In a sprawling house in Lucknow in 1962, news of the war with China comes through on the radio, a gentle breeze blows, it rains every now and then, and a nine-year-old girl implores the live-in butler to transport her to other worlds.

Shankar, tell me a story, Anjana pleads ever so often. He obliges, drawing on tall tales and folklore and firing the imagination of the curious and friendly child.

Irfana Majumdar’s Shankar’s Fairies is actually about the ineffable – times long past that remain in the recesses of the mind and heart in the form of snatches and glimpses, never complete but always vivid. The movie is both a chronicle of a young girl’s awakening to social truths and a portrait of Nehruvian India, a time of grace and propriety but also rigid stratification and ignored injustices.

Anjana is the daughter of the Senior Superintendent of Police and a beneficiary of the trappings of his office. The cavernous government-allotted house comes with a retinue of domestic workers.

As the police officer’s long-serving batman, Shankar runs the show, from packing Anjana’s lunch boxes to preparing the latest European dessert. Always on call and not always happy with his workload, Shankar often thinks of his own daughter back home in his village.

Jaihind Kumar in Shankar’s Fairies (2021). Courtesy Nita Kumar Productions.

Majumdar’s accomplished feature debut – she has previously directed three documentaries – was premiered at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland (August 4-14). The central performances are by an experienced actor and a newcomer: Shankar is played by Jaihind Kumar (Bole Chudiyan, Baraat Company), while Shreeja Mishra, a student at a school in Lucknow, portrays Anjana.

The 93-minute production is a family affair. Irfana Majumdar also stars in the movie as Anjana’s strict and perfectly turned-out mother Sudha. Anjana’s father Ramesh is played by Majumdar’s husband Gaurav Sabnis, who also serves as the casting director and acting coach.

The screenplay is by Anjana’s mother Nita Kumar, the Brown Family Chair of South Asian History at Claremont McKenna College in California (emeritus) and a winner of a Sahitya Akademi Award for translated fiction. Nita Kumar has also handled the movie’s production design.

Anjana’s house, which is a character in its own right, similarly has a connection to the filmmaker: it was her mother’s ancestral abode. The mansion in Lucknow, which was built by the director’s great-grandfather, was where Nita Kumar’s mother lived until her demise. When the house was put up for sale, the idea of preserving its legacy, as well as revisiting episodes from the lives of Majumdar’s mother and grandmother, took shape.

“When the extended family decided to sell the house, it felt like an end to many things,” Majumdar said. “My mother felt we should make a film about the house before it was gone.”

Nita Kumar (left) and Irfana Majumdar.

While Anjana is based on Nita Kumar, Majumdar also drew on conversations with her maternal grandmother. Nita Kumar had originally intended to help her own mother write her memoir. Some of those experiences found their way into the movie.

“It was a very interesting process and quite collaborative, a challenge that was interesting and fascinating,” the 40-year-old filmmaker recalled. “I have always been interested in this time period and the idea of people growing up and getting older. My grandmother was a perfectionist, she wanted to do many things, and she was excellent at gardening and paintings and music.”

Nita Kumar lived a “sheltered and protected life” until she was 20. The real-life inspiration of Shankar provided the writer with the “emotional acuity and “consciousness of his situation”, Majumdar added.

The movie gently and unobtrusively reveals Anjana’s growing awareness about the realities within and beyond the high walls of her house. She has a vague sense of what her father does for a living and watches curiously as her mother paints and organises social soirees.

Shreeja Mishra in Shankar’s Fairies (2021). Courtesy Nita Kumar Productions.

Anjana is closest to Shankar, but only to the extent of what is permissible. Shankar lives in quarters a few metres away from Anjana’s house, but the divide between his lower social status and her privilege emerges in major and minor ways. “This experience probably dictated my mother’s choices later on – she became a Marxist and trained in anthropology,” Majumdar observed.

Nita Kumar wrote a short story treatment that was barely 15 pages long but contained character sketches and the overall themes. The scenes were braided together in a lengthy post-production process.

The movie was completed in 2016 itself, two months before the Lucknow house was sold. Majumdar spent the next few years working with a couple of editors to shape cinematographer Sunny Bannerjee’s poetic images into a cogent narrative.

The film was eventually edited by Tanushree Das. “We felt free to play around with the order of scenes and find a rhythm that would be right for the narrative,” said Majumdar, who is the founding artistic director of the Nirman Theatre and Film Studio in Varanasi. “That made sense to me, given my theatre background. In theatre, this is what we do – we make material and then play around with it. Although I don’t have any training in filmmaking, I trusted my instincts.”

Jaihind Kumar and Gaurav Saini in Shankar’s Fairies (2021). Courtesy Nita Kumar Productions.

The episodic plot is linear, but holds out of the possibility of events having taken place before or after they occur in the narrative. This approach reflects the meandering and highly subjective nature of memory itself, Majumdar said.

“The film becomes about Anjana remembering certain things later, us witnessing her, where we are at the time when we are doing so. My hope is that the film has enough layers so that even though you don’t get all the references, you will connect to it personally. The core story is of the man and child, and this is what we relate to.”

The visual diary form begs the question of whose perspective are we seeing – the dutiful but also occasionally restive Shankar’s or the knee-high Anjana’s? Sunny Banerjee’s camera plays with long shots, close-ups, and frames taken at waist level, but the final perspective is undeniably of the director.

Shreeja Mishra in Shankar’s Fairies (2021). Courtesy Nita Kumar Productions.

“There is the little girl’s point of view and the beginning of her consciousness, but it is a kind of external gaze – as though we are seeing the child from the future. It’s like we have travelled back in time and found something that is hers,” Majumdar pointed out.

Shankar is indispensable to Anjana’s family, but there are invisible lines he cannot dream of crossing. In the paternalistic world created by Irfana Majumdar and Nita Kumar, Shankar has a well-defined place that he may never escape. Shankar’s Fairies evokes both presence and absence, the sense of a member of the household who is visible as well as invisible, important and yet disposable.

“Inequality is at the very core of our country, and I want people to feel this,” Majumdar said. “The interactions that take place in the film have happened and continue to happen all the time – this is totally unchanged.”

Shankar’s stories don’t just influence Anjana’s mind. They also keep him alive in her heart so that years later, she may restore his contribution to her intellectual evolution through the act of remembering.

Jaihind Kumar and Shreeja Mishra in Shankar’s Fairies (2021). Courtesy Nita Kumar Productions.