Kothanodi Uses Magical Realism To Deliver Eerie Atmospheric Horror

Originally appeared in Film Companion.

“Horror is like a serpent; always shedding its skin, always changing. And it will always come back. It can’t be hidden away like the guilty secrets we try to keep in our subconscious,” said Italian filmmaker Dario Argento. The quote beautifully articulates the meaning and objective of horror. By drawing an analogy with a serpent, Argento acknowledges that horror continues to evolve in conflux with the supernatural, while the next line elucidates how horror’s influence on one traces back to one’s psyche, thereby inferring what constitutes horror on both a wider and personal level. For those unfamiliar with Argento’s work, the filmmaker’s most renowned work is Suspiria, the first in The Three Mothers trilogy, which also includes the lesser-known Inferno and The Mother of Tears.

While each film in Argento’s The Three Mothers trilogy is dedicated to a witch – an explicit representation of a female indulging in the dark side of mystics – Bhaskar Hazarika‘s Kothanodi (The River of Fables), on the other hand, is an eldritch take on motherhood that tells the stories of four women, and it can and must be proclaimed ‘The Four Mothers’. Produced four years before his sophomore effort Aamis brought him into the limelight, it is the convergence of the supernatural and the real, which seamlessly delves into tenebrous depths of convoluted human nature.

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In Circus of Books And A Secret Love, On Netflix, Love Overpowers Sexuality

Originally appeared in Film Companion.

October is observed as LGBTQ History month across the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Brazil, Greenland, Hungary, and the city of Berlin. But that shouldn’t stop people of different nationality or sexuality from celebrating it, because at the end of the day, everything condenses down to love, a feeling that’s truly universal in every sense. Which is precisely the objective of this piece – to summarize how the films in discussion treat sexual orientation as a differentiating factor, transcending constraints imposed by humans.

Over the years, several documentaries, ranging from Arthur J. Bressan Jr’s Gay USA (1978) to The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017) by David France, have conjured the anger of the unheard voices in a repressive world. Similarly, narrative films ranging from Desert Hearts (1985) by Donna Deitch to the recent Moonlight (2016) by Barry Jenkins are equally important.

Moreover, Fire (1996) by Deepa Mehta, Aligarh (2016) by Hansal Mehta, My Brother Nikhil by Onir have tried to instigate the much-needed conversation through cinema in India. While the crowd-pleasing nature and lack of complexity of Shub Mangal Zyaada Saavdhaan have left viewers polarised, it is indeed a welcome change, bringing the dialogue to the mainstream.

However, documentaries always have an edge over narrative films, because they are unconditional, unfiltered, unreserved, and most importantly unequivocally real. Whether they give voice to hate, anger, or love, the impact squares when we know that people and stories in front of our eyes are real. On these lines, two recent Netflix documentaries, Circus of Books and A Secret Love, tell different stories concerning a singular theme, simultaneously echoing the changing perception towards homosexuality over decades.

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A Dialogue With My Mother

I always believed I knew my mother in and out.

I know what she loves and hates, which aspects of life agitate or calm her, where her thoughts are, whom she looks up to and disregards, and how she reacts to the tiniest of the aspects. Spend 23 years with a person and one can foretell every minuscule move of theirs. I know my mother, I assumed. My belief was only partially right. Little did I know ‘why’ certain things angered her, or ‘why’ she prefers certain things over others. The most important facet of all – the why – is something I never pondered on, and that differentiates everything. There are 23 years of her life, which I was not a part of, and those years have answers to the why-s. This conversation is an attempt to discern my mother, not as how I know her, but as who she is.

Artwork by Merwin Atticus Antony

Amma is a fun person – or at least tries to be. She is as lucid as a glass. Not a person to conceal her feelings, one can intelligibly notice when she is fumed. The aspect of her personality that I find the most fascinating is how extreme her kindness and anger are. When she is happy, she is the loveliest human to ever exist. When angered, it’s the end of Wakanda. I call her an extremist to nudge this very facet. So I begin the dialogue by asking has she always been this extreme. “Not exactly,” she said, sitting beside me, looking at the TV but not watching it, as I scrolled through an endless Netflix’s library, “I think the anger springs from the end of tolerance level after a point,” and she curtly changes the conversation to “why don’t you mute and scroll, the sound is annoying,” I acknowledge and switch off the TV. “See, now I’ll like to talk. How can one talk with the TV playing in the background?” she questions. Fair enough. I go back to the question and she resumes, “No. I was not as angry, or even expressive, for that matter back in the college days.” 

