Nepali Times
Reel revolutions


It's 8AM on a weekday morning and just along the street from the vacant Narayanhiti palace, the sound of frenzied cheering erupts from the packed Biswa Jyoti cinema hall. On the big screen, Maoist cadres are gloriously storming a prison to free their friends to the familiar beat of the Mission Impossible theme tune.

The event is a special screening of Jana Yuddha, a film produced by the Maoists which portrays, in scene after scene for nearly three hours, the Maoists' struggle to liberate the people from the clutches of a corrupt state, which is repeatedly depicted as the perpetrator of unwarranted violence against the powerless.

This portrayal is neither unexpected nor overly misleading. As with leftist revolutions elsewhere, the armed struggle in Nepal was a response to the state's failure to do its job. But the villains of this film are small-time district officials, not the wider oppressive state against which Marxist dogma rails. Land owners and businessmen?the usual culprits from the feudal or capitalist classes?do not appear in the film.

Even after three hours, and despite the locale, there is little to be learnt of the specific Nepali context of the conflict. If one were to alter the set, cast and language, Jana Yuddha (see pic) could just as easily be about the Naxalites of Chhattisgarh or Peru's Shining Path.

Such generalised representations of the decade-long conflict dominate the growing oeuvre of Maoist cinema that has appeared since the party entered mainstream politics in 2006. Films such as Awaaz ('Voice'), Shahid ('Martyr') and Paribartan ('Change') all revisit the same old themes.

As commercial undertakings, these films were created to entertain, to tug at emotions or propagandise, not to explore the nuances of the conflict. The prominence of romance in many of the narratives, complete with dance numbers to revolutionary lyrics, certainly supports this view.

But the movies haven't been commercially successful. While the special screenings organised by the Maoists are well attended, regular sales of both theatre tickets and DVDs have been less than spectacular. This is not surprising. The Nepali film industry is totally overshadowed by the enormously successful productions that pour out of the vast Bollywood machine.

Maoist-produced films released thus far do not even outshine the average Nepali film in terms of acting, cinematography or script, so most viewers have little reason to watch them. The Maoist producers and directors don't seem to realise that they might find a larger audience if they simply delved a bit deeper into the many issues surrounding the actual conflict. This is being attempted by director KP Pathak in his film Maina, which is based on the real-life story of Maina Sunar. The movie is due for release next month.

Two years have passed since the war ended but political stability seems a distant aspiration. The country has yet to begin examining the impact the conflict had on society. As the country struggles forward, popular culture can and should play a significant role in sparking much-needed public dialogue.

The Maoist movies could have offered much more than other movies. If these revolution films were to even begin to show the complexities of the last decade of war, this might not only help them sell more tickets and DVDs, but also help heal some wounds.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)