It is the time of year when big city bigshots return to their small-town roots to bicker with family members about politics and religion and whose kid that really is and what to do with daddy’s corpse.
So, there is a lot of backstory regarding modern Nepali political history that the movie relies on, but does not explain. It is not necessary to understand the movie, but you may find it helpful. Here is some of what I got from skimming a couple of Wikipedia articles. Feel free to skip all the way down to the OKAY if the background does not interest you.
Leftist organizations in Nepal had been forming, splintering, and reforming for years. One of these organizations was the Communist Party of Nepal, which was a splinter group from the…well, anyways, the Communist Party of Nepal launched a rebellion against the government on the 13th of February 1996, determined to overthrow the constitutional monarchy and establish a People’s Republic. This kickstarted a violent civil that went on and on. Even the royal family fell victim of a massacre in June of 2001, though it is presumed that the Prince in line to the throne was responsible. There were peace talks held shortly after that, but they fell through, so fighting continued, and the government came down hard on anyone thought to be sympathetic to the Maoist rebels.
When the King (one of the princes to survive the massacre; the alleged perpetrator prince allegedly committed suicide) seized direct government power on the 1st of February of 2005, the UK and India suspended material support for Nepal, while Communist China sent arms to the Nepalese government to fight against…the Maoists? That’s geopolitics for you. Well, thanks to…some of the international support, anti-monarchy forces were able to come together to press for change in the realm of politics. In 2006, violent resistance largely transformed into non-violent demonstrations, though there were still killings. But on the 21st of November 2006, the government, the political opposition, and the Maoists rebels signed a peace accord. Coincidentally, the day that I started typing this up was the fourteenth anniversary of that peace accord.
All in all, 17,000 civilians and combatants had been killed during those ten years. The government may have killed more, but the Maoists did their fair share. 100,000 to 150,000 people were displaced and most rural development activities were badly disrupted.
A Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established in 2007. In 2008, the monarchy was deposed and Nepal changed from a Hindu kingdom to a secular republic. In 2012, the armed wing of the Communist Party of Nepal was absorbed into the Army. During that year, however, the Communist Party of Nepal split, with one faction decrying the overwhelming influence of India. And then THAT party split in 2014 over ideological reasons and favored strikes and terrorist activities over parliamentary participation. SPLITTERS! Anyways, there was an earthquake on the 25th of April 2015 that killed 9,000 people, and a new constitution on the 20th of September of 2015 that made Nepal a federal democratic republic of seven provinces. This movie takes place right before that constitution.
It is a nice quiet day in the hilly countryside. But all is not well. The radio is a chatter with disappointment about broken promises that the Maoists have made to ethnic minorities. The representative claims that Maoists may currently run the government, but since they do not have a majority, then compromises with other parties is necessary to keep the peace.
Village chairman Chitra had been in on the top floor of his house listening to the radio. Durga, his daughter-in-law, comes upstairs to find him lying on the floor. Dead.
Chandra has been living in Kathmandu for years, working as a Communist politician under the party name Agni. He has not been back to his home village for almost a decade, a fact made obvious when he tries to take the 200 kilometer trip from Kathmandu to the city of Pokhara by an incredibly crowded bus, only to find that the fare is 1200 instead of 500. I think that they mean Nepali rupee, so it is the difference between $10.12 and $4.22.
Maybe that extra money allowed him to get in the bus.
Okay, it is unclear how much time has passed, but Chitra’s body has still not been removed from the house. For practical and religious reasons, it has been decided that he has to be taken out of the window and down a ladder rather than down the steeper inside ladder and out the main entrance. Other village elders, along with Chitra’s son Suraj, attempt to lift up the body. Well, some of them do. The Priest says that he cannot touch the body, as it would pollute the ritual. Chitra’s brother wonders if they should wait for his other son, Chandra, to arrive, but it is argued that the body would deteriorate in this heat. So the other men try to move the body to the window, but they drop it on the floor. Durga tries to help, but the Priest yells at her that women cannot touch the body either. Now they have to purify the body. In the house, though? When the house itself is tainted? Durga protests that she took care of him while he was alive and now they are acting like she killed him. Whatever.
