South Asian Projects
Project Name: Fair-Home Fairy-Tales
Director’s Name: Sourav Sarangi, India
Rachael, the puppeteer, recreates the perilous trek of her mother from Burma to Bengal during the WWII Japanese invasion unfurling the history of war-torn South-East Asia in her current context.
Rachael Macbean (78) lives with Abdul (65), her foster son in Kolkata, but her mind wanders to Burma (Myanmar). There lived her mother Fenella with sister Lavinia and their parents in the 1940s.
Rachael and Abdul get busy in a rented workshop close to their home cramped with dolls and pets. Stories pop up as Rachael plans a puppet theatre about her family.
Fenella was a tomboy who enjoyed riding horses and dancing. But those were cut short when Japan bombed Burma. After attacking Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the Imperial Japanese Army assaulted neighboring Asian countries. World War II reached the Pacific Theatre knocking on Fair-Home’s doors, the tiny villa they lived in.
To escape the brutality, they join the perilous trek of six hundred miles through the Death Valley (Hukawng). Wading through hilly ravines and thick jungles at night, only miracles helped them reach North-East India to be packed off to a train to Calcutta (Kolkata).
Miracles continued. Fenella bumps into Harry Cheah, son of a noble Chinese family who was in love with her in Burma. They get married. Rachael was born in a refugee camp in Central India as a British subject, they all received Indian passports after independence.
Traumas of war are hard to part with. Little Rachael never understood why her mother would jump from her bed at the slightest sound while sleeping and cover her head under a pillow. She wouldn’t have known many things had her aunt, Lavinia, not written a diary during the deadly trek. Rachael receives a digital copy recovered from family members who went off to Australia. Missing dots of the past get reconnected through WhatsApp chats.
The puppet dolls finally come alive after months of hard work. They are carved, painted, and fitted with strings. Will Rachael find a sponsor for the show? Belonging to the minority religions, another question haunts them, the new citizenship law amended by the current government that traces the past of each individual if they are not Hindus.
Rachael has booked her place in a cemetery in Kolkata next to her parents and husband. “Before I join them, I must tell my story I suppressed for years”. Will she be able to tell her story on stage ever? But we already have the story, “Fair-Home Fairy-Tales”!
How does one visualize memories? They change with the times, shifting contexts and individual perspectives. Memories can also be listener’s tales merging with fictive layers of imagination. Rachael, our main character is a writer and storyteller herself. She uses handmade puppet dolls to tell her stories. I will use this opportunity of playing with her puppets to reconstruct the oral memories. I want to go further with the puppet models in an animated form that will help my audience ‘experience’ the story. The physical puppets and the computer-generated models will resemble each other for seamless transitions from real life to the animated world. The 2D background for the animation will have the look of watercolor paintings for aesthetic reasons.
Our access to many yellowing photographs, memorabilia, and diaries will lend authenticity evoking personal emotions. My fluid camera style will create a cinematic space with conversations, monologues, designed tracks, and music to aurally contribute to the dramatic structure crisscrossing Rachael’s past and the present.
My friendship with Rachael grew over years, but it took time till her to open up her personal world to me. The story is mesmerizing but also a challenging one, however, her trust and confidence inspire me to bring out to the world an unrecorded chapter of history fraught with flaming courage and dark despair, meetings, and farewells, and will to love and live. A family story that continues for millions over many borders now.
As always, I would strive to share my work with a larger audience. I am looking for professionals to take ‘Fair-Home Fairy-Tales’ to festivals, broadcasters, institutions, and global forums like UNHCR. Another mission is reconnecting the Burma trek survivors around the world by creating an interactive digital library.
We introduce Rachael in her current milieu. Her eyes are glued to the laptop screen. The cramped room accommodates a vinyl player, wine bottles, two lovebirds, two talking parrots, and a dog. Abdul brings a dishful of evening snacks and turns on the noisy electric water pump.
Oblivious of this cacophony, Rachael enjoys a puppet show she made for TV long ago. The camera tracks slowly to the same puppets dangling from the wall. We hear only a tinkling chime hanging from the doorframe. The reality transforms into a fairytale world of puppets.
The title “Fair-Home Fairy-Tales”.
On her bedroom wall, the camera focuses on a faded photograph of ‘Fair-Home’ in Burma. Rachael knows each corner of the English bungalow without ever visiting it.
Back in her rented workspace amidst manuscripts, unfinished dolls, styrofoam flakes, and score sheets we find Rachael instructing the artisans, voice artists, and musicians. She shares family anecdotes with them. I will shoot the process in an observational style. Before our eyes, dolls will be carved from wood and pass through different stages till they are ready for a show.
