The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir (2018)

A few years ago while at the Cannes Film Festival, French producer-screenwriter Luc Bossi was so intrigued and inspired by a novel that he decided to phone filmmaker Ken Scott, Unfinished Business (2015), to see if he’d be interested in adapting the material. The book in question is 2013’s The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got Trapped in an IKEA Wardrobe, written by French author Romain Puértolas. Being so drawn to the humor, romance and adventure, Scott decided to jump onboard and direct.

The said text, you see, isn’t just your typical run-of-the-mill yarn, but a high-quality comedic romp that’s become successful around Europe thanks to its laughter, love, and redemption arc. So it’s not surprising that moviemakers have picked it up only a few years after its release, with so many wanting a piece of this pie, the project morphing into a French-Belgian-Singapore-Indian-USA production. A real globetrotting journey, the shooting locations extend from Europe to the Middle East to India itself, where we first meet our protagonist.

Enter Ajatashatru Oghash Rathod (Dhanush), or Aja for short, who, dressed in a neat, vibrant, European-looking getup, wanders into a juvenile detention center, where he finds three young boys arguing and bickering with one other, then gently asks them all to take a seat. ‘Let me tell you a story,’ he begins, as he whole-heartedly dives into his ‘fantastical’ past, hoping to teach the ruffians a thing or two about life, love, and kindness.

Not a slumdog … or a millionaire.

As it turns out, Aja used to be just like those kids — he was smart, cunning and curious, but the only world he knew was that of his little village in Mumbai where he was raised by his overworked mother Siringh (Amruta Sant). When Aja runs into the wrong side of the law, he discovers that his family is actually poor and starts a magic routine with his cousin, using it as a platform to pickpocket innocent onlookers. When he’s not out swindling people, Aja is infatuatedly studying an IKEA catalog he gets a hold of, thoroughly gawking over his favorite furniture sets until his mother passes away. Now, with nothing holding him back, he decides to finally get out of his small pocket to see the big, bustling world.

Having only a hundred Euros to his name, Aja jet sets to Paris to fulfill his mother’s life-long dream, to visit the City of Lights, the trip giving him an excuse to see the stunning designs of IKEA that he’s fantasized over first-hand. After reverse-swindling taxi driver Gustave (Gérard Jugnot), Aja enters the Paris branch of super-store IKEA where he begins to act out imaginary family situations with an American girl named Marie (Erin Moriarty) in an attempt to charm her. Marie, having ditched her ex-fiancée at the altar, has issues of her own, but is oddly enchanted by Aja’s quirky antics, quickly accepting a non-date meeting under the Eiffel Tower lights the following evening.

With a single note tucked in his pocket, Aja spends the night hiding out in an IKEA wardrobe, which, coincidentally, winds up being transported to England while he’s napping, Aja waking to find himself entangled with a bunch of illegal immigrants, led by a Sudanese man named Wiraj (Barkhad Abdi — the ‘I’m the captain now’ dude from 2013’s Captain Phillips). At border control, Officer Smith (Ben Miller) isn’t convinced of Aja’s credibility, shredding his ‘fake’ Euro note, and his possibly ‘legit’ passport, in turn leaving him in the lurch before breaking into a Monty Python-esque song-and-dance number. From there, Aja fights hard to return to Paris in the hope of rendezvousing with Marie, though winds up being dropped into a handful of other countries, embarking on a voyage that’s choc-full of hard life-lessons, many serving as good advice for those delinquents listening to his tale in the slammer.

Bollywood Nights

Adapted for the screen by writer Bossi, Aja’s journey probably isn’t as grand as one might expect. With that said, the script is tight and relevant, Bossi keeping the best bits from the book without complicating matters too much. Still, Aja’s travels are vast and sprawling, ranging from hot-air ballooning over the Mediterranean Sea to tearing up a dancefloor in a famous nightclub in Rome (which he travels to via a Louis Vuitton suitcase), and director Ken Scott wholly ensures that viewers appreciate the full variety of these experiences, so much so that a bulk of the scenes have been shot in the actual locations in which they’re set. Audiences get to stopover at famous European landmarks while being treated to picturesque views of Europe, South Asia, and the Middle East. So, visually, the picture looks great. And heightening the overall sense and wonder is the colorful, often whimsical costume design by Valérie Ranchoux, Farewell, My Queen (2012). This is, after all, a fable, narrated by Aja himself, who interprets the material as an exaggerated adventure rather than a melancholy real-life account.

The flick is also a big cultural experience; it starts with a snapshot of the lifestyle and poverty in parts of India (throw in a Bollywood number for good measure), before moving to the high life of Italy, and the struggles experienced in third world countries like Libya. Fortunately, there are no political statements here, filmmakers merely giving viewers a glimpse of the world from the eyes of a man who’s only just discovering the cruelties and injustices around him, the tone lightened by spurts of humor.

With the film being an international production, the diverse cast also reflects the story’s cultural variety, with Dhanush, Raanjhanaa (2013), who’s a Tamil cinema star, giving a charming performance as lead Aja. Along for the ride are Argentinian actress Bérénice Bejo, The Past (2013), who portrays fictional movie star Nelly Marnay and Somali-American actor Barkhad Abdi, our frontman also getting some fun assists from Frenchman Gérard Jugnot, The Chorus (2004), and Tunisian Abel Jafri, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017), both of whom have fairly minor roles but add a pinch of flavor to this ethnic fest!

Sari not Sari

Running at a brisk 92 minutes — plenty of time considering the straightforward nature of the narrative — The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir breezes along at a modest pace, never delivering anything too surprising, edgy or suspenseful, with filmmakers, in the end, managing to drop in a couple of good take-home lessons/ messages. Ultimately, while Fakir’s adventure might be a little too ordinary (rather than extraordinary), never breaking new ground despite all its diversity, it’s still worth your time, and provides just enough to get it over the line!

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by Cocoa Falcon

The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir is released through Icon Film Distribution Australia