Irfana Majumdar’s “Shankar’s Fairies” is an intimate family enterprise in more ways than one. The film revolves around the tight nuclear family of a senior police officer and their major domo in Lucknow, Northern India in 1962; it is based on the childhood memories of her mother Nita Kumar, who is the writer, producer and production designer on the film; and Majumdar’s husband Gaurav Saini serves as associate director and casting director and also plays the police officer.
The film is self-financed by the family, and adding to the intimacy is the fact that the house that it was shot in is part of the family’s personal history.
“My grandmother passed away in January of 2016, and this house, which she lived in for about maybe 35 years, ever since my grandfather retired from the police, was going to be sold, it was a joint family house. And it was a house which was a part of my childhood,” Majumdar tells Variety.
“My great grandfather built this house,” adds Majumdar. “And so because of that, we decided that we had to make a film in that house before it was sold, in order to preserve something about it.”
Kumar had written a short story for children titled “Shankar’s Fairies,” which became the seed for the film’s script. The film was initially due to be directed by Saini, but as the script developed, and the film went into pre-production Majumdar started feeling an ownership over the story as she was familiar with many of the events depicted in it.
“I just started being able to visualize everything very clearly – the feeling like I really knew what the story was supposed to be, how it should be told,” says Majumdar.
Majumdar had cut her teeth making three documentaries. “Images of Indian Children” (2005) followed Indian children in three environments – formal education, non-formal education and public spaces. “Anupriya” (2006), was commissioned by the University of Michigan’s South Asia Outreach Center for showing in schools all around Michigan, to give children an idea of what the life of a child in India is. “Children Playing Gods” (2008), commissioned by the India Foundation for the Arts, documented a workshop with children in a neighborhood where the Ramlila Hindu religious festival happens.
Thus, Majumdar had plenty of experience with children going into “Shankar’s Fairies,” which is told through the eyes of a little girl (Shreeja Mishra). Majumdar herself plays the girl’s mother. Jaihind Kumar plays the titular Shankar, who is an indispensable part of the household and a man of many domestic talents. However, he yearns for his own family and his own, frequently unwell daughter, who live in a faraway village.
India is a nation riven by the caste system, class differences and contradictions. For example, the Hindu patriarch of the family in the film, the police officer, is secular and wants his men to learn about the history of Islam. On the other hand, he is quite clear that his domestic help, including Shankar, know their place.
“Now in the West, the middle class is quite large, and so most people experience greater equality, even though there is inequality still,” says Majumdar. “But in India, that’s not the case today, and definitely wasn’t at that time [in 1962]. And so it’s tricky. I mean, we would have to have a discussion about this bigger system in place in India, where class is really much more important today than caste and all these other things, even though those also come into play.”
“Shankar’s Fairies” has been picked up for international sales by Hong Kong-based iboutique nternational sales company Asian Shadows.
The film will world premiere on Aug. 13 in the Concorso Cineasti del Presente section of the Locarno Film Festival.