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Shankar’s Fairies: A story of the class system and contradictions

Set in the early 60s, debutant director Irfana Majumdar’s feature film Shankar’s Fairies, which premiered at the Locarno Film Festival, digs into personal memories as it takes an incisive look at the class hierarchy in Indian society.

Written by Alaka Sahani |
August 14, 2021 7:18:09 pm
Shankar’s FairiesShankar’s Fairies, which just premiered at the Locarno Film Festival, exposes inequalities in our society through gentle and subtle storytelling.

As years go by, a house collects many stories. Unbeknownst to its inhabitants, it is privy to many tales that criss-cross as they carry on with their lives. The feature film Shankar’s Fairies, directed by debutant Irfana Majumdar and written by her mother Nita Kumar, brings together many such stories that their family home in Lucknow has witnessed, to piece together an insightful narrative about India’s complex class system.

When the nearly century-old bungalow owned by Majumdar’s grandparents was proposed to be sold, the debutant director along with Kumar, wanted to preserve the memories of the family’s past that’s inextricably associated with it. “After my mother’s demise, the house was going to be sold. It seemed urgent to make some visual documentation of the past, her life, and the house,” recalls Kumar. She dived into her childhood memories and the years spent in the colonial-style house to write a story of Shankar’s Fairies.

While doing so, Kumar realised it was not possible to tell the story of her parents and her growing up years in the bungalow built by her grandfather in 1930s without featuring Shankar, their family’s help for many years, in it. When Kumar’s father was a young IPS officer, Shankar started working for him and spent the rest of his life serving their family.

Set in an elite Indian household of the 60s, the movie explores its dependence on Shankar, who is an indispensable help in the house of a senior police officer. Yet, that doesn’t blur the class divide. It also doesn’t ease many contradictions that exist in our society. Even though his employers have liberal views, they still remain controlling and authoritative. Shankar’s Fairies, which just premiered at the Locarno Film Festival, exposes inequalities in our society through gentle and subtle storytelling.

At the heart of the movie, however, is the bond Shankar (Kumar names the movie’s character after him even though the story is fictionalised) shares with Anjana, the young daughter of the officer. Anjana is inquisitive and Shankar keeps her engaged with his stories. Kumar describes Shankar as a “mother figure” in her life. She says: “My parents belonged to that generation who didn’t spend much time with children. Shankar was always there as a gentle, child-like but also an adult figure. He used to tell me stories of his village and chudails. When I decided to write a story around him, I thought of incorporating his stories in it too.”

Nita Kumar, Irfana Majumdar Shankar’s Fairies is directed by debutant Irfana Majumdar and written by her mother Nita Kumar.

The impact Shankar and his stories had on Kumar is “profound”. That, she believes, inspired her research about working-class people and migrants. In 1988, she wrote The Artisans of Banaras, which is dedicated to Shankar. Her next book Fieldwork Memoirs was published in 1990. “I wrote extensively about artisans. My only connection to such people and their life was Shankar. He must have opened my imagination in such a way that I wanted to study their life,” says Kumar, a recipient of Sahitya Akademi Award and Brown Family Chair of South Asian History at Claremont McKenna College, California (emeritus).

Majumdar believes that even though many fondly remember their live-in helps, their bond is not always as unique as the one Kumar shared with Shankar. “This was a combination of the person that Shankar was and my mother’s unique relationship with him as a child. The film tries to capture this,” says Majumdar, who studied Theatre and Performance at the University of Chicago and is the founding artistic director of the NIRMAN Theatre & Film Studio in Varanasi.

Set in 1962, Shankar’s Fairies makes allusions to the Indo-China war. Kumar chose that year specifically since she wanted to give a national context to the story. “It was in time of Jawaharlal Nehru and Lucknowi culture. The Indo-China episode made it easier to frame the story,” says Kumar. However, recreating that period visually for the camera was not easy even though the bungalow, where most of the scenes are shot, still retains its colonial charm. Kumar, who is credited for production design, says: “From fabrics to utensils, hookah and peekdaan, everything is very different today. While finding certain objects were easy, others were a torment. It was difficult to find radio and telephone from that period.”

Another important task before the makers was to make the cast familiar with the space. Majumdar and her husband Gaurav Saini, a theatre director and filmmaker, used theatre techniques extensively to prepare the cast that includes non-actors. They made Shreeja Mishra, who essays the role of Anjana, and Jaihind Kumar, who plays Shankar, spend a lot of time at the home. “Jaihind, who is based in Mumbai, came to live with us in Lucknow for three months. He lived in the room where Shankar lived and no one knew he is an actor. He also had to master the household skills that the movie shows. If he made a bed, we had to show that he was good at it,” says Majumdar.

Along with her directorial responsibilities, Majumdar chose to play the role of Sudha, the character modelled on her grandmother. “It was exciting to explore the life of a young woman in 1962. She was the wife of the chief of police and an efficient manager of their estate, but had her own inner world of opinions and desires,” she says. Since they had prepared extensively before the shoot began, the task of facing the camera as well as being behind it was not so tough for her. Saini played the role of chief of police that’s inspired by her grandfather.

The movie, which mostly uses long shots capturing the vibe of the house, didn’t have any lighting crew. During filming, they mostly used natural light. That’s perhaps the best way to preserve the look and atmosphere of the house. It also comes close to how Majumdar, who spent some years of her childhood there, remembers the space. “It felt safe and warm there. The sunlight that entered the house changed depending on the time of the day. You could hear birds chirping and see trees from every room,” reminisces Majumdar, who hopes to release the film in theatres after its festival run.

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