Sunday, June 12, 2011

Celebrating Magical Realism: Road Movie and Nandhanam

Magic realism--a kind of modern fiction in which fabulous and fantastical events are included in a narrative that otherwise maintains the 'reliable' tone of objective realistic report. Designating a tendency of the modern novel to reach beyond the confines of realism and draw upon the energies of fable, folk tale, and myth while maintaining a strong contemporary social relevance. (The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms)

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.

Road, Movie 

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.


mm said...

Sorry, I haven't read your reviews, but am reacting to your opening paragraphs. You can't find "magical realism" in Indian films? Maybe because it's been labeled "masala"?

Yes, you won't find films labeled "magical realism", because such a concept doesn't exist -- there is so much of the otherworldly or supernatural mixed into everyday life in India that nobody feels the need to remark on it, or to come up with a film genre for it. And because of that, you may not recognize it when you see it.

Have you seen Maine Pyar Kiya and Hum Aapke Hain Kaun? What do you think the roles of the pigeon and dog, respectively, represent in those films, except "magical realism", i.e., the intervention of cosmic forces via humble characters? But those are usually dismissed as "campy" or "cheesy" by most bloggers. Have you seen Yamadonga? Or Aa Nalaguru, recently reviewed on Cinema Chaat? What do you think Yama's minions and/or Yama were in those films, except touches of "magical realism"?

Or what about classic Hindi films such as Amar Akbar Anthony, or Jhanak Jhanak Payal Bhaje?

I have seen several bloggers (all of whom list each other on their blogrolls, so probably are acquainted with each other) struggle to "classify" such films as Yamadonga, Gulabakavali Katha, and Maya Bazaar. Terms I have seen thrown around are "mythologicals", "fantasy", "sociofantasy" etc. I think "magical realism" may be the phrase that makes such films accessible to those outside the tradition.

Now I will read your actual film reviews, to see if the films were consciously trying to ape a genre from the "west", or if they were portraying a more indigenous (and integrated) form of storytelling. :)

Mette said...

What a wonderful name for a genre: "magical realism". I've never heard it before, but now I read this, I'm sure I've seen some films belonging to this genre.
Road, Movie is a film that I especially want to see because of Abhay sweetheart, but I'm also really excited for it due to other reasons now - thank you! I'll also check out Nadanam some time.

Ness said...

A lovely review of a movie I (for the most part) love. Thank you, too, for giving me a new way to look at the role of the waterlord - which has always been a sticking point for me - the way you compare his role and 'reality' to that of the fair in the desert (which I've never had a problem with) is something to think about and I definitely will have more to chew on the next time I watch this film.

Re: MM's comment regarding "magical realism" in Indian films - I don't think Road, Movie really belongs to the 'mainstream' Hindi cinema, it's definitely more experimental/arthouse/parallel than a popular film aimed at a mass audience. Magical realism is a legit genre in literature seperate and removed from the tradition in many Hindi films of foregrounding the artificiality of film in a way that Western film tends to avoid (that includes characters directly addressing the camera, the use of 'magical animals" or supernatural occurrences that remain unremarked upon, e.g teleporting/disappearing heroes etc). I don't know that Road, Movie was necessarily 'aping' a Western genre but I do agree that it was consciously attempting to do something different from the bulk of mainstream Hindi film product.

Dolce and Namak said...

