Down to the riverIt’s September 2015—constitution on the verge of materialising, we learn by way of a radio broadcast in the background—and death has just claimed another of the elderly residents of the village of Nepaltar in Gorkha.
It’s September 2015—constitution on the verge of materialising, we learn by way of a radio broadcast in the background—and death has just claimed another of the elderly residents of the village of Nepaltar in Gorkha. But there’s a problem: old man Chitra (Prakash Ghimire), something of a high-caste big-shot in the area, had been on the first floor when he breathed his last. And with most young men of the village having already left for Kathmandu or overseas—Chitra’s son Suraj (Rabindra Singh Baniya) is one of the few who remain—getting the body out of the house, particularly since tradition forbids it from being carried out the main door, is proving a challenge. Sure, there are some willing to help: the women, for one, including the practical, hardworking Durga (Asha Magrati)—who is married to the deceased’s other son, Chandra (Dayahang Rai), and has been looking after her father-in-law for a good while now—would’ve been happy to lend a hand, as would other low-caste villagers, for that matter, but the local priest (Deepak Chhetri) simply won’t hear of them defiling the body with their touch. And so they must wait.
Thankfully, it isn’t long before Chandra arrives, stepping off a bus from Kathmandu, where he currently lives. It’s been quite some time since he’s been back in Nepaltar: visits home had proved increasingly difficult for the former Maoist combatant given the clashes that were inevitable with a father who was a staunch supporter of the monarchy and a brother who, at one time, was serving in the army. So Chandra had stayed away, and that—combined with his long absences during the conflict itself—had also cost his marriage dearly. The homecoming, then, is expectedly fraught with tension, old wounds ripped anew and hostility abounding; in the process of giving his father his last rites, Chandra is forced to come to terms with the personal and political fallout of the movement to which he gave his life. We watch as he walks around, reacquainting himself with old haunts and old friends, and discovering all that has changed—and all that has stubbornly refused to—in the years that he’s been away.
Helmed by Deepak Rauniyar, Seto Surya (White Sun) has, for the past few months, been making the rounds of international festivals to glowing reviews—none of it undeserved. This is Rauniyar’s second film after 2012’s Highway, which had been the first Nepali feature to be shown at a major international film festival, namely the Berlinale. This time around, though, the writer-director has served up a considerably more polished and compelling effort: Seto Surya manages the difficult balance of blending the individual with the universal—intensely intimate in focus, but ultimately going beyond the specific circumstances of its depiction to reveal broader truths and insight. Of the numerous Nepali films to have been made of late on the subject of the conflict and its still-unfolding repercussions on lives across the country, this is most likely one of the most nuanced of the lot—not to mention, well-acted and gorgeously-shot to boot.
Seto Surya’s barebones premise might be deceptively simple, and the film covers barely two days’ worth of happenings and just a handful of characters, but Rauniyar and co-writer David Barker are able to weave plenty of complexity and gravitas—with the odd punch of deadpan humour—into the narrative. They are particularly keen on the use of metaphors: starting, significantly, with the death of a royalist; the aptly-named “Chandra” and “Suraj” representing two halves of a household riven by ideological differences; and the complications encountered in transporting and cremating the body very likely a stand-in for Nepal’s fraught political trajectory over the last two decades, the impasses and instability that it has suffered.
Other issues also make inroads into the story—whether that be the shackles laid on women’s agency in the country by provisions in law that continue to relegate them to second-class status, movingly illustrated by Durga’s desperation to find a man, any man, who could give her daughter a legal identity; the mass flight of the youth from villages, with only the very old and the very young left behind; or the ever-persistent grip of the dictates of the Hindu caste system over social, economic and political life; among others. Given the long list of grievances it checks off, it’s a pleasant surprise, then, that Seto Surya doesn’t come off feeling like a right long lecture. Although the leap to broader commentary can be a touch heavy-handed on occasion, for the most part, there’s a level of subtlety maintained that keeps the story interesting and character-driven.
A major part of the film’s appeal also stems from the visuals—refined but not over-stylised. Cinematographer Mark Ó’Fearghail has opted for a soft haziness in the shots, and handheld cameras to follow characters up and down the narrow, stony trails that they walk by, underscoring the constraints of the terrain. There’s also a determined shift of focus from people’s faces to the more subtle—and as it turns out, far more revelatory—bodily gestures and other non-verbal cues that define interactions; indeed, very frequently, we’re looking into a scene from behind a character, much as we would’ve done had we been in the room with them. This serves to extend a semi-documentary feel to the film in a lot of places, and complementing that are a scattering of little objects and artifacts around the frames—a beat-up suitcase holding an old man’s most cherished belongings; a dog-eared, time-stained photo album; a pair of too-large slippers on a little boy’s calloused feet. The sparseness of the score, largely stripped of overt musical cues, is another triumph, and adds another layer of authenticity to the proceedings.
All this, of course, would have been mere decoration if not for the right cast, and Seto Surya, fortunately, scores big on this count. Rai might feel a tad overexposed at this point, given the sheer number of films the actor seems to out in a given year these days, but this wary, restrained performance—without a doubt the best he’s put up in a long time—is proof of why he’s one of the industry’s most highly sought-after stars. And he’s accompanied by a slew of wonderfully reliable others, particularly Magrati, who is so utterly natural that your only complaint will be that she should’ve gotten more screen time. And even though it can be a gamble to cast child stars, particularly when they have substantial speaking roles, Sumi Malla and Amrit Pariyar strike just the right notes as two unlikely “siblings”—Pariyar, especially, is a real find.
You might find that some of Seto Surya’s “messages” as such are a bit too neatly packaged—the ending, for instance, leans a little in that direction—but it’s a small quibble in an overall enjoyable, thought-provoking and intimately human experience.