Picking from there, I ask her which has been the best time of her life. I knew the answer would be “College days,” she replied without taking a second. “’88 to ’95,” she goes on and I imagine memories must be hovering in her mind as she transmutes them into words, “During graduation and post-graduation, I was independent. Can’t say the same now,” she stops, as her voice gives a sense of gloom that is likely to ensue. I ask her why she doesn’t feel so, knowing that I’m complicit of her dependent-state. “Down the line, priorities changed. Journalism and social work, fields in which I aspired to pursue a career in, remains only partially fulfilled. Family became my priority, and it’s great. Not that it’s bad, but I would be lying if I say the disappointment doesn’t exist”. I countered her answer, asking whether she was compelled to deprioritize her aspirations or did she choose the life she settled for. 

She took two seconds to answer, the longest gap to any question. 

“It was a gradual transformation. A certain kind of conditioning by circumstances around me. I did my PG after marriage because your father has been supportive. I even worked until you were 13. You remember, right? Then, there was a point when I realized I was sailing on two boats and I had to resort to the family boat. Was I given a choice? No. There was no choice. Would I have done anything differently if given a choice? I don’t think so. The time was such.”

I’m quite familiar with this boat analogy. She always asked me to center my efforts on only one thing to warrant the most conducive results. I now understand where that emanates from. 

Realizing the conversation was getting somber question by question. I decided to lighten up her mood, converging back to her college days. 

“‘88 to ‘95, from Intermediate to Post Graduation, are what I’d call golden days.” 

It’s to be noted that she got married in ‘94. 

“A senior of mine while studying at Osmania University College for Women went on to pursue journalism in Sri Padmavati Mahila Visvavidyalayam located in Tirupathi and this urged me to get in as well. Plus, I was always interested in jobs that would make a difference in the real world, unlike a conventional desk job. Not that the others don’t make a difference, but in journalism, the impact is visible. And yes. I did crack the entrance exam and I topped merit lists of all the five programs they offered. Still one of the bigger achievements of my life.” 

Here comes the setback. 

“But I wasn’t allowed by your grandmother to go for journalism because an old fag (read: musali vedhava), a family friend of ours sowed the idea in her mind that journalism is not the ideal profession for women, as it involves a lot of ground reporting and travel. Funny how months of study to crack the entrance exam went down the gutter because of one man’s words,” 

Again, I counter her asking why she didn’t take a stand, especially considering how big of an impact this decision is going to have on her life. 

“I was weak and young. There was no way I could fight my mother. I was privileged enough to pursue PG at a time when many of my friends from UG were confined to homes in the pretext of marriage. And PG in Master of Social Work is equally significant. I could still make real-world consequences,” 

I’m glad to know she wasn’t heartbroken. 

“We saved several homeless children and disabled, from bus-stands, railway stations, and temples. We sent them to homes, where they are taken care of, provided education, and are even adopted by foreigners.” 

I’m floored by listening to this at a time when compassion – as small a gesture as offering water or fruit – is being capitalized by individuals desperately seeking fame in the form of pictures and other mediums to boast. I ask her how she felt doing all the good deeds, making a difference. 

“To be honest, it didn’t feel like we were making much of a difference. There was so much more to be done, and all of this was only a part of it. For us, at 22, bunking college to watch films was more exciting and felt like a bigger deal than saving children’s lives!,”

It’s surprising how easygoing she is with the notion of saving a life, not knowing how big of a deal it is. She goes on with the little delights, 

“Watching an FDFS in Tirupathi was unlike anything else. They’d play songs twice, you know?”


“And the lights around the screen would go zig-zag. It was a mayhem in the theatre! My best friend, Radhi, would carry those pink slips in her purse and hurl them around! We watched a countless number of films together as a group – Criminal, Bobbili Simham, Yama Leela, Baazigar Gandeevam, Hello Brother, Govinda Govinda, Bangaru Bollodu, Gaayam, and many more. I vividly remember bunking a field visit to a leprosy home to watch Yama Leela and were caught by the HoD, who threatened to cut internal marks,” 

I realize cutting internal marks has been the HoD cliche for 3 decades. You need to up your game, HoDs. 

“Yes. The best times comprised watching films, walking up to Tirumala every weekend, and hostel,” 

Did it all end after marriage? 


Hard-hitting. I ask whether my father is a patriarch? 

“That’s a big word. He’s the man of the house, that says something, right? But he has been supportive through my education and career post-marriage. But there were elders at home to take care of, your father’s job didn’t allow us to stay in one place, and they all held my career back. I saw no point in stretching beyond a point. I wish I was strong enough to pull it together. I should have argued with my mother and gone for journalism. But hey, this is the strength that I gained in the last 23 years. It didn’t exist 23 years ago! I have everything now. Compared to all the joys in life, the regrets pale in comparison.” 

