Review: Kothanodi – Indian Film Festival Melbourne
For any fans of the fantasy genre, Bhaskar Hazarika’s Kothanodi is a great entry point into this year’s Indian Film Festival. For anyone’s who’s not as keen on swords, dragons and castles, this adaptation of four classic Assamese folk tales is not that kind of fantasy movie. Taken from a compendium entitled Burhi Aair Sadhu (Grandma’s Tales) compiled by Lakshminath Bezbaroa, the stories all have a maternal relationship at their centre and a different harsh truth to deliver about motherhood.
The story of Malati, and her husband Poonai, is perhaps the harshest of all. They are a childless couple, but only because Poonai’s mystical uncle has told his nephew to kill each of the three babies that Malati has given birth to. Poonai promised his father on his deathbed that he would always follow his uncle’s counsel, however difficult it might be.
The film’s opening scene shows Poonai taking their third screaming infant into the dark forest and burying it alive. It’s an unexpectedly horrifying introduction to the world of this film, but one that sets the tone right from the outset. The murder is depicted in a way that is dark and confounding, but not gruesome or gratuitous. It operates within the familiar frame of folk tale logic, and in a very recognisable fantasy setting.
While Poonai and Malati are naturally disheartened by what they’ve had to sacrifice, they are not as traumatised as they would be if this film was striving for realism. Nevertheless, the once again pregnant Malati is determined to keep this next child, no matter what Poonai’s uncle says. However, her feeling changes when he eventually shows her a vision of what would have happened if she’d kept her other children.
While the rest of the stories don’t start off quite as gruesomely, one way or another they all end up in quite a violent place.
The tale of Keteki, a woman who has given birth to a fruit, begins less shockingly but just as strangely. A friendly traveller named Devinath tells her that there is in fact a human son inside the fruit, one who loves his mum as much as any child does but who doesn’t fee safe enough to come out of his shell and into the world. As you can imagine, Keteki is simultaneously overjoyed at this discovery and overcome with maternal guilt.
The image of her walking around with her elephant apple rolling behind her is so unashamedly bizarre and eventually so emotionally charged that it works. No doubt much of this production’s local audience would have grown up with these stories and have no impulse to question their believability. As for international audiences such as Australia, surely they will respect a film that feels no need to explain itself too much.
The stories are told with an effective mix of fantasy and magical realism. When Devinath guides Keteki through a ritual that will draw out her son, she certainly reacts as though she is watching something otherworldly. It is definitely the film’s most fantastical scene, and yet we still feel that we are in the same “real” world where more mundane happenings are taking place. Keteki’s neighbours react to her fruit child with surprise, but not disbelief. They think she is a witch, and a dangerous one. If it’s her they’re afraid of, they should really meet the other two mothers we see here.
While Malati and Keteki are the two understatedly sympahetic characters, the domineering Doneshwari and evil stepmother Senehi are our gloriously fearsome villains. Doneshwari, we hear, has been tricked by a cunning python into selling her daughter’s hand in marriage. He managed to conceal his species from Doneshwari until just after the deal was made, but she is not at all aggrieved. She has heard tell of a girl in a nearby village who was also married off to a python. Apparently the morning after the marriage was consummated she woke up dressed in finery and covered with money, so Doneshwari is convinced that her daughter’s marriage will be a very prosperous union. The snake’s con happens offscreen, as Hazarika, who wrote and directed the film, very wisely doesn’t go so far as showing us a talking snake. The fact that we only ever see him doing things that a real python would do makes Doneshwari appear all the more deluded and self-centred.
That said, the avaricious matriarch has nothing on our evil stepmother, Senehi, who also happens to be Devinath’s second wife. She is bitterly envious of the special connection between her new husband and his sweet young daughter. She feels incapable of competing with such a strong familial bond, and decides she wants her stepdaughter gone. The final straw is when the girl borrows , without permission, the dress that used to owned by Senehi’s deceased mother. While Devinath is off travelling and helping Keteki connect with her withdrawn child, he has unknowingly left his own child at the mercy of a woman who has resolved to kill her.
The film’s title roughly translates to “dark waters” in English. On its surface, Kothanodi simply looks like a dark but entertaining mix of traditional fables. While it does conjure a sense of curiosity about what fates these characters will eventually meet, they are all quite clearly illustrations of different vices and virtues. However, Hazarika manages to infuse most of these cautionary tales with a contemporary relevance. The story of a woman who must decide whether or not to keep her child, and who is sick of having men make that decision for her, is anything but otherworldly. There are also many children who are born living in their own little world that they never want to leave, something their mothers sadly can’t help but take personally. Unfortunately, there are also still many matchmaking mothers around the world who will turn a blind eye to an abusive son-in-law if he is rich enough.
The odd one out here is the wicked stepmother, who just doesn’t have the same social resonance as the other three. As memorable as she is, and even though the real world does actually have a few resentful step-parents, hers is a story that feels overrepresented, especially in folk tales. Nevertheless, she is a delightful addition to what is still a deep and varied exploration of what it means to be a mother, and how hard it is to be a good one.
Written by Christian Tsoutsouvas