An adaptation of a group of folk tales from Assam in India, Kothanodi is an intriguing confluence of old and new elements: traditional stories given a moody, modern interpretation, with the second half of the production funded via Indian crowdfunding platform Wishberry. It’s already screened at film festivals around the world (beginnings with its premiere at Busan in 2015), and it’s now being distributed directly by online platform MovieSaints, who kindly gave me the opportunity to review the film.
Kothanodi draws its stories from Burhi Aair Xadhu (lit. Grandma’s Tales), a collection of Assamese folk tales put together by author Lakshminath Bezbaroa and first published in 1911. Four of these end up in the film, loosely linked (for me, anyway) by the theme of motherhood.
The film begins with a truly arresting image: a young man, obviously distraught, buries his young child alive in the forest at night. As his story unfolds, we learn that he has done this terrible thing to his wife’s first three children, and (upon the arrival of the fourth) she has resolved to confront him and prevent it happening again.
The second story concerns Keteki, a young woman recently arrived in the village that she lives in, who is accompanied by an outenga (an elephant apple) which rolls devotedly after her everywhere she walks. The rumour is that she gave birth to to the vegetable, and the local children taunt her mercilessly as she goes about her business.
In the third story, a young girl named Tejimola is left at home with her stepmother Senehi when her father goes away on a long business trip, only to find that her stepmother doesn’t share her beloved father’s deep affection for her.
Finally, in another village, a wealthy woman named Dhoneshwari is arranging to have her young daughter married to a python in order to reap the glory that such a supernatural union brings. It should come as no surprise that such a wedding is perilous to say the least.
When I read about Kothanodi, I had assumed that it would be a portmanteau film, with each story told standalone with only the theme to link them, much as in Japanese classic Kwaidan. This is not the case: in this film, the filmmakers have woven the tales together, cutting between them as they advance each story and even eventually sharing some of the characters. The dark mood and ghost-story feel to some of the film is certainly reminiscent of Kwaidan: the stories are just as darkly compelling, albeit without the Japanese film’s sumptuous theatricality.
Instead, Kothanodi’s characters have ordinary lives that have been touched by the supernatural, whether it be the mystery of the outenga birth or the story of the python bridegroom that Doneshwari is so driven to recreate. Much of the focus of each story is on the older female characters, and they are all strong performances: veteran actress Seema Biswas (Bandit Queen) is blindly driven and imperious as Doneshwari, while Urmila Mahanta gives both quiet dignity and vulnerability to Keteki the outenga maiden. Zerifa Wahid’s descent as Tejimola’s stepmother Senehi is formidable, even terrifying.
Folk tales (and especially ghost stories) like this make for appealing subject matter: they are both universal, as every culture has them, and specific, providing a window into that culture’s traditions and way of life. For me, that adds up to a kind of cinematic escapism that is hard to resist, and Kothanodi – The River of Fables certainly succeeds on that score. It is a compelling, well-made first feature for Assamese director Bhaskar Hazarika (particularly given that it was only completed with the assistance of crowdfunding!), and worth seeking out for anyone who can handle a bit of creeping dread and fateful consequence.