My mother should be very proud. She saved many homeless children from the grim world. She worked for 11 years counseling women saved from trafficking, helping children with special abilities, patients with severe diseases instilling hope in them, and even as a teacher. Moreover, she worked as a family counselor for a year, which my father and I tease her job description as something similar to what’s done in the cringy, over-the-top family panchayat TV shows. 

Best and worst part: She never considered any of those as achievements. This, in turn, made her feel incomplete. 

“Oh boy!  I forgot I did these many things. I did more than what I was thinking, to be frank. Really, I kind of held myself in low regard all these years. I could have done a lot more, but I still did a lot. I’m proud of my short-spanned career!” 

She laughs for the first time during the 20-minute conversation. The delivery man from Swiggy calls, asking me to collect the choco lava cake. It was a sweet conversation, a bit dark, but sweet, just like my mother’s favorite choco lava cake, which marks the end of the conversation on record. 

It’s funny how a simple conversation that I began to discover my mother, in turn, helped her find herself. 

My beautiful, strong mother, Sridevi.


The Perils Of A Star-Centric Narrative, As Seen In Mahesh Babu-Starrer Maharshi

Note: This piece originally appeared in Film Companion.

What’s more annoying than a bad film? A bad film masquerading as a great film. The worst case scenario is a bad, boring film pretending to be a socially and thematically important film. Mahesh Babu-starrer Maharshi by Vamshi Paidipally holds itself in very high regard, and that only pulls it back from even being an engaging watch, forget cinematic merit.

If intent is the sole criteria to judge a film, Maharshi is certainly far from futile. But, when one chooses the cinematic medium to tell a story or convey a message, the medium has to be respected. In the case of bad-filmmaking, the message takes over the craft. Neither of these are the issues with Maharshi, which uses both the medium and message to only honour its protagonist. The plight of farmers — which has become a hotcake for South Indian stars to enhance their stature post the humongous success of AR Murugadoss‘ Kaththi  — is reduced to another subject to bring the protagonist to the foreground. That’s only one of the many issues with the film. 

Pitfalls of stardom

Mahesh Babu is a massive star and people go crazy to catch him on the big screen. Be it a slo-mo walk or a sprint, there’s an aura he possesses that has cast a spell on millions; he’s no less than a superhero for them. However, his stardom has confined him to a zone where he can no longer play the common man. 

The star’s recent filmography, starting from 2015, proves it. He played a rich man in Srimanthudu and Brahmotsavam, an Intelligence Officer in SpyderChief Minister in Bharath Ane Nenu, and the CEO of an American company in Maharshi, the film being discussed. The last time he played a character that represented the common man was in Seethamma Vakitlo Sirimalle Chettu (SVSC), one of the rare instances where he did let go of the star stature. 

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Mudbound: Peace in War

This piece originally appeared in Jumpcut Online

War alludes to destruction and death is ubiquitous on the battlefield. World War II effectuated deaths of millions and the gravity of horrors spread across the world is beyond human perspicacity. However, what if something as grotesque as the war bequeathed a fleeting relief to a person whose entire life was tyrannized by unseen, underlying, but omnipresent hatred?

Dee Rees’ Mudbound acts a formidable critique of racism by drawing an analogy between a noxious battleground in war-torn Europe and a quiet farm in Mississippi, USA. Unlike the battleground, where the menace and distress are thoroughly physical, back in the farm, the infliction of pain is majorly cerebral.

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Demystifying the Equivocation in Edmund Yeo’s Triad of Short Films

Malaysian filmmaker Edmund Yeo’s series of short films – Inhalation, Exhalation, and Kingyo – is a triad of recherché stories, invigorated by an enigmatic method of story-telling that vouchsafes an idiosyncratic brand of filmmaking, subsequently bestowing a solitary trait to each film. Akin to a Venn’s diagram, all the three films prevail discreetly, while collectively apportioning the 2-characters attribute, which remains the only common trait among the three. Inhalation and Kingyo share ‘love’ -or the lack of it – to thrust the narrative, while Kingyo shares death – and the repercussions that follow – with Exhalation. The third duad, Inhalation, and Exhalation, apart from being eponymous to the process they cumulatively contribute to, breathing, -the most vital sign of physical life – the two films collectively reflect the three facets, namely love, life, and death.

