It’s been a good year to discover ways to frighten children in different cultures. After Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales pulled out the stops on Neapolitan folk tale horror, it’s the turn of Indian writer-director Bhaskar Hazarika and his rendition of traditional nasties from Assam in The River of Fables (Kothanodi). Interweaving four stories from the popular bedtime book Burhi Aai’r Xadhu (Grandma’s Tales), he creates a magical if highly unsettling world where mothers kill their daughters in a variety of unbelievable ways. Its dark, moody atmosphere hardly makes it a film for tots, but it should have a spooky festival career entrancing stalwart audiences after its Busan and BFI London bows.
It would certainly make a skin-crawling double bill with the Garrone picture. Both plummet the psychological depths of their timeless characters, most of whom are female. Despite the magical paraphernalia that surrounds the stories, these are recognizable women who, played by a top-flight cast, stick in the mind rather indelibly.
Proceedings get off to a flying start with a hair-raising night-in-the-forest scene, where a man furtively buries a crying baby alive. This horror is repeated several times more before the babies’ mother steps in, resolved to save her newest-born.
The best-known tale is about the innocent young girl Tejimola, whose adoring father (Adil Hussain) goes on a business trip to a distant village. He leaves her in the care of his second wife (Zerifa Wahid), whose hatred of her stepdaughter is unbounded. Her demon lover tells her how to get rid of the girl once and for all. One can plug in a modern interpretation of schizophrenia to explain the stepmother’s warped psyche (supported by Wahid’s wild eyes and laughter and her lover’s magical comings and goings), but psychology does nothing to soften the torture scenes that follow.
Before things reach this point, however, Tejimola gets an invitation to her best friend Bon’s wedding. She is being married to a large python that her batty mother (glowering actress Seema Biswas) has procured, in the hope it is really a prince in disguise ready to shower the family with riches. Taken all the way to its extreme consequences, this is one unforgettable story.
Meanwhile, the merchant-father continues on his travels and meets a sullen young woman (Urmila Mahanta) who has lived as a pariah ever since she gave birth to a vegetable the size of a cantaloupe. Now it rolls around after her wherever she goes. Is there a baby inside, the merchant wonders?
Making his debut as a film director, Hazarika offers suspenseful, mysterious storytelling always one happy step into the realm of magic. Though the tales are cleverly interwoven, they are a little too repetitive for comfort, and some of the characters are open to confusion. But the narrative still commands attention with its radically disturbing questions about motherhood.
One can sense the weight of prejudice in the Assamese folk tradition against women, portrayed as cruel mothers and sorceresses. Based on a popular compilation from many tribes and villages by the acclaimed writer Lakshminath Bezbaroa, there is a powerful suggestion that witchcraft is behind it all. (Just this year the state passed a bill outlawing witch-hunting in Assam.) What strengthens the film is how alongside the supernatural elements of the stories, Hazarika offers a realistic treatment of the characters, making these unearthly tales seem almost plausible.
Production company: Metanormal Motion Pictures
Cast: Seema Biswas, Adil Hussain, Zerifa Wahid, Urmila Mahanta, Kopil Bora, Asha Bordoloi
Director, screenwriter: Bhaskar Hazarika
Producers: Anurupa Hazarika, Utpala Mukherjee
Executive producers: Kn Hazarika, Indira Rajkhewa
Director of photography: Vijay Kutty
Production designer: Gulok Saha
Costume designer: Rani Dutta-Baruah
Editor: Suresh Pai
Music: Amaranth Hazarika