“…And as no one who entered this country ever returned, and the manners of its natives were never made known to an outsiders, the people of Hindustan used to call the inhabitants of Assam sorcerers and magicians and consider them as standing outside of the human species. They say that whoever enters this country is overcome by its charms and never comes out of it.”
These were the words of Shihabuddin, the official scribe of Mir Jumlah, the Nawab of Bengal who invaded Assam in 1662. Sir Edward Gait, the writer of the first – and still one of the most comprehensive – studies of the state’s history, which was published in 1905, used Shihabuddin’s descriptions to explore and understand the region.
In those and other accounts, Assam figures as the seat of tantra, and tales of magic, sorcery and witch-craft rise from itas the tides of the Brahmaputra into the paddy fields. Oral narratives passed down over centuries concerned with the surreal and the unearthly, are a part of everyday language and culture in the lives of the peoples of Assam.
The doyen of Assamese literature, Lakshminath Bezbaruah compiled the folktales of different communities and tribes into three volumes intended for children. One was Burhi Aai’r Xadhu (Grandma’s Tales), which held 30 stories, to some of which Bezbaruah added his own twist at the end, creating popular moral parables. Burhi Aai’r Xadhu was first published in 1911, and remains in circulation and is widely read today. Long before the comic books of Amar Chitra Katha made their way in, Burhi Aai’r Xadhu was the source of bedtime stories for nearly every child growing up in Assam.
The tales closely follow the conventions of folk parables – talking animals, cruel stepmothers, miracles, treachery – and many have been adapted into plays or television episodes. Yet feature-length adaptations on film have been few: The first, in 1963, was Anwar Hossain’s Tejimola, based on the most famous of the fables, the story of a girl tortured to death by her stepmother. Other adaptations include Sarabjan by Suprabha Devi and Hiren Choudhury, the 2012 Tula aru Teza, and Gautam Barua’s 2013 film Champawati.
Bhaskar Hazarika’s debut film Kothanodi is a breath of fresh air – reviving not only the tales of Burhi Aai’r Xadhu for young millenials, but also refreshing for popular Assamese cinema. Kothanodi, or The River of Fables, renders four of the most popular tales, Tejimola, Champawati, Ou Kuwori and Tawoir Xadhu, not as separate episodes but as a single, creatively woven narrative, with an overarching theme about motherhood and the perceptions of it .The stellar cast includes Adil Hussain and Seema Biswas (both originally from Assam), as well as other popular Assamese actors, such as Zerifa Wahid, Kopil Bora, Asha Bordoloi etc. It will premiere at the Busan International Film Festival in October 2015, and then be shown at the BFI London Film Festival, later in the same month.
Hazarika’s return to childhood memories is in many ways a reaction to the present, when pastoral Assam is not a place of innocence, and Kothanodi’s dark magic realism is not quite for children. Horror is palpable through the entire narrative. In Tejimola, for instance,a girl is tortured to death by her stepmother while the father, a merchant, is out on a business trip. Hazarika adds his own spin to the tale: the stepmother is not presented simply as inhuman, but rather as a non-human. Her nocturnal trysts with a horrific, supernatural paramour are one reason for her sadism. But Kothanodi is actually a story of stories about the present, when people live in the shadow of real terrors. The film also interrogates tired notions about femininity and the maternal figure: here, motherhood is not the idealized impulse to selflessly take care of her children ,nor the goddess-form evoked in the concept of Bharat Mata. Mothers are as selfish as any other humans, guided by their own needs and desires. In Champawati, Bonlotika’s mother forces her to marry a python in the hope that the python is a forest deity who will shower her and the household with riches.
Through folk narratives, the film also confronts the social issue of witchcraft, a recurring and contentious matter in Assam, so much so that the state recently passed the stringent Prevention and Protection from Witch Hunting Bill in 2015. In folk narratives, too, most witches and epitomes of greed or other evils are women. Kothanodi does not critique that aspect of folk stories, but we can hope that the film will open dialogue on the inhumanity and sexism within them.
Kothanodi is a complex film, and not a perfect one. It drags for a bit in the middle and the sound design is not quite up to the mark, though the music (by Amarnath Hazarika) is a delightful mix of Assamese folk traditions well suited to the stories’ ethos. Hazarika deserves credit for bringing a fresh understanding of Roxoraaj Lakhminath Bezbarua’s parables to the big screen – but right now it’s time to pick up a copy of Burhi Aai’r Xadhu and bury my nose into it, once again.
Shaheen S. Ahmed is an M.Phil research scholar at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University. She is also an arts practitioner.