Yeo’s no philosopher. His films hold a mirror, and bespeak life, in all its mundanity and monotony. These films exhibit no zeal in metamorphosing into credos that aspire to be life-affirmative. That’s the point, they are mere reflections of humdrum people, like you and me. There is a lofty peril of misapprehending these films as lackadaisical in construction, as they may feel slightly desultory and abstruse at times, especially when contemplated with an eye for scrutiny. However, seeking the meaning for the films – where the intricacy lies in lucid reality – is a gratifying process that molds itself. 

From a viewpoint, these films are so slight and subtle that it’s onerous to dissect them, and from the other end, perhaps there is no exigency for the anatomy because the viewer’s first-hand reaction is the only substantial explanation. The first feeling that strikes you, is all you want to know; let it be regarding the oscillation between black & white and color in Exhalation, or the arcane ending of Kingyo. The instantaneous reaction audibly and elegantly summarizes the upshot. Yeo’s modus operandi is evident in all the three films, which let us peep into the minds of characters, predominantly two in each film, and pursue them through the cloaking time. Mind, I repeat, not the soul; foraying into the minds is no teeny-weeny exploit, in light of the minuscule runtime and minimalistic stories the characters emanate from.

Posters of the films in discussion

Inhalation is about a young couple with contrasting ideologies, that asserts them farther from one another, physically and mentally. She is driven by the need for a better life, while he stresses on extracting the best out of the existing life, instead of swedging for a different life, in the pretext of aim and objective

Kingyo, meaning goldfish in Japanese, is a dialogue between a young woman and her former college professor, converging at a point long past their romantic relationship, that is symbolized by a pair of goldfish. 

At the focal point of Exhalation is a young woman, who returns to her native place after learning about the demise of her ex-classmate. Although the friend who accompanies the protagonist is the second character, the dead classmate,  – who exists only in her memory, never to be seen on screen – is equally crucial in navigating the character through dream-like, recondite episodes of the story.

Through these three films, there is a deep understanding of life, what comprises it, and what exists beyond, for those surrounding the dead. The thought of swapping the titles, Inhalation and Exhalation, is intriguing. Reciprocation of the titles would befit the respective stories than their existing titles. Allow me to simplify, Exhalation is a repertoire of individuals’ responses to the death of someone they all know. One feels sad, one acknowledges and moves on, and one commits to suicide. Through the film, characters continually suspire the information as they keep learning it. Not once do they lighten the burden off their chest; in other words, they keep suffusing themselves with information and never extricate it. The title Inhalation would have beautifully complemented the burgeoning pressure.

Likewise, the core conflict of Inhalation is the clash of beliefs, not faith-based, but life-based. The divergence of tenets ramifies into verbose arguments. The man channelizes his anger on the woman in the form of a wordy catharsis, and that makes Inhalation an exhalation of exasperation.

However, Kingyo would remain untouched. Like the only enduring symbol of the bond between its two leads, the film is the midpoint of Inhalation and Exhalation.

Betwixt love and death, there exists heartbreak, and the three films collectively summon this facet, as much as they do individually.


Fun fact: Edmund Yeo made these films a decade ago, when he was in his mid-20s.

The shorts are now available to stream on Mubi library and his official webiste.

The Letter to Cannes

A couple of months back, when staying at home was restricted to couch potatoes, I applied to ‘3 days at Cannes’ program. The biggest film festival in the universe – provided aliens haven’t discovered the magic called cinema – allowed commoners to experience the exhilaration for 3 days, and I couldn’t refrain myself from giving it a try. I mean, what kind of cinephile would I be without taking a shot at writing a cover letter, that would reward a lifetime experience. I’m letting the letter hang here as an act of brag.


To Whom It May Concern

I’ve always viewed writing cover letters as an exercise of self-selling. Obviously, why would anyone advocate the second person, unless they see the benefit in doing so? To make sure I stand apart from my competition, it boils down to the point where I ‘sell’ myself in disguise of ‘motivation’! 

My father continually moved from one place to another. He kept going to places, literally and figuratively, and being a nuclear Indian family we are, not staying together was never a question; even the idea of having me and mother stay at a place while my father worked elsewhere, was non-existent. As a result, I studied in 9 schools, and the side effect, we’d move away before the relationship I had with children of my metamorphosed into this notion called ‘friendship’. I never felt desolate, though. I always had my ‘movies’ keeping me company. Watching a movie in a theatre was – and still is – the most exciting ‘event’ that I looked forward to. Post the event, cherishing the memory of the time spent in the theatre was equally delightful as I waited for the next time I’d sit in a dingy auditorium losing the track of time, reality, world, and myself.

