Remembering the valour of the GurkhasThe visuals of a new Gurkha movie, directed and written by award-winning director Pradeep Shahi has been sweeping views on YouTube, months before its release.
Wounded on a battlefield in France during World War I, Kulbir Thapa Magar’s bravery knew no bounds. Part of the British-Indian Army’s 3rd Queen Alexandra's Own Gurkha Rifles, Magar went above and beyond to save the lives of three of his fellow soldiers, taking them to safety from the German trenches. He, and those he saved, were among 50 of the 800-man unit to survive. For this gallantry, Magar was awarded the Victoria Cross—the highest honour in the British Armed Forces system.
While his story is one that contributed to the Gurkhas’ reputation of bravery and honour, it will soon be put on the silver screen, thanks to award-winning “Password” director Pradeep Shahi. The writer-director has already launched the trailer for Gurkha: Beneath the Bravery, to be released this summer, which has already garnered more than 500,000 views. It will be his first feature-length film.
“People often read or hear about the bravery of Gurkhas, but, as a son of a Gurkha, I have seen their softer side. Kulbir’s act of bravery didn’t entail killing an enemy, but instead saving lives. That was the main reason why I wanted Kulbir's story to be out there and pay tribute to our forefathers who had endured so much hardship so that us, our generation, have a better future,” he said.
Shahi said that, as time moves on beyond the World Wars, many have forgotten the service and endurance of now-veteran Gurkha soldiers. The director has been working on the crowdfunded biopic of the Gurkha rifleman, with a voluntary cast and crew, and has already been praised for his cinematography.
“There are so many legendary stories of the Gurkhas, but I needed one that had both bravery and humanity,” said Shahi. Initially, Shahi worked on a fictional story about Gurkha soldiers, but later realised that staying true to history would be more powerful. “In my opinion, films can change our perspective, and it was time for the Gurkhas to arrive at the silver screen,” he said.
Shahi wanted to remind people of the relatively forgotten history of Gurkha after almost half-a-century since the wars. The story felt more significant to tell, when every day he saw Gurkha veterans spending time in parks—unable to explain who they were, how they ended up in a foreign land, at such an old age, Shahi told the Post via email.
The Gurkhas have served in every significant conflict alongside the British forces since the 19th century. In the two World Wars, more than 200,000 Gurkhas fought alongside the British, and continue to this day. Despite that, Shahi believes not many understand the Gurkhas’ contribution.
“Today, many people don’t necessarily know the veteran Gurkhas who live here, a big chunk of the population sees them as a burden to the social services or, at least, think that they are here to profit off of the benefits system,” he said.
Shahi started the film project to highlight the struggles of those Gurkhas and their families and bring their stories to the British public. “The next time they walk past these older generations of Gurkhas, they will be able to acknowledge their sacrifices,” he said.
The biopic, however, has been dramatised for storytelling, said Shahi. Just as the trailer begins, two distinct sounds of a drum reverberate, as misty air and dust clears to reveal Samir Gurung, who plays Magar, thrust upon the floor in pain. The khukuri, synonymous with the Gurkhas, is seen as the soldiers fight the enemy.
The trailer builds on the tension of the battlefield, with soldiers looking at each other with dread-filled determination. It is apparent that despite their fear they must carry on. Amidst the chaos, Magar seems to be torn apart, as he briefly remembers his family back home in Nepal. The trailer exudes poignance and feels immersive.
Shahi said the film is based upon the events for which Magar was awarded the VC. “The entire film is built around his survival and his harrowing experiences in the trenches. However, the events leading up to his act of bravery, are dramatised for narrative purposes and we have used generic trench experiences of British soldiers during the WWI,” he said.
However, in the beginning, Shahi had a difficult time collecting resources and information for his story. “The first hurdle I found was that our history preserving ability compared to other nations isn’t as great. This automatically put me in pressure in terms of the script development,” said Shahi. Luckily Shahi met Gurkha Museum curator Gerald Davies, who helped him with information about the history, which allowed him to explore the Gurkha narrative more.
Besides being a rather unique story about the Gurkhas, Gurkha: Beneath the Bravery has not been run of the mill in the process of funding and filming. Purely crowdfunding his film was a conscious decision for Shahi, who intended crowdfund to make his targeted community—British people—feel more involved. According to Shahi, it was never a film he wanted to make for-profit; instead, any profits will be donated to Magar’s namesake retirement home in Pokhara, which is run by The Gurkha Welfare Trust.
“I was aware, the moment I decided that this would be a charity project, the number of potential investors would be none to zero. Hence, crowdfunding was the only option available for me. As new upcoming filmmakers, we initially struggled, but slowly and steadily the support started to come through,” said Shahi.
The team initially aimed to crowd-fund minimum of £10,000 to support the project, but they successfully collected the target of £25,000, and now are scheduling the remaining 20 percent of the movie.
“The teaser trailer alone is doing such a magnificent job to raise awareness for Gurkhas and bring that patriotic feeling within Nepalis,” he said, referring to the trailer’s success, since its release in December.
And while the film is not commercially-focused, Shahi does hope it's well received. But, with the support they received online from Nepal and India, his team is looking for distributors in the countries.
“I am sure that the public will understand the budget constraints that we are currently working under, but they would surely appreciate the fresh approach to our amazing history,” said Shahi, who adds he wants to take his movie to Cannes Film Festival. But the goal is not to enter into the competition, necessarily.
“I want to highlight the stories of the Gurkhas. I am certain that the legendary tales of Gurkha will grab some attention and inspiration in the world's biggest film festival, eventually leading to bigger and better films about the Gurkhas,” said Shahi.
When asked if the Nepali audience is ready for a movie of this genre, he said, “From my experience of growing up in Nepal, the Nepali audience have been ready for something like this for a long time. After all, our culture and faith all derive from very complex and vivid narratives of mythical Gods and Goddess. So, unique and exciting stories like this should be the norm for our cinema.”