Tekst: Abigail Prade
On losing one’s cultural identity and grabbing the audience by the balls
Interview with Bhaskar Hazarika
Kothanodi (The River of Fables) is a dark and surreal film that shows us a side of Indian cinema we haven’t seen before. Taking four stories from the ‘Burhi Aair Xadhu’ (‘Grandmother’s Tales’), the film weaves four different Assam folk tales into one narrative.
‘Tejimola’ tells the story of a girl whose stepmother plans her murder while her father is away on business. ‘Champawati’ is about a mother who wants to marry off her daughter to a python in the hopes of avenging her stepdaughter’s wealth. ‘Ou Kuwori ‘ (‘The Elephant Apple Maiden’) tells the story of a woman who has given birth to a mysterious piece of fruit that follows her everywhere she goes, while ‘Tawhoir Xadhu’ (‘The Story of Tawoir’) is about a mother who tries to save her baby from the clutches of her husband, who sacrifices their newborn babies. In varying degrees, all of these stories deal with the theme of motherhood, and a certain sense of cruelty prevails in them.
Some traditionalists were offended that I made this decidedly dark tale, which still surprises me, because I don’t show a single drop of blood.
Kothanodi premiered at the Busan Film Festival in 2015 and has since screened at festivals around the world. Abigail Prade had the pleasure of speaking to the film’s director, Bashkar Hazarika, at the Indian Film Festival in The Hague.
You have probably been asked this question many times before, but how did you come to make a film with this specific subject matter?
“It wasn’t really intentional. I was in Mumbai, working on different scripts, none of which got made. So I was looking for good material with exotic elements that would help me get noticed. I wanted to show something that people hadn’t seen before. I was practical in that sense. We started a crowd funding campaign, made local partnerships, received a grant from the Asian Cinema Fund, and then things quickly fell into place.”
For those of us that aren’t familiar with the cultural context, can you tell us more about the importance of these tales in Assam culture?
“The stories from the ‘Burhi Aair Xadhu’ are very old stories. Everybody in Assam hears these stories when growing up. So they are very famous. At the same time, my generation was probably the last one to hear these stories from their grandmother. Most of the Assam kids these days don’t know the tales anymore. Movies based on the stories have been made before, but usually they center on just one of the stories. This is the first time in Assam cinema that multiple narratives of the ‘Burhi Aair Xadhu’ were woven into one. It is also probably the first time these stories are seen by an audience around the world.”
How did you come to the decision to combine these fantastical, magical realist elements with such a straightforward, realistic filming style?
“I believe there was only one way we could do it and that was the way we did it. My own background is in documentary film. So I wanted to keep everything very simple and let the actors do their thing. Of course, we also had to consider that we were working with a limited budget.”
The women in this film shy away from what would be considered traditionally desirable notions of female behavior and motherhood. They are the ones doing the bloodshed, while in other cases they are shown as victims of their environment. Was this a political choice on your part?
“I’ve heard that comment before and it really surprises me, because I had no political criticism in mind when making this film. It was not my intention at all. For me it doesn’t matter if the characters are men or women. I’m only thinking what is right for the story and if I needed to change their gender for the story, I would do it. Perhaps it is probably more related to my vision of the world, which is quite dark and pessimistic. I have very little faith in human beings – animals, however, that’s a different story. I’m also a pulpy kind of man that likes creepy and dark things.
If there are some political statements in the film about the treatment of women, I probably incorporated those on a subliminal level, since I am a man of my time and environment, but it definitely wasn’t something that I overtly intended to do.”
How did the people of Assam react to the film? And what was the reaction worldwide?
“Some traditionalists were offended that I made this decidedly dark tale, which still surprises me, because I don’t show a single drop of blood. Most people, however, reacted overwhelmingly positive. Especially in Assam people were pleasantly surprised that we could tell these stories from our own culture in such an interesting and new way.
I think that introducing this local folklore to the young people of Assam, who have largely forgotten about these tales, is one of the great achievements of this film. Funnily enough, the reactions across the world have been similar… You might expect there to be some more affinity with these folkloristic supernatural tales in Assam, India and the rest of Asia itself – and those regions have indeed reacted positively to the film. But we also screened the film in cities such as London, Gothenburg and Austin, and the story also really appealed to the people there. Audiences In Korea especially went crazy for it, but they of course have a preference for creepy stuff.”
Let’s talk some more about reconnecting the people of Assam with their local culture.
“Assam cinema is dying. To a certain extent this holds true for most regional Indian cinema, but it is really acute in Assam. We are losing our local identity in favor of mainstream Indian culture. Assam cinema is trying to compete with Hindi film. We try to make glamorous films with songs, dance, and action. But they are only cheap knock-offs of Bollywood films – one action scene in a Bollywood film might be the cost of ten Assam films, so we can’t really compete with those kinds of films. We need to find our own identity and explore that, instead of trying to compete with Bollywood.”
Has the success of your film led to a resurgence in the independent Assam film industry?
“Not really. It is still very difficult to get things made. There are older filmmakers who do things their way. I am now part of a group of young filmmakers that are banding together, but we are just in the early stages of that.”
What was the main goal you set out to accomplish with your debut film?
“First of all, I just wanted to complete the film. It took us four years to make it and we ran out of funding in different stages, so it was a constant struggle to finish the film. Secondly, people are used so much to one type of film; the escapist Hindi films with their forced happy endings. I want to make content that grabs the audience by the balls and provokes them. I want them to think.”
What is next for you?
“Another film of course. Another creepy pulpy film.”