Durga goes outside back to her quarters, taking her young daughter Pooja with her. Pooja tells her mother that she wants to stay with her grandfather. Durga reminds Pooja at how badly they treated her. Pooja says that it is because Durga touched the body, it is not clear whether either of them mention that Pooja had been putting her finger against his mustache trying to see if he was breathing as the scene ends right there.
At some point, Chandra had arrived at Pokhara and took a truck to some other place. As he was the only passenger, he is the only one to get surrounded by five teenage boys and a 10-year-old boy when he arrives at the bus stop. They all offer to carry his luggage for him, but he argues that he does not need a porter. He certainly will not be paying for one. The older boys give up, but the younger one, Badri, follows Chandra as he walks off, still offering to carry his stuff for a small fee. Then a smaller fee.
Chandra walks up the hills while Badri continues to follow him, even though Chandra still has not given him any of his luggage. Badri asks Chandra where he is coming from. Qatar? Malaysia? Dubai? Chandra does not answer, just noting that the bags would crush a 10-year-old, and telling him to go home to his most likely worried parents. Badri responds that he has no parents and his home is the bus station. Badri asks Chandra if he was a soldier. Chandra was. Did he fight in the war? Did he shoot guns? Badri likes guns. Chandra does not answer, choosing instead to reveal to the boy a gunshot wound. Chandra tells the boy to go back to his friends. Badri doesn’t.
Durga talks to her daughter about leaving the village and going to Pokhara. They will be treated better there and Pooja can even go to school. Pooja asks if she will meet her father there. Durga is silent at first, but then asks what father. Chandra. Who told Pooja that Chandra was her father? Durga asks her daughter why she would need a father, is her mother not enough? Is her love not enough? Pooja will get an education, become a big person, and then will no longer need anyone. Pooja says that she does not want to be a big person.
Pooja goes to see how things are with her grandfather’s body and oh my god, it is STILL upstairs. The one piece of progress is that his feet are sticking out of a window.
As she is looking from outside, a couple of older boys approach her and teasing her for the grandfather’s predicament. She hits one of them repeatedly to try to get them to go away, but that just provokes more of them to taunt her. Eventually, someone notices that Chandra has arrived. With a boy, who is carrying a few pieces of luggage. Who is that boy?
Chandra meets the village elders, one of who claims to have thought that he would arrive by helicopter. He tries to greet his uncle, but his uncle denies greetings. Not with a death in the family. The priest says that he was not sure whether Chandra believed in cremation, being a Maoist and all. Chandra sees his brother glaring at him. He asks Suraj how he is doing and then jokingly (?) asks if he will be safe here, since Suraj is no longer in the army. Suraj responds that they can get along for a few days. Right?
Chandra goes up to the second floor of the house to see his father’s body. He asks why the elders could not get someone to help. They tell him that Suraj is the only able man left in the village. That may refer to the war and the fact that other strong men had left. But they probably also mean that any other able-bodied men left are of too low caste to touch the body. Chandra wonders if it is too impractical and even dangerous to take him out of the house through the window, but the elders argue that they cannot take him through the main door and the priest accuses Chandra of disrespecting customs.
Badri is getting teased by the village boys when a woman comes to his aid. She asks Durga’s friend (sister?) Shobha to get food for him. The woman says that the boy is Chandra’s son. She asks Badri if that is true and he nods.
FINALLY, they get the body outside and on the ground. And no one got hurt.
Badri watches the village kids playing out in the field when one of them discovers what looks like an unexploded mine. Everyone stares at it, but keeps distances. But Badri walks over to it, examines it, and picks it up. He claims that it is safe, though the other kids are doubtful. In any case, he throws it down the hill. It can be a problem for another day.
The priest is performing a ritual around the body. Chandra notices Pooja arrive. His uncle tells him that she is Durga’s daughter. He does not say that she is Chandra’s daughter, though. Chandra asks about Durga, and his uncle says that they had told her to stay away after touching Chitra’s body. Chandra theorizes that she had just been trying to help. His uncle is surprised that Chandra would defend her. Pooja observes this conversation, though she does not understand the implications.
It is evening and the villagers are eating. There is discussion about the possibility of a constitution. How many states will there be? Six? Seven? Eight? Will there even be a constitution? What about all of the protests? It starts to rain. Hopefully, the rain clears by morning, or else the funeral procession will be difficult.
