Do you believe in fairies? Well, you might say, it depends. Upon how old you are. How credulous you are. Or if you are an adult who’s never lost sight of the child you used to be.
Irfana Majumdar’s lovely, emotive debut feature Shankar’s Fairies takes you back to a time when fairies, and other mysterious creatures like chudails (witches), were part of your imaginative inner life, fed by a grown-up who told you those stories with great zest.
The film is set in Lucknow of the early ’60s, mostly confined to a large, stately bungalow ringed with well-maintained lawns, in which nine-year-old Anjana and her little brother live: their father is the senior superintendent of police, and their elegant mother is a perfect homemaker and hostess. The whole family is dependent on Shankar, the factotum-batman-butler-cook-all-purpose-handyman who has been with them for years. For Anjana, he is a perennial source of stories, and a reliever of tedium; for her IPS father, a man very aware of his position, he (Shankar) is an uncomplaining executor of orders; for Anjana’s mother, Shankar is the fulcrum which keeps the household ticking over smoothly. For all of them, he is more function than person.
The film reminded me, powerfully, of my own childhood spent roaming around a sprawling kothi very much like this one, and the time I spent with a Shankar-like figure, a young man called Paras, who pushed my swing, high, higher, and helped me speak to baby squirrels. Those were my fairies.
In a chat earlier this week, Majumdar spoke about how she wanted the film to be about a certain “time and place” (based on the memories of her mother Nita Kumar, who wrote the screenplay), and to examine how “class even more than caste can determine your life”. Shankar is very much a man of his time, a faithful “servant” who devotes himself to those he serves, his own family coming a distant second. So are Anjana’s parents, liberal in their own limited way, who routinely invisibilise their retinue: that’s just how things used to be.
And still are. While so much has changed in the past 60 years, there are pockets of India where things are still, heartbreakingly, the same. You can transcend your caste, says Majumdar, but overcoming class barriers can take much longer than a generation. Jaihind Kumar as Shankar is spot-on: he has a clear sense of self, whether he is eating leftovers (a terrific moment where Anjana realises the sharp inequity of their lives) or spinning a fresh yarn.
Shreeja Mishra, a schoolgirl from Lucknow, is equally credible as Anjana. Majumdar herself plays Anjana’s mother, and her real-life husband, actor and theatre director Gaurav Saini, plays the spouse in the film. The film had an international premiere at the recently-concluded Locarno Film Festival; it will now be a part of TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) Industry Selects, and, hopefully, open theatrically back home soon.
Memories of childhood can make for the most compelling cinema: Shankar’s Fairies has joined the films which top my list.