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Not Just a Fairytale

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We see all sorts of magic in films; inexplicable, untraceable and uncanny. We have seen it all—flying brooms, brewed potions, fairy tales and happily ever afters. We have befriended ghosts, encountered aliens and dined under floating candles. Well, we have also zipped across the universe and warped ahead of time. Moving forward from pure fantasy and science-fiction, storytellers and film visionaries have found the middle ground to let surrealism and realism co-exist—with magical realism. 

Set in the Amazon jungles of Colombia, Embrace of the Serpent which won an Academy Award for best foreign film and a director’s award at Cannes dramatizes situations and creates vivid visual imagery implying the best version of magical realism. Meanwhile closer to home, directors have taken their first steps to juxtapose conceptual reality and circumstantial reality. Imtiaz Ali included significant aspects of fantasy based realism in Tamasha with its multi-layered screenplay and self-conflicted characters. Down south, film director Mysskin believes in portraying dreams not reality on screen—bridging the gap with the genre itself. Bhaskar Hazarika who recently won a National Award for his film Kothanodi includes fiction based on facts in its narrative.

At first glance, the phrase magical realism might seem a paradox in itself. It’s a genre that complements reality and the fantasy, churning out unlikely but possible occurrences. With its roots in Latin America with writings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, magic realism branched out from solely a literary device to being constantly explored in films. In order to have a deeper sense of reality, it merges the world as we know it with the beyond. Fantastical events take place in highly detailed realistic settings often interrupted by elements too strange to believe in. Instead of being entirely fictional, stories bloom with social relevance and reveal traces of magic existing amidst the mundane. Originating as a way to escape life’s harsh realities, it has largely evolved transforming into a multi-faceted tool to amplify the quality of storytelling. 

Hybridity, one of many elements of magic realism present in movies such as Pleasantville (1998), provides multiple layers and dimensions of existence to interact with each other. The characters often in completely separate realms are able to interact via tangible mediums such as a television set. A sense of mysticism is crucial to the genre, providing constant moments of secrets and awe present within the different worlds. Another detail observed is concept of normalized magic existing in the supernatural world, only projected as normal. There is a moment where the audience has to give in entirely to the wondrous absurdity of the genre, transporting themselves away from life as they know it. 

Dreams (1990), directed by the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, is a series of short films based on the director’s actual dreams. Beautiful cinematography interspersed with pristine conceptualization of colors, sound, music, art and cinema come together in a mysterious narrative, constantly keeping the viewer in a cloudy meditative state. The 2001 hit Donnie Darko questions what one should fear more, the darkness or the unknown. Their own version of fear acts as a motivator for every character. The protagonist questions the entire spectrum of human emotion, making him create his supposed destiny. There is no factual ending or conclusion – only perceptions of reality. 

More examples of the genre include Midnight in Paris (2011), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Amelie (2001) and Trainspotting (1996), a film that uses magic realism to illustrate the hilarious highs and the painful lows of heroin addiction, and it does so without shying away from the uncomfortable or the grotesque.

With magical realism being portrayed in countless stories and films over the last two decades, it is certain that it will be dissected and explored even more with years to come. It is best to allow surrealism to arise out of the real. Question the world we live in everyday, see what is unseen and believe in magic.


Text Lavanya Grover



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