What Kollywood gets wrongEven before its release, Sanrakshan, a movie largely based on the Tarai-Madhes politics, has become a social media sensation.
Even before its release, Sanrakshan, a movie largely based on the Tarai-Madhes politics, has become a social media sensation. The official trailer of the movie garnered more than 80,000 views in just two days on YouTube, whereas excerpts of the trailer, circulated through various social media sites, have elicited substantial positive responses. The mood among Madhesis is generally positive as the movie director is a Madhesi and the movie seems to be based on federalism, an issue that most Madhesis have fought for. But in this hullabaloo over a fresh genre and direction, the content has not been critically analysed. You cannot judge a book by its cover, and in this case, I should refrain from judging the movie—which is set for release on August 11—from its trailer. But the trailer indicates that this movie could be as contrived as the movie Bhairav, and other Kollywood movies and tele-serials that depict the Tarai-Madhes and Madhesis in an unfavourable light, and I cannot help but wonder if this movie will turn out to be the same.
Kollywood and many Kathmandu-based TV series tend to be biased. They seem to operate on the basis of news, much of which is biased, that circulates in Kathmandu. Not many directors have taken it upon themselves to go against stereotypes and pursue ethnographic studies to understand the lives of people on the ground and make movies on people’s struggles. Otherwise, what we see often are movies made on blanket assumptions that hardly take into account social, economic and historic deprivation of various groups.
Two aspects of Sanrakshan’s trailer are particularly troubling. The first is the person who has been chosen to deliver lessons of rastriyata (nationality). The second is the way the talk about rastriyata has been presented. The first aspect is more controversial than the latter. Once more, we see Nikhil Uprety as trying to “save” the nation through his talks on rastriyata. In other words, it is a case of a Hill Bahun, an elite, and a resourceful person in a police institution lecturing about rastriyata.
This is interesting because in the movie Bhairav, Nikhil Uprety is seen doing the same thing: teaching (in a yelling, frustrated sort of way) the people of Tarai-Madhes lessons of rastriyata. The movie didn’t sit well with several marginalised right activists. The fundamental assumptions with which such movies and their supposed scenes of nationalism are constructed are based on the reasoning that high yelling, powerful dialogues, and tear-jerking sacrifices can arouse a sense of collective nationalism. However, in the process, such movies become flawed, patronising and artificial. That a fellow from Kathmandu and from an institution that has little representation of Madhesis comes to lecture about Nepalipan to fellow Nepalis in the south presents a distorted reality that people there are less faithful to the country and in need of lessons on rastriyata.
Brushing aside realities
The way the talk on nationalism has been construed seems bereft of knowledge about various identity-based movements. Most people in Kathmandu see the Tarai-Madhes as a troubled region, where strikes happen and where people periodically throng the streets to demand their rights. This is a top-bottom view. This movie seems to subscribe to this view and portrays what Kathmandu thinks of Tarai-Madhes—an area going astray and that needs to be straightened. Many such movies have failed to show the historic struggles of the people in the region and to capture the numerous challenges they face.
The reasons why various ethnic groups need to assert their identity is to prevent it from being further trampled by the state, their language further omitted, their younger generation further distanced from state apparatuses and further made to feel like outsiders. At the receiving end of discrimination, the marginalised are unfairly treated by the majority. Here, the majority, though not exactly in pure numbers, are Hill Bahuns and Chettris, who for centuries had controlled all state organs. Their presence has been so pervasive in all state organs that these groups have come to be perceived as the state’s guardians.
Kollywood movies fail to take the bottom-up approach, and either portray characters in a purely negative light or show them in idealistic situations. For example, in Sanrakshan’s trailer, we see how a Madhesi leader has once again done something wrong, and a police officer tells him that if the police gets proof of the leader’s wrongdoings, the leader may be in troubled waters. Various fighting scenes and demonstrations consolidate the view that there must be something wrong with the Madhesi leader. Similarly, in the movie Bhairav, a Madhesi leader has been shown as a villain. Such movies feel the need to consolidate such erroneous opinions as if there is no animosity towards Madhesi leaders in the hills, who are regularly called “dhotis,” “Indians,” and “Biharis”. Similarly, there are very few movies that provide hill audiences insights into the lives of individuals in the Tarai. In Hostel Returns, to borrow another example, not only has the lead character from Janakpur been exaggerated enormously, but the fact that the character does not face any discrimination shows how Kollywood movies are trying to achieve noble missions such as showing tolerance at college level—of which there is little in Kathmandu—and are gearing us to think about a utopian Nepal, brushing aside the everyday struggles and realities about Nepalis from various backgrounds.
I hope I am wrong and the movie Sanrakshan bucks the current trend of Kollywood’s ethnic depictions. However, as long as movie makers abstain from understanding the marginalised and continue to impose implicit superiority of one over the other, only the Bahun/Chettri males from the Hills will monopolise the work of saving the country in the movies, whereas other marginalised communities will continue being perceived as perennially “anti-national”.
Gupta is pursuing an undergraduate degree at Soka University, California, US