Pooja approaches Badri and asks why he is here. Badri tells her that Chandra is his father. Pooja disputes that, but Badri insists. Pooja is certain that he is lying, and he is, of course. She has no way of figuring that out for certain, though, at least not yet.
Chandra tells Durga that he has heard how the village elders had treated her; and that the war had been over things like that. He theorizes that they would not have even told him about his father’s death had they not needed him for the ritual. Durga shows him some documents and asks him for his signature. The school in Pokhara needs Pooja’s birth certificate in order to accept her and the government requires the father’s signature to issue a birth certificate. Since Chandra is still considered to be her husband, it is only logical that he be legally be Pooja’s father. Chandra asks why Pooja’s father will not sign it. Durga dodges the question, once again asking Chandra to sign the document. Is it not enough that she had cared for his father after both he and Suraj left home to fight on opposite sides of the war? She tells him that many things happened during the war; that he does not know what it was like to survive alone here for so long as the wife of guerilla. Did Chandra not make mistakes? Chandra says no children. That was the only difference?
Chandra goes to see the other villagers. One of the elders ask him what position he holds in the party, since they do not see him on television. Even though he does not like the Maoists, perhaps at least having a villager hold office in the government will lead to faster development of the village. Shobbha takes out a bunch of Chitra’s things for Chandra, Suraj, and their uncle to go through.
Durga and Pooja are in bed. Pooja asks Durga if she had been married to Chandra. Durga reluctantly says that she was, but long ago. And that he is not her father. Pooja does not understand; how can he not be her father if he was her mother’s husband? Durga tells Pooja to go to sleep, as they have lots of packing to do tomorrow.
The next day, Chandra learns that Durga had asked Suraj to marry her. Of course, he is not happy about that. After all, Chandra was the one who went against everyone else to marry Durga, a lower caste woman. And now Suraj, who had fought to retain the caste system, can just sweep in? Durga reminds him that he was gone for so long that he might as well have been lost to them. And, no, Suraj is not the father. She admits that she has no interest in Suraj or marriage in general. So why Suraj specifically, Chandra asks. Durga says that, as long as Chandra refuses to help him with the birth certificate issue, then it is none of his business.
It is time for the procession. Chandra arrives as the finishing touches are made before he and Suraj carry the body down the hill to the river. The priest tells Chandra to prepare himself, which involves taking off his shoes. Now they can…oh wait. Suraj just remembered something. He runs off and comes back with the flag of the pro-monarchy National Democratic Party. As per Chitra’s wishes Suraj drapes it on his body. Okay, this is a step too far for Chandra. Villagers had been treating him like an enemy since he had returned, but this is shoving that enmity in his face. He pulls the flag off of the body, but Suraj puts it back on. Chandra stands there, furious. Eventually, though, he to pick up the body and carry it down the hill. He takes the front; at least he does not have to look at the flag if he is in front. Though Pooja is not allowed to take part in the procession, she observes the men and boys as they leave the village.
It looks to be a rather difficult descent even if the two men were not barefoot or carrying a body. They cannot even go at the same pace; perhaps Chandra is going fast because he wants to get this over with. Suraj tells him to slow down and appreciate the beautiful country that the Maoists tried to ruin. Chandra just says that he wanted to overturn the oppressive caste system. The priest tells them both to stop arguing out of respect. But the brothers continue to bicker until it becomes personal, with the subject eventually shifting to Durga’s infidelity and upcoming marriage to Suraj. At this point, Chandra misses a step and slips, resulting in the body hitting the ground.
Everyone is shouting, but Chandra isn’t paying attention, running over to Suraj and punching him in the face. Suraj tries to counter, but accidentally hits their uncle. Then Suraj…walks back up the hill. Where is he going? Back to the village? Their uncle tells Chandra to bring Suraj back so that they might salvage the ritual. Chandra refuses, but says that he will find someone else. He tells the rest of the procession to wait and he walks further down the hill.
This movie is a combination of a straight drama and a dark comedy. There is something hilarious at how things just keep going wrong, how both religious dogma and bureaucratic red tape make everything overly complicated, how deeply held convictions can be set aside for personal reasons and, just general dysfunction. It is the situation that is funny, literally a situation comedy. Everyone involved must understand the ridiculousness of what they are dealing with, but none of them are laughing. Well, except for those jerk villager kids.