Hey MM, I think we may be using a different definition for magical realism, which is not uncommon considering there is no proper locked-in definition for it either. I know intuitively what it is but was struggling a lot to find a good definition that encompasses everything I think should be part of it. But no, I don't think any of the films you mentioned that I have seen fall under the magical realism umbrella. Just because folklore, mythology and religious beliefs are weaved into a film, that to me does not put it in the realm of magical realism. And I do think for Yamadonga for example mythological is the correct term, because that's what it is.
See for me the difference between magical realism and fantasy films or mythological is that with magical realism there is always a potential logical explanation. Whether it's drugs in the case of Road Movie or simply a wild imagination in the case of Nandhanam and Videsh, you never get a sense of complete dislocation from reality. In the case of Yamadonga for example, you do. It's a fantasy movie and it doesn't try to be anything more than that. It's a fine line, I know, but for me a movie has to be deeply rooted in reality in order to belong to the genre. Also, the fact that the genre exists or not in art originating from India is I think a moot point: Salman Rushdie and Yann Martel have written books that belong to magical realism and they are labelled as such, so I see no reason to deny an Indian film the possibility of falling under this genre even if it's not presented as such by the film makers.
The other thing that makes magical realism stand out from fantasy movies and the masala genre in general is that it strives for social relevance, it has a more meaningful purpose. A film that uses a talking dog (I'm thinking MPKDH and Godavari here because I haven't seen the ones you mentioned) is a film that uses a talking dog. It's a quirk, but it brings nothing magical to the story. A film like Nandanam on the other hand is making a point about social status and about faith through the introduction of this element so it's not just a cute thing, it's instrumental to the social relevance of the film. Same with Videsh (Heaven on Earth): the presence of the extraordinary forces is the catalyst of the entire second half of the film and for the character's evolution from that point forward.
It is definitely hard to draw the line even in Hollywood between movies that are being quirky and playing with hallucination, visions, and other mind-bending hooks, and those that are legitimate magical realism. The key words are really in the title: it has to have an element of magic/fantastic and it has to be real. To me any movie that moves too far away from either of the two falls off the map as far as this genre is concerned.
Wonder if this just made it even more confusing or if I managed to explain why I think very few Indian movies do in fact fall under this very high-maintenance genre. It's very intuitive to me, but really hard to explain to someone else :)

Dolce and Namak said...

@Limette: I really love Road Movie, but don't expect it to be a vehicle for Abhay Deol because it's not. It's more of a team effort and every character stands out. And you have to be ready for it, be in the mood. If you're expecting boom boom bang bang action, this is faaar from it :)

@ Ness - heya! It's hard to do Road Movie justice, isn't it? I remember getting that feeling from your review as well, and I could definitely relate. But it was a little easier for me because I was only concerned with this one aspect of it. In that respect, I'm very happy I added something new to your outlook on certain episodes. That always makes me happy when I manage it :)
Welcome aboard by the way! :) Hope to see you around more often! :-*

mm said...

@Dolce -- Sorry, I still haven't had time to read through your reviews. In passing, may I say that one of the things I enjoy most about your blog is the way you try to see the interconnections between Indian films and things like musical codes or the Three Musketeers? I find those ruminations fascinating and unique in the Bolly blogosphere.

Now, on to the magical realism discussion -- I agree that the term doesn't have a definite definition. In fact, some years ago, when it was being thrown around pretty liberally in literary circles, and I was struggling to understand just what the heck it meant, I happened to attend a writers' conference where Isabelle Allende was speaking, and I asked her what it meant. She said that it refers to the idea that there are things that can only be explained by the irrational -- which is the complete opposite to the definition you have given above (about there always being a logical explanation possible). Now the historic origins of magical realism in South American writing, as I understand it, arose out of the repressive political climate in those countries, where the authors could express their criticisms openly. Hence they had to resort to an elaborate code language, so to speak, which was perfectly comprehensible to their readers. When I read the writings of Garcia Marquez or Jorge Luis Borges, for example, even though I am clueless as to what the politics are that they might be referencing, I still can sense that all the "fantastical" elements of the story stand for something more significant, and I have to ponder over the meaning. But when I read something like "Shame" by Salman Rushdie, the "fantasy" elements seem forced, and, incidentally, in no way capable of any alternate rational explanation. Have you ever read Rushdie's debut novel, btw? It was a complete fantasy novel, only sold as a mainstream one, where it didn't find any takers. At the same time, it was not sufficiently a fantasy novel to be sold in that genre. I find this is often true of many current novels sold as "magical realism" that are not from South America. It is as if these authors completely miss the sociopolitical underpinnings, and only focus on the fantastical elements, which are superficial. A good example of this sort is the novel "Mistress of Spices" which was also made into a film.

(continued below)

mm said...