I will take the puppets further as animated characters to reconstruct the past. The background will be digitally created in 2D with the look of hand-painted illustrations. The animation will cover one-third of the film.
Skimming through albums, Rachael recalls the British-Burma days in Maymyo. Her mother Fenella, the heartbeat of the dance floor, surprises all by wearing a gown laced with live fireflies. Lavinia watches her sister sitting in a corner. Unlike Fenella, she is timid and introverted.
Alice, the mother, is always busy instructing her Burmese maids not to mix up local spices with her continental dishes. Bob, the father is glued to the radio news. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on 7th December 1941.
The fighter planes reach Maymyo. They must evacuate. Alice takes jewelry and money. Fenella takes the papers. Bob takes a roadmap and his pistol. He shoots the pet dogs. Army truck picks them up on April 21st, 1942.
We cut to scenes of the family escaping bombing in Myitkyina airbase. Running along skinless people after blasts they see their relatives dying on the road. They walk through the dreaded Hukawng Valley. For days, they float on a raft. A mule carrying an army ration saves them from starvation. Before their eyes, a man commits suicide after a python strangles his wife and their newborn.
Fenella meets Tom, a seriously wounded Canadian RAF pilot. Here starts an intense love story when life has no next day to think of. But Tom succumbs to his injuries on the way.
Sick and emaciated they reach Dimapur in North-East India. They are shoved onto a train and reach Kolkata where Fenella meets Harry Cheah, her beau from Maymyo. Accepting a refugee status, Harry follows Fenella and they married.
Life was hard, but little Rachael born in 1944, enjoyed her freedom in the wilderness without a school. Now our story rolls on to the life of Rachael.
Her parents tried to return to Burma without success. On the trip, Rachael at her sweet sixteen fell in love with a fifty-one-year-old British navy medic, a divorcee. But they had to wait another sixteen years to obtain marriage approval from the Roman Catholic Church.
After eight years, Rachael became a childless widow. To ward off her depression Rachael starts puppetry. Ultimately, she leaves her monotonous secretarial job.
When her parents died, Rachael was left with Abdul, a Muslim house help who took care of Rachael’s ailing husband. She treats him like her own son.
Rachael preserved faded photographs, torn family diaries, letters and many memorabilia. She documented her life by taking photographs at every stage which I will use visually. The broad chronology of events will be maintained in our dramaturgy in a nonlinear manner.
Rachael lives in the outskirts of Kolkata in a crumbling house that needs immediate maintenance. But once a popular form, puppetry has lost its charm. It’s difficult to get private and institutional sponsors. Her only source of income is the pension she receives after her mother died. Yet she wakes up every morning thinking of stories that keep appearing in her dreams. I will delve into her inner world by visually exploring her surroundings with meticulous sound design and music.
The discriminatory citizenship policies of the current government worry her since both Abdul and she belong to minority communities. News of ethnic conflicts in Myanmar, and the current war in Ukraine bother her.
In her workshop, the puppets are now ready for Rachael’s show. They lie motionless. Do puppets have souls? One wonders as the camera glides past them in changing lights. Rachael says ‘yes, their souls lie in the palm of the puppeteer’. Once told, her memories will never die.
Sourav Sarangi is a prominent filmmaker from India. His debut film, ‘Tusu Katha’ is a lyrical observation of the lives of marginal people and their culture. ‘Bilal’, the story of a little kid living with blind parents received a huge response worldwide in festivals, theatres, and TV stations and won numerous awards. ‘CHAR… the No-Man’s Island’, set on the India-Bangladesh border tells the story of thousands of homeless people in desolation. Recently he completed a documentary titled “Karbala Memoirs”. Shot in Iraq it is a visual elegy of a tragic war still remembered by millions all over the world.
We video interviewed Rachael and used the lockdown period for further research and communications. Now we are building up scenes from the past with Rachael and our writing unit. Currently, we are negotiating with digital artists who can handle our style of using physical puppets as characters in 2D animation in Blender or similar software.
Pre-production & working script: August-November 2022
Production (real-life shooting): January 2023 – June 2023
Post-production (Puppetry, animation, archive, memorabilia, VFX and editing, rough cut, patch shooting): July 2023 – June 2024
Finalization, CC, and Sound mix: July 2024
Delivery and release: August 2024
We are at the late development stage and looking for fundraising opportunities with international partners. Pre-Production planning is going on currently.
Visual Material’s Link