Of course, the darkly comic story reveals…well…a dark core. The ten-year civil war had ended nine years ago, but the scars are still there. The government has been in upheaval since then, and compromises have left everyone unsatisfied. Peace has not brought about an end to hatred or resentment, just a bitter stalemate. Perhaps Chitri’s death itself is symbolic. He lived for the King, and his death was his final act of defiance against the new republic, personified in son Chandra. Moving past the past, like saying goodbye to the dead, is no easy task. It is difficult, painful, maybe even impossible.
I am not really one to talk about technical stuff, but the movie tends to do this thing where when two people are talking, you don’t see both of their faces. It is not merely a matter of shot-reverse-shot. Sometimes, one of the people is completely off-screen or their face is obscured or cut off halfway when it did not need to be. It gives a sense that the people talking to each other are not really reaching each other. There is a communication barrier that prevents understanding.
Maoists may have had support from some villages during, but not this one. So a young Chandra had found himself a black sheep of his village. Was his left-wing politics a result of his love for a low-caste woman or was his fight to marry Durga merely an aspect of his politics? Whatever the case may be, when war broke out, he left a traitor, while his brother left a hero. And when his brother returned, he returned a hero. Chandra had probably never intended to return home.
And they never wanted him back. This is clearly a formality on both ends. Only one person in the village refers to Chandra by his political name, Agni, and she is not quite sure what the significance of that is. No one else cares. He is there for one purpose and then he is gone.
And what of Durga, the love of his life? Well, she had to stay with his family. His family had disapproved of her, but she was still obligated to take care of them. Did she agree with his politics? Maybe. Maybe not. Regardless, he had abandoned her for all intents and purposes. His lofty ideals did nothing to help her, and perhaps even made her circumstances worse. She was a pawn. Somehow she got pregnant, which did not help matters. She never does reveal what happened. Perhaps she is too proud to. Perhaps too ashamed. Perhaps too traumatized. Perhaps it is none of anyone’s business. After all, we later learn that Chandra’s mother was not Chitri’s wife. Durga is a person in her own right. And when tradition determines that she is unworthy of doing what she feels is the right thing, she decides that she has had enough. So Durga disregards traditions on her own terms, not some vague political dogma that has done nothing for her. This movie may be critical of the right-wing religious characters, but it does not have much good to say about the left wingers either. If anyone is the central sympathetic character, then it is Durga.
The children are the ones who have to suffer under the ridiculousness that the adults. The war left Badri a homeless orphan. Without proper institutions to take care of him, he has been left out on the streets, trying to hustle quick bucks out of naïve adults and maybe make deals with the older boys. Lying to him is a necessity, and a way of life. So is fearful uncertainty and cynical struggle, with everyone treating him like dirt. Clinging to Chandra and claiming to be his son is one way to achieve some form of normality, if only briefly. And Badri grows to believe it, or at least he believes that he believes it. He knows what the alternative is and he does not like it.
Badri’s this lie threatens Pooja’s hope of normality. She never knew her father. Using the only logic available to her, Chandra has to be her father, even though he is a stranger. Even though her mother denies it. Even when they meet and Chandra barely acknowledges her. That would be fine…except for that…boy…that boy who says that he is Chandra’s son….that boy who claims to have traveled here from Kathmandu with him. If he is telling the truth, then he has had what has been denied to her all of her life. So, the boy must be lying. Badri sometimes tries to bond with Pooja, but Pooja is not having any of it. These children are the future of Nepal. Badri, Pooja, the boys in Pokhara, the other village children. Is there a chance that they will find peace and justice when previous generations can barely keep the nation together? Or will the hatreds of the past consume them as well?
This movie displays Nepal as a beautiful country, but a beautiful country stained with blood. A beautiful country where the mundane and the pained mix as a means to get through the day. Set in present time, the movie shows a country haunted by its past and stumbling towards an uncertain future. It is beautiful, it is sad, it is kind of funny, and it is very very good.
WTF ASIA 137: Khamosh Pani (Pakistan: 2003, approx. 91-97 minutes)
WTF ASIA 138: Her Brother (Japan: 1960, approx. 98 minutes)