The journey of Ken Scott’s French-English film The Extraordinary Journey of The Fakir, starring Dhanush in his international acting debut, is nearly as eventful as the wanderings of its charlatan hero.
The film is based on Romain Puertolas’s 2013 French bestseller The Extraordinary Journey of The Fakir Who Got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe. The hero is Ajatshatru Oghash Rathod, a confidence trickster from Rajasthan who aims to go to Paris but instead ends up touring the farthest corners of Europe and Africa.
Puertolas wrote the novel in one month based on his experience as part of the French border police. Beyond its picaresque tone, the book addresses issues of immigration and global inequality.
The novel was set to be turned into a film by graphic novelist and filmmaker Marjane Satrapi with a multi-racial cast led by Dhanush. Alexandra Daddario, Uma Thurman and Gemma Arterton were to co-star. Scott took over as co-writer and director in 2017.
The new supporting cast includes Argentinean-French actress Berenice Bejo (The Artist, The Past), American actress Erin Moriarty, Somali-American actor Barkhad Abdi, and French actor-director Gerard Jugnot. The film had its global premiere in Paris in May, and will be released in India over the next few weeks.
“Joining the project was natural as the book fit my impression of the world and the humour fit into my style of comedy,” Scott told Scroll.in. He has previously made the French comedies Sticky Fingers (2009) and Starbuck (2011).
Though “small changes” have been made to the story, the adaptation, on which Romain Puertolas has collaborated, ensures that the book’s soul isn’t lost, Scott said.
Ajatshatru is now a Mumbai native named Ajatashatru Lavash Patel rather than a villager from Rajasthan. “Somehow, the story felt more organic in the setting Mumbai was providing,” Scott said.
In the novel, the peripatetic fakir cons his village into paying for his trip to the French capital, where he plans to visit an IKEA store and buy a bed of nails. In the film, Ajatshatru goes to Paris to find his estranged father after his mother dies. “We needed his motivation to go to Paris be real and heartfelt,” Scott explained. “On the surface, the book is a lighthearted comedy with unexpected plot twists. But beyond the whimsy and the slapstick comedy, the story deals with issues of our time and philosophical concepts about the role karma and chance plays in our life.”
A lot was learned shooting across India, France, Belgium and Italy with an internationally diverse cast. “You had to make the most of each day,” Scott said. Communication with actors and crew members speaking in different languages did pose challenges. “Sometimes, I would talk to people in English, and midway, I realised nobody understood anything,” Scott said.
But shooting at the right locations with the right cast was important to make the film authentic, he added. “Prior to filming, I spoke to Dhanush and the other actors and discussed not just their characters but how films were made in their countries,” Scott said. “The film brought a lot of cultures together in one place.”
About Dhanush, whom Satrapi cast because of his “almond eyes, ravishing smile, a big acting range and an extremely expressive face”, Scott had the nicest things to say: “Dhanush’s vast acting experience makes the director’s job easy. He is very instinctive with great comic timing. He brings a light touch to his comic scenes. But besides that, he has the quality to make the audience care about his character. He pulls the audience into the story so that everyone would like to be a part of this journey he is taking on screen.”
The changes in Ajashatru’s personality as he visits different countries informs the film’s visual palette. “He comes from a small neighbourhood, albeit in a big city,” Scott said. “Then he discovers the city, and then Europe, and we tried to show these places through his eyes.”
The co-writer of the film, Bossi, told Variety in 2016 about the screenplay’s similarity to such films as Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful (1997), Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011), and Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). The anything-can-happen yet wholesome tone of these films is reflected in the trailer, which also evokes the spirit of Herge’s Tintin comics and the Indiana Jones productions.
Sometimes, the culture and history of the locations seeped into the story. “In a part shot in England, there’s a dance sequence with absurd humour, which is a homage to Monty Python [the British comedy group],” Scott said. This dance sequence is, however, different from the Bollywood dance number that comes later in the film. The song has been composed by Amit Trivedi and written by Anvita Dutt Guptan. Nicolas Errera has scored the movie.