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Film review: JK Rowling casts the right spell in ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’

The Harry Potter creator and director David Yates have created the perfect fantasy for the dreary times in which humanity finds itself.

Nothing and nobody really dies in fantasy cinema. That rule has seen the regeneration of seemingly long-dead franchises such as Star Trek, Star Wars and the upcoming Blade Runner prequel. It was only a matter of time before JK Rowling threw her wand into the pile and revisited the evergreen story of “The Boy Who Lived”.

Taking place decades before scarred teenagers and their friends fought dark lords in the Harry Potter books and the film adaptations, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them follows the story of Newt Scamander, a bumbling genius wizard (Eddie Redmayne). Scamander lands up in New York City of the Roaring Twenties, which is more a version of Batman’s Gotham than of rich spectacle of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. Scamander is a “magizoologist”, who travels the far reaches of the Earth capturing beasts that resemble animals from the non-magical world such as rhinos, snakes, eagles but with slightly surreal peculiarities.

A few of the creatures from his magical briefcase escape into the streets of pre-Depression New York City and Scamander sets out to get them back. Along the way, he encounters Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a “no-mag” (muggle in American) and war veteran-turned-factory-worker who wants to be a baker and Tina Goldstein (Katherina Waterston), a disgraced Auror relegated to the wand permit department but desperate to get back in the good books of Madame President (Carmen Ejogo).

Meanwhile, mysterious occurrences take place throughout New York City that threaten to reveal the secrets of the magical world to the no-mag. Initial blame is directed towards Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), the Dark Lord that a certain Albus Dumbledore defeated to put himself on the map. Chief Auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) investigates, aided by creepy-demon child Creedence Barebone (Ezra Miller) and Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) both of whom are leading a crusade called Second Salemers against witches and wizards.

Eddie Redmayne in ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’. Courtesy Warner Bros.
Eddie Redmayne in ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’. Courtesy Warner Bros.

There are passing mentions to the eight Harry Potter films that came before; strains of the familiar Potter theme occasionally echo in the background; Albus Dumbledore is teaching at Hogwarts (or Hogwash as one of the American characters not fond of wizarding world across the pond calls it). There is just the right amount of Potter references for Fantastic Beasts to feel familiar and still not become a retread like JJ Abrams’ Star Wars reboot.

Rowling’s 2001 novel, which was written under the pseudonym Newt Scamander and which provided a basis for her screenplay, doesn’t have much of a plot and is more of a glossary of magical creatures. A movie spun out from a textbook mentioned only in passing in the books and movies could have gone drastically wrong. But aided by director David Yates (into his fifth film in the Potter franchise) and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, Rowling creates an incredibly immersive world that unfolds at a leisurely pace but is never boring because it does not get bogged down by the weight of audience expectations created by adaptations of the Potter books.

Creating good fantasy requires metaphors from the real world, and Fantastic Beasts does have many. The no-mag versus the magical world storyline not only harks back to the mutant versus humans theme from the original X-Men trilogy, but also has parallels with the fear, paranoia and persecution of minorities in our fraught present. There is enough escapist entertainment, from well-staged battle sequences and signature British wit to explorations of Scamander’s never-ending suitcase (occasionally hampered by stodgy CGI), to make the film perfectly primed for the dreary times in which humanity finds itself.

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‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’.
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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.