to that of his expedition. Even his choice of vocation – a small-time magician who swindles onlookers for a living – is designed to boost this theory.
So you indulge Aja when he leaves Mumbai with fake 100 Euro note and an irrational desire to find his French father. You go along with his claims when he sincerely tells the kids, “Due to a unique geomagnetic field, love in Paris is 100 times stronger.” You disbelieve (and hence, believe) the way he bonds with an American girl at a furniture store. You roll your eyes at her weird roommate, a typical quirky-comedic device, who decides to “try out” lesbianism. You chuckle at how the film abandons form – a British interrogator breaks into a musical song-and-dance routine, Aja croons a ‘Madaari’ song at a Roman discotheque, he hops across countries hidden in suitcases and cabinets, he sails above the clouds in a hot-air balloon, his 10-year-old version has an adult-jail stint – to remind us that the man is an overzealous storyteller. The incidents are nutty for a reason. His stories might be reacting to the mentality of children that need to be rehabilitated.
Some might argue that Aja’s journey is not organic…that it is carefully calibrated to take advantage of the production’s all-European access. A girl in Paris, a Somalian refugee in London, an Italian superstar in Rome, a pirate heist in Libya, Aja’s obsession with Ikea furniture – of course it is. The film is a classic product of modern consumerism. Most art is designed to best accommodate a sense of scale. But there’s a genuine misfit-ness about Dhanush’s gait that smoothens the movie’s checklist-like graph. He is an actor that thrives on performing with his body. This channelling of physical awkwardness – an energy typical of Indian tourists in foreign lands – urges us to look beyond the self-conscious dialogue delivery and strange anglicisms.
In fact, his eyes always seem to tell a tragedy, irrespective of the characters he plays. The unruly children sense this. They remember that he had promised to tell them a tragedy – but his turns out to be a happy fairytale. The Fakir, Dhanush, then reminds them of their circumstances. Their best four years are about to be wasted. Which is to say: The genre of a story depends on the state of its listeners, not on its language. His life is a tragedy to those who are in no position to fathom it. Just as this film might be one, for a world that has no time for dreamers. Some metaphors write themselves.