Far from the hustle and bustle of India's big film industries in Mumbai, Chennai, and Hyderabad is the western state of Assam.
This state borders China to the north, and stretches almost all the way to Myanmar in the west. Running all the way through Assam is the holy Brahmaputra river, one of largest in the world, and a source of culture, legend, and fable for hundreds of years. This river connects this far flung region to the bustling metropoli of Dhaka in Bangladesh where it intersects with the holy Ganges. In Bhaskar Hazarika's Kothanodi, this is the River of Fables, and it provides the backdrop for a quartet of dark tales that existed from time immemorial.
It is worth noting that Assam is not a region known for its film industry. It is only by coincidence that I've ever seen any Assamese film. The ultra low budget martial arts comedy Local Kung Fu caught my eye a few years ago and I was enthralled by the sheer enthusiasm behind its creation. However, that film was more of a lark and a passion project for the members of a marital arts school in Assam, where Kothanodi is a serious attempt to address the terrible tales that kept a young Hazarika up at night.
The intersecting stories of Kothanodi range from innocuously curious to violently demented, but all four feel very true to this isolated setting. The film opens with the story of Senehi, a woman who hates her husband's first daughter from another wife. When he leaves on a business trip, Senehi plots to murder the girl. The husband, played by currently Indian indie all-star Adil Hussain, finds his way to the village of Keteki, (Urmila Mahanta) who gives birth to an elephant apple which follows her around tormenting her with the secret it holds.
Meanwhile, another family plans the marriage of their only daughter to a python, in the hopes that they'll be blessed with riches beyond their wildest dreams, but sadly this is not the case. Finally, there is the most painful story, that of Malati and her husband Poonai, a couple whose first three children Poonai has sacrificed and buried on the advice of his guru. When Malati tries to save the fourth, she learns the deadly secrets behind Poonai's ritual.
The stories in Kothanodi weave together rather loosely in some cases, but director Hazarika does an excellent job of placing all four in a recognizably shared world. The wetlands and rivers of Assam play the backdrop to this gruesome fairy tale and the stories feel both contemporary and out of step with modernity in a haze of modern sensibilities and archaic lifestyles.
Village life in rural India still means huts and travel by long canoe in many corners of this huge nation, and Kothanodi does an excellent job of illustrating the collision of modern thought and deeply held ancient beliefs. It's both frightening and reassuring that these old ways survive, only in this case the frightening side always seems to win.
With such an exceptional physical backdrop, Kothanodi can't help but be beautiful to look at. Lush greenery fills every frame, but the serenity that we expect from village life is shattered as these ancient religions and superstitions take hold in the most gruesome fashion. In a country with literally dozens of independent film industries, the Assamese language film industry isn't even a blip on the Asian film radar, but Kothanodi makes a case for films based in the culture of this largely ignored region.
At times the production value is a bit dodgy, and some sequences, particularly those including the python and the graveyard of murdered babies, could certainly do with a bit of polish, but overall the film delivers its promised dread, and it is surprisingly gruesome in its execution.
Fright fans looking for thrill-a-minute gorefests will likely be disappointed, however, those in the mood for more cerebral indigenous horror are likely to find as much to love about Kothanodi as I did. It's a bit long at a hair under two hours, but the closer you get to the conclusion, the more it feels like it has earned much of that length.
If you can get past the frequently languid pacing, it becomes clear that Kothanodi trades thrills for atmosphere, and in the end its a more than fair trade as the film delivers not only one of the most gruesome and savage experiences in recent Indian film history, but also a window into a region of this immense nation that even native Indians don't often get.