Birds of a featherKalo Pothi is beautiful to look at, features some stellar performances, and is anchored by the kind of powerful, truthful storytelling that proves a real testament to director Min Bahadur Bham’s skill and conscience
You have to remind yourself every now and then, when watching the newly-released Kalo Pothi, that this isn’t a documentary, that these are actors brought together by a casting team and that they are reading out lines from a script. Otherwise, so utterly uncontrived are the conversations and general proceedings here that it’s easy to believe you’ve just stumbled upon this little village on your own by accident, and become privy to these people’s lives. The film, directed and co-written by Min Bahadur Bham, is set in a remote corner of Karnali and tells the story of a young boy and his best friend—and the titular hen, of course—who are trying to find some semblance of hope and control in a world reduced to chaos by a brutal war waged for reasons beyond their comprehension. Kalo Pothi is beautiful to look at, features some stellar performances, particularly on the part of the young leads, and is anchored by the kind of powerful, truthful storytelling that proves a real testament to Bham’s skill and conscience.
It’s 2001, smack in the middle of the Maoist insurgency, at a time when a tenuous peace has just been forged in the hostilities between the warring parties. Until now, the village of Gamgadhi in Muguhad managed to stay relatively untouched by the conflict, but that’s soon about to change: the Maoists have been organising recruitment programmes in the area of late and making fervent promises to bring revolutionary change to the people’s circumstances, and these activities are being keenly observed by the security forces posted there.
Of course, such happenings are initially of little concern to young Prakash (Khadka Raj Nepali), who belongs to a low-caste Damai family in the village and who simply wants to be able to put together enough money to buy tickets to go see a film with his best friend Kiran (Sukra Raj Rokaya), the grandson of the village head. To help him do this, Prakash’s sister Bijuli (Hansha Khadka) discreetly picks out one of the chickens from their father’s flock and hands it over to the little boy as a gift. From that point on, “Karishma”, as she is soon christened, becomes the repository for all of Prakash’s dreams—he and Kiran talk endlessly about selling the eggs that she will lay, and the various uses they could put the money to.
Unfortunately, reality quickly throws a spanner in the works. Bijuli decides to join the Maoists and disappears, the truce is increasingly strained and approaching breaking point, and Karishma—the only remaining link Prakash has to his beloved sister—has been sold by his father to an old man who lives a long way off in another village. Prakash and Kiran determine that they must go and bring her back, whatever the cost, and so begin a perilous journey that will take them right into the crosshairs of the insurgency where they will encounter horrors of the sort they could never have imagined.
Having a story told through the point-of-view of children, as is the case in Kalo Pothi, can offer unique insights into circumstances. That blank-slate, relatively untarnished way of seeing the world that is the luxury of kids can be eye-opening in terms of allowing us some perspective on such adult preoccupations as social status and war. And it can also be painful to watch them gradually absorbing these toxic ideas through exposure, going on to reproduce them without even realising it: We see it in the way Kiran brings up Prakash’s lowly standing whenever he’s angry at his friend—while caste is never an issue between the two on good days, it still rears its ugly head on occasion.
What comes through here is a familiarity and genuine attachment on the part of Bham—who previously directed the quietly moving Bansuli in 2012—to the setting, understandable given that he is from the area himself and the story is based partly on his own experiences as a child. Indeed, there is wonderful nuance in the way he lays bare the lives of the characters—something that could only come of really, truly knowing the place and its people—enabling us to empathise, but never letting us pity them. And although playing off of such heavy themes as the propaganda and promises of the Maoist movement, the senseless brutality of conflict in general and the suffering inflicted by the stubborn labels of caste, Bham and co-writer Avinash Bikram Shah have also been generous with humour. The interactions between the two boys comprise some of the film’s most amusing bits, and there are other cheeky touches to be discovered, such as references to the Rajesh Hamal-starrer Saathi, and a running gag involving a lovelorn math teacher.
Kalo Pothi’s effectiveness also owes a great deal to the efforts of director of photography Aziz Zhambakiyev who has tuned down the clichéd high-altitude panorama shots that tend to dominate films set in such locations for rather more unexpected subjects and compositions. There are also many points where the camera lingers for a moment longer than you’d expect, allowing you to take in details you would’ve otherwise missed, and letting these scenes breathe. This slowing of pace has been exaggerated even more in Prakash’s dream sequences, sublime little interludes that offer a glimpse into his innermost fears and desires. And these make up only a small portion of the kind of evocative imagery that has been scattered throughout the film, not least of which is a latter shot of the two boys, divested of all clothing, staring out as they stand knee-deep in the turquoise waters of a lake—a powerful, poignant moment. Complementing the visuals is the terrific sound design and score that work to create a very persuasive and authentic sense of time and place.
Speaking of authenticity, the young Nepali surpasses all expectations as the lead, a performance that is so uninhibited and organic that you can’t imagine he could be anyone else but this character in real life; you’d very much like to think him an actual fixture of that village—he just belongs. And although there are a number of stiff performers in the extended cast, for the most part, they remain believable, interacting with an ease that hints at a shared history.
Kalo Pothi does have a few rough patches, of course. The bond between Prakash and his sister—though meant to be a major emotional touchstone in the film—doesn’t register all that well, and the film could’ve done with a bit more fine-tuning when it comes to some parts that are rather too sluggish. Overall, though, Kalo Pothi manages to incorporate both visual sophistication and weighty commentary in what proves a captivating exercise in storytelling.