Locarno 2021 review: Shankar’s Fairies (Irfana Majumdar)

Why do we tell stories? From the earliest days of childhood we encounter these fantastical tales filled with mystery, intrigue, and eccentric characters, normally from worlds separate from our own. They offer a momentary distraction and a sense of comfort, while still conveying a particular message. This concept serves as the foundation for the wonderful Shankar’s Fairies by Irfana Majumdar, who weaves an incredible story herself in the form of this tender, sensitive drama set in India in 1962. It is focused on the young daughter of a powerful Indian bureaucrat and the kindly servant that befriends her and tells her a variety of stories, teaching her about the world she is still too young to explore and the underlying truths she struggles to comprehend. One of the most endearing entries into the canon of films centred on intergenerational friendships, and a film that manages to be both sweetly sentimental and culturally informative, Shankar’s Fairies is an absolute delight, a charming and insightful drama with an abundance of heart and an even more impressive sense of direction, each decision in the film hinting at some deeper meaning lurking just below the surface.

There are several functions of stories – they tend to entertain, soothe, and provoke. However, their most important quality is that they have the capacity to record an entire culture’s history, often in the form of fables that use abstract imagery to evoke worlds filled with fantasy. Shankar’s Fairies is the perfect exploration of the power of oral traditions in shaping one’s mind towards their culture. Majumdar situates us in a remote mansion on the outskirts of an Indian town (which we never see, with it only existing through dialogue), and looks at the life of a young girl who has every luxury she can hope for – except for a genuine connection with another person. She goes to the finest school her parents can afford and is privy to the conversations of many very powerful people that make their way through her home. But it’s through her active engagement with one of her family’s manservants that she learns about the outside world, filtered through the fantastical stories told by a man who understands he isn’t simply helping to distract the wandering imagination of a child, but teaching an impressionable young mind and shaping her perspective on the world that she is slowly starting to realize extends beyond the locations to which she has grown accustomed.

The use of storytelling sharply contrasts with the other intentions the director had in making Shankar’s Fairies. As much as this is a film about two lonely people bonding over their shared adoration of storytelling, the film is a firm reminder of India’s past, with postcolonialism lingering over every frame of the film. Majumdar offers an invaluable perspective (particularly in terms of framing this period through a female lens, which makes the representation of the young protagonist and her mother even more enriching) and understands the boundaries between historical commentary and overwrought preaching, avoiding the latter at all costs throughout the film. The narrative touches on deep social issues relating to India in the 1960s – by this point, the nation had only been liberated for just over a decade and was understandably in a state of limbo, caught between celebrating its newfound freedom and struggling to erase the impact of European influence. The film explores issues relating to the use of language in the culture (specifically the rapid decline of traditional languages and the prominence of English in the lives of these characters), and different expressions of religious belief, both of which fuel some fascinating conversations. The droning hum of the radio tells its own story, that of a country swiftly undergoing change, tying these complex conversations back to the simpler details at the heart of the narrative.

Shankar’s Fairies is an exceptionally simple film, focusing on two people from different backgrounds who are connected by their shared love of stories and the comfort that comes when they talk about worlds outside their own, serving as a distraction to their comfortable but unsatisfied lives. Majumdar has made a beautiful tale of childhood innocence, set against the bleak backdrop of a country only recently unshackled, which has unfortunately caused attention to shift away from those who would benefit most from a sense of identity. Instead, characters seek out solace through telling stories which fill the gap of loneliness they feel as a result of neglect. The director introduces a fascinating contrast between the frequent mention of the “motherland” and the surrogate parenting done by the titular character who takes charge of the young protagonist’s education in lieu of her parents, who are too invested in writing the story of their nation to pay attention to their daughter. Anchored by strong leading performances by Jaihind Kumar and Shreeja Mishra, and told with loving care and sincere honesty, Shankar’s Fairies is an absolutely stunning piece of filmmaking, a detailed and beautiful ode to the art of telling stories and the value of learning about the world through these small but significant encounters.

Shankar's Fairies (Irfana Majumdar)