Magical realism, now that I think about it, is hard to find in Indian movies. A bit odd considering they come from a culture brimming with superstitions and religious beliefs. But no matter.
I am always happy to see a film that uses magical realism precisely because they are so few and far between. Moreover, out of these few films that delve into it, there are even fewer I actually like (sorry, Paheli and Videsh, you failed miserably to impress me). Which is unfortunate because for example most of my favourite authors (Salman Rushdie, Jose Saramago and to a certain extent Gabriel Garcia Marquez) can sell me just about anything written in this style.
So today I want to celebrate two magical films that I love unconditionally: Road Movie (Hindi) and Nandhanam (Malayalam).
I saw Road, Movie at the Toronto Film Festival in 2009 and I never though I would be able to recreate the high that possessed all of us when we came out of the theatre. So I admit to being a little afraid to rewatch it after getting the DVD. But it turns out it's just as powerful the second time around as I remember.
Road, Movie takes us on a journey across the Rajahstani desert in an old movies truck, along with Vishnu (Abhay Deol), a mechanic (Satish Kaushik), a kid (Mohammed Faisal) and a gypsy woman (Tannishtha Chatterjee). "In the desert", as another beloved Abhay Deol movie points out, "nothing is what it seems." Elements of magical realism come up more than once in surprising ways that elevate this film from a simple road movie (pun intended) to a glorious magic carpet ride.
And before I stray away from the theme, let me introduce the other lovely piece of art that is responsible for my taking a break from Kapoor Khazana to write this post: Nandhanam.
Nandhanam is the story of the beautiful servant girl and Krishna devotee Balamani (Navya Nair) who falls in love with the very handsome and very straightforward young master of the house: (Prithviraj). Status, family honour as well as the ever powerful sense of duty towards one's parents keep them apart. But the God Krishna is there looking out for them. Of course for the purposes of this post I will pretend that the annoying comedy track does not exist in this film. In fact, I strongly suggest you do the same with the help of our ever-faithful friend: the fast-forward button.
These two stories have nothing in common other than the above mentioned elements of magical realism. But because that is so hard to find, I am celebrating them both in the same post.
Gypsyes with their transitory nature and documented restlessness are often used to make the transition between what is real and what is magical in all kinds of stories. This happens a lot in Eastern European art, one great example being Emir Kusturica's films. So it's somewhat fitting that one of the characters in Road Movie is a mysterious gypsy woman without a name and without a home.
From the moment Vishnu's truck is started and until its dismissal at the end of the film, the real world is just a backdrop. None of the characters even behave as they would in the real world: they don't ask each other questions about their background, they don't chat needlessly, they just accept each other for what they are right there and then. To enhance that sense of fable, none of the people that Vishnu meets have a name, nor are they asked for one. It's this air of surrealism, or better said of fake realism, that makes Road Movie so very special.
The scenery with its endless roads of yellow dust and pebbles also contributes to the outlandish feel. Not surprisingly it brings to mind Giorgio de Chirico's deserted, desolate landscapes, a background not uncommon with other surrealist painters such as Yves Tanguy and Salvador Dali.
Of course, as is usually the case with magical realism, the fantastical elements are well balanced by pertinent social commentary and characters well anchored in the real world: police officers, goondas, villagers. The water women that appear at key moments throughout the film somehow seem to belong to both worlds, making the transition smoother.
And because biting irony is always a sure sign of realism, we find plenty of it all along the movie, culminating with the biggest irony of them all: instead of selling the hair oil as instructed, Vishnu exchanges it for water, a commodity only precious on the rare occasions when it is lacking. But then that is the key to the whole movie, isn't it: it's the things we take for granted, like water, life, laughter, and even a good hair oil massage that end up teaching us the big lessons.
Very much connected to the magical realism theme, everyone always asks about the fair scene, as they do not find it real enough for the film. This question was asked a couple of times of Dev Benegal at the Film Festival and he shrewdly evaded the answer. I've also seen the resolution of the Waterlord conflict being judged by the same criteria. But what I always want to reply to these critics is: where do you draw the line to define realism in a movie like this? If the Fair is not real, is the Waterlord episode more real? If that is also preposterous, is the police station more real? Is the journey itself? Are the people in the story? Is that ancient truck any more real? You see how this can go on endlessly. And after all, the real question is: does it really matter?
The beauty of magical realism is that it doesn't question itself: things happen the way they are told, when they are told, and that's final. Why then question the movie when it does not doubt itself? You know it can't happen, that it's logically impossible, and yet here it is happening in front of your eyes, and guess what: it's on purpose, it's not a continuity mistake nor is it a dream sequence. In the simple words of Salman Rushdie: "It happened that way because that's how it happened." (Midnight's Children)
Rushdie's words can easily be transferred to the more straight-forward Nandhanam, where (and this is hardly a spoiler because it's evident right from the beginning) the God Krishna's involvement in Balamani's life alters the elements in the story, thus recreating reality. Balamani herself seems to question it but she ends up accepting it as a fact, which is of course exactly how the story should go. A devotee of Krishna, Balamani has a very personal relationship with her most revered God, where she sees him more as her confidante than anything else. Much of the time spent in her room consists of conversations with Krishna as if he were a diary. But more than a diary, she treats him like a real person, a friend that you can get mad at, call upon in the middle of the night for help, look to for comfort and admit your deepest fears to.
It's hardly surprising then that his involvement in the story would reach beyond the frames of his icon.
Nandhanam is a classic fairy tale complete with a prince who falls in love at first sight and powerful forces of evil (in the shape of family honour and uncompromising relatives). We cannot judge the characters for being so kind it renders them weak because they are not here to teach us about rebellion, they are here to teach us about faith.
We also cannot judge the evil forces and their excuses and predicaments for the same reason: their existence validates the story.
At the same time, most of the characters, good or bad, bring about credible social commentary and the mentalities of the middle class family are captured eloquently. It's not that we've never seen a love story where the family opposes the union, but we rarely see a story that paints such an expressive picture of all the factors that influence this group decision. We also rarely see stories where folklore or gods have any kind of impact on the fate of the couple and this makes Nandanam very special.
Nandhanam, let's face it, is not a terribly complex movie, but it's a story with its heart in the right place and that little smidgen of magical realism truly makes it memorable. Because behind the very astute portrait of societal norms, the magical element brings about a very important question: can faith truly move mountains? Can wishing for something with a pure heart truly alter the course of your destiny? It's nice to be reminded to think of that every once in a while and that's exactly what Nandanam with its simple love story and simple people does.
Which brings me to the realization that perhaps that's why I love magical realism so much: it makes me wonder about all those layers beyond the visible and tangible world we live in, but at the same time it does so without demanding anything of me. I am not required to be religious, in fact I'm not even required to buy the story. I just have to... go with it. I'm certainly glad I "went with" both Nandanam and Road Movie.