(continued from above)

Now, I have no quarrel if you want to interpret the films you mention as being in the "magical realism" genre, but I am objecting to your postulating that it is a new development to Indian films. And, just as I said South Americans knew what the symbolic interpretation was of the magical realistic works while outsiders may not, I am making the point that what seems like fantasy to the non-Indian viewer will be very much "realistic" to the Indian viewer. To take your own example of Yamadonga, for example, I don't think the Telugu audience at all considered the Yama portions to be a complete detached from reality, since the main point of those scenes is the link with NTR (the original one), where, for example they used many issues and speeches from his own political campaigning in the Yamaloka election. More importantly, the whole concept of Yama, Chitragupta, etc. is not "mythology" (i.e., lies from the far past) but part of the every day belief system by which those viewers live their lives. (In this respect those scenes are not "mythological", but "religious.") Here I am going with Isabelle Allende's definition of magical realism rather than yours. That is to say, in ordinary every day life, I find Indians willing to incorporate rational and irrational, and even magical, beliefs into one integrated world view, which I think captures the essence of magical realism as Allende has defined it, even if it is not used for correcting any social wrongs.

I won't talk about the animals in movies, because you say you haven't seen the ones I have mentioned. But I was definitely not talking about the kind of talking dogs in Godavari. (But maybe all those "nagin" movies fit the bill?)

Finally, I have to echo your comment that I don't know if I've made myself clearer, or muddied the waters further. :)

Leaf said...

Dolce, if you liked Nandanam, I'd like to see how you compare it to a more recent Ranjith film, Pranchiyettan and the Saint. Technically, I consider it a superior film to the lovable Nandanam, but I think there are interesting contrasts to made regarding the role of the supernatural in the lives of protagonists who have very different levels of agency.

Sakhi said...

Glad you liked Nandanam. I also thought it wasn't a terribly complex story but one with a very true intention that it went about in a very simple way. I also loved the performance by Navya Nair. I watched Nandanam rather reluctantly because I'd not revisited this genre since the 90s when I was kid and there were many movies about faith moving mountains (at present I cannot remember names but I believe there was one that starred Rajesh Khanna in Hindi...darn my memory!). Also glad I took the plunge and surprised at how much I enjoyed it.

Dolce and Namak said...

Sorry guys, it took me a few days to even get over the Stanley Cup madness which had kind of taken over my life. So I've been kind of absent around here, but back to business as usual.

MM, hopefully this gave you some time too, to read through the post and give me some thoughts on the movies. ;)

Without turning it into a bigger discussion than it needs to be, I'll just say about the genre that if we went by that section of Isabelle Allende's definition, then "The X Files" would be magical realism too. :) There's a lot more to her definition, I'm sure, just like there's a lot more to mine, and the two definitions are complemetary actually, far from mutually exclusive. In fact I see both sides as necessary for a true magical realism piece.

@ Leaf: heeeey!!! :) *happy wave* Thanks for the tip on another Ranjith film, I will track it down and watch it, I do love me this kind of films, so I'll be very happy to look at another one, especially since I am still feeling my way in the dark with Malayalam movies. Looking forward to watching it!

@ Sakhi: Aha! So it's in the 90s that I'll find more of this style in Hindi cinema? That explains why I haven't found any so far. But yes, I really liked the message of Nandanam, even if the comedy was not only unnecessary but also very very annoying. But the rest of the film had its heart in the right place for sure!
Welcome to my blog and hope to see you around again! :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the blog and sharing your joy of Indian Cinema with countless others on your blog. The language of cinema and its ability to port itself in time across cultures is mind blowing.

I thought you might like a movie that I myself had come across recently. It is called Uthiri Pookkal (meaning: flowers that fall off the tree and lay in waste?). Even though I am Indian I do not speak Tamil but nevertheless, I found a film that was brilliant with terrific characters and performances.

Dolce and Namak said...

Hey asympt0te (cool screen name!), thank you for the compliment! And I totally agree: you don't have to speak the language or even be Indian to appreciate a good film, which is why this blog exists in the first place. :)

I never heard of that Tamil movie, I'll have to check it out. I just did a quick search and it seems to be an old one, so it may take a bit of effort to find the DVD (which I much prefer to youtube uploads ;)). But thank you for the recco, I'll look into it for sure!

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