Kalo Pothi and Bansuli : Min Bham the auteur
Min Bahadur Bham’s debut film Kalo Pothi (The Black Hen) has won Best Film at the 72nd Venice International Film Festival. From the trailer, the film looks beautiful and despite the appalling disappointment that was Deepak Rauniyar’s Highway (selected for the Berlin Film Festival), I’m expecting great things from Kalo Pothi, especially given the stellar short that was Bham’s short film Bansuli, which was the film that got him recognised and also won him a huge budget to make kalo Pothi.
So in anticipation of Kalo Pothi, I’d like to take a quick look at Bansuli.
In Jumla, young Bijuli does her daily chores and bids goodbye to Hira, her young friend, who is making his way to India for work. Hira, a consummate flute player, offers Bijuli his flute (the bansuli) as a parting gift. Bijuli attempts to learn to play the flute, even as her father and her teacher berate her for acting like a boy, since only boys play the flute, and that too, when she is at a marriageable age (which is very young in Jumla). Her teacher teases her by saying that soon she’ll grow a beard if she continues to play the bansuli.
All along, from the very first scene, a parallel narrative is drawn. It is the end of the decade-long civil war and the Maoists, once rebels, are contesting elections for a Constituent Assembly. There is election sloganeering and all of the scenes are punctuated by bits of Maoist propaganda and a call to vote.
The two narratives meet in a telling scene, brilliantly conceived. The Maoist party candidate wins the election from that area and embarks on a victory rally across the village. Meanwhile, Bijuli is getting betrothed just across from the victory rally.
In the final scene, Bijuli symbolically discards her marriage and picks up the bansuli to finally play a tune.
This film is beautiful to watch, not just in its cinematography but in its use of symbolism and visual metaphors. Bijuli is a silent girl, she doesn’t speak in the entire film, seemingly represented her subaltern existence where she is only a woman, fit to do chores and get married off as soon as possible. She tries to find her voice through the Bansuli, which comes to represent a liberation of sorts. The fast-flowing Karnali features as a current of change, constantly flowing forward. It is in the Karnali that Bijuli sheds her shackels and it is on its banks that she learns to plays the flute.
The politics of the film is pretty brazen,with the Maoists heralding a sea-change, hinted at through a casual conversation between two men discussing marriage with a ‘lower-caste’ woman and how society will not approve. The intimation is that the Maoists will mark progressive change. A very real hope at that point in time (although subsequent events have unfortunately shown that to not be the case.)
The film is perfectly crafted for its short 13 mins length. In that limited span, Bham crafts a deep, layered look at a society on the cusp of very real change, though perhaps not the change that it seeks. The cinematography is beautiful and although the acting leaves more to be desired, Bijuli is a forlorn presence who tells stories with her face. The music is very well chosen, the flute soaring and painful. There is a folk song (maybe a Raute song?) that is a constant refrain throughout the film, which talks of leaving home and longing for home. Everything builds up to a very organic whole that tells a short, poignant story that casts long deep shadows.
This film showcases perfectly Bham’s strengths as an auteur. His script is fluid and very open. There is very little exposition but it still manages to tell a very layered story in a very short timeframe. Watching this film, I can only imagine with Bham will do on feature length film. I am really hoping that Kalo Pothi will be the film that puts Nepali cinema on the map. Caravan is set in Nepal but it wasn’t made by a Nepali. Highway, though made by a Nepali and shown at Berlin, was terribly constructed, filled with cliches and poorly written and conceptualised. The jarring editing made it worse, mostly with haphazard, nonsensical jump cuts. Kalo Pothi has already won over the Critics Week at Venice. I am certain it will go on to win much more. Here’s hoping to an early premiere in Nepal.