What began as a love affair that bolstered to ‘escape’ the world, soon sprouted into the fascination with the art form. An email I received on July 16th, 2019, altered my life. I got accepted to be a part of the Young Critics Lab by Mumbai International Film Festival. Mentored by Baradwaj Rangan, the greatest Indian film critic, that’s when my writing journey started taking baby steps. The workshop, in the first place, taught me how to watch a film and dissect it shot by shot. As part of the Young Critic Jury, the 6 days I spent discovering Cinema from diverse cultural backgrounds was a wake-up call to explore gems I had overlooked my entire life. Ever since, writing was a catharsis. A release of feelings and emotions channeled through words. Here are some of my writings if you wish to read.

  1. Brotherhood
  2. I Lost My Body
  3. Soni – Video Essay
  4. Port Authority
  5. Haider

For a 22-year-old person coping up with career, choices, and life, the experience paved a direction, and attending Cannes is sure to be a life-affirmative experience like MAMI 19, but only exponentially more impactful considering the diversity the festival is associated with.

I’m not the best. There are a lot of talented and deserving individuals, but my competition is not with them. I aspire to be the best version of myself. Upgrading my skills and upping my game is all I aspire to, and Cannes is sure to help me with that.

All in all, writing this cover letter took on a ride of memories, and I wish writing this letter by itself would be a memory to cherish soon.


Ram Venkat Srikar


A fortnight later – when the world was in the process of realizing its fragility – this dropped in my inbox.

I wasn’t hysteric this time around. There was no reason to be disappointed. Getting acceptance – the external validation that I was worthy enough – suffused me with happiness. Looking back at this, the craving for outward acceptance is sadder than missing the opportunity to attend Cannes, an opportunity that would have in turn bestowed more opportunities, speaking hypothetically.

Sonder, Empathy, and The White Baloon

A feeling or expression that I look for in every film, or should I say, in every person I come across is ‘Sonder’. It’s a fascinating word that stands for a profound feeling of realizing that everyone, including strangers we come across on streets, hav a life as complex as one’s own, which they are constantly living despite one’s personal lack of awareness of it.

Do you get it? Back in the olden days, when we used to walk on crowded streets, watch films in packed auditoriums, and eat in restaurants, everyone in our physically vicinity had a life as vivid and deep as us. Like they were faceless bypassers in our lives, we are by passers in theirs. They experience the same emotions and human complexities as us. Let it be an old man struggling to find a spot to sit in a metro train, or annoying teenaged girl who cannot get rid of her phone amid a movie.

Also, I strongly feel the word sonder is interrelated to empathy, which is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Where there is sonder, empathy will follow. If we realise that the other person’s life is as deep as ours, empathizing with them is assured.

I’m talking in length about these two emotions because Jafar Pahani’s debut feature The White Balloon primarily deals with them, or in a way, the lack of these two emotions in humans.

Minimalistic in nature, the film tells the story of 7-year old Razieh who has to fight numerous odds to buy a goldfish, as the clock ticks for Islamic new year. The seemingly simple task of going to the Tehrene market and purchasing the fish she desired, mounts into an impossible task, as she faces adversaries in different forms one after the other, all in a tenure of 1 hour 15 minutes.

Starting from procuring the money from her mother, to facing a snake charmer who tries to take her money, and the most severe of all, losing the note to a grate on the street, the young girl struggles to achieve what she set out for. Retrieving the note becomes an arduous task for both the girl and her elder brother, who joins her on the quest. However, seen from the perspective of these by-passers in the narrative, it is just two annoying kids hindering their plans.

A still from the film

Throughout their struggle, there is a clear view of empathy and the lack of it through different characters. An elderly lady who bolsters Razieh in finding the path, literally and figuratively.  And the titular white balloon asserted me to rethink the entire narrative, while leaving us with a jolt. It’s a glorious instance for Michael Scott to recite his iconic line, “Well, well, well. How the turntables…”

Jafar Panahi doesn’t try to represent the world in it’s all doom and gloom. We do come across people who empathize with the children and extend a helping hand. However, more the empathy, lesses the struggle.

The brilliance of the film lies in its ending, which suffused me with ‘sonder’. The balloon, who becomes the hero of the entire film, sits idly as the children rejoice at their accomplishment. That’s when it strikes, perhaps we talk about empathy only when we are in dire need of it.

The fact that the film has a seemingly happy ending is proof that despite the hardships we go through in our lives, when we exhibit empathy and stand for each other could make our lives much better. It’s an exhibition of human nature, a theme that would remain consistent through the auteur’s glorious filmography.

A slightly modified version of this piece can be found here as an AV