| Jana Yuddha
directed by Bimal Poudel
Akhil Nepal Janasanskritik Mahasangh, 2008
Eight in the morning on a weekday: cheering erupts at scenes of Maoist cadres storming a prison. More enthusiastic applause greets the fighters as they free their friends, to the beats of the Mission Impossible theme song. On the other hand, the title song of the movie, penned by the party chairman and first prime minister of the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal, Pushpa Kamal Dahal (aka ‘Prachanda’), received a more muted response. The aisles of the 1000-seater Bishwa Jyoti Cinema, just down the street from the Narayanhiti Palace in Kathmandu, are packed, even overflowing. The occasion: a special screening of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)-produced film Jana Yuddha, ‘People’s War’. With the screening taking place soon after the Maoists swept the Constituent Assembly polls in April, interest in the film is understandably high. Kathmandu which, unlike much of the rest of Nepal, remained largely insulated from regular contact with Maoist cadres during the decade-long conflict, is curious about this new entity.
As it happens, the audience left the theatre almost three hours later, but without much new insight. Following the lives of a few individuals in a particular village, the film captures the ways in which the brutality of the state converts the people to Maoist sympathisers or activists. Interspersed with this narrative is the story of the cadres themselves, as they go about interacting with the villagers and plotting attacks against the state. Scene after scene depicted the Maoists’ struggle to liberate the people from the clutches of a corrupt state machinery, which is shown as the perpetrator of unwarranted violence against the powerless. This portrayal is neither unexpected nor, indeed, misleading. As is true of leftist revolutions elsewhere, the armed struggle in Nepal was certainly a response to the state’s failure to do its job. But the villains of this film are small-time district officials – not the ‘oppressive state’ against which Marxist jargon rails before the proletariat. Interestingly, land owners and businessmen exemplifying the oppressive ‘feudal’ or ‘capitalist’ classes do not appear in the film. Despite the locale, however, Jana Yuddha oddly does not situate the roots or the evolution of the conflict in the specific Nepali context. In fact, if one were to alter the set, cast and language, the movie could easily be about the Naxalites of Chhattisgarh or the Shining Path of Peru.
Such general representations of the decade-long conflict appear to make up the spate of Maoist films that have been released since the party joined mainstream politics in 2006. Though actual footage taken during battles, victory rallies and speeches by the leadership have been made into documentaries by the Maoists, the films in question here use actors, background scores and storylines. Movies such as Awaaz (Voice), Shahid (Martyr) and Paribartan (Change), all produced by the Akhil Nepal Janasanskritik Mahasangh, the party’s cultural wing, revisit the same overarching themes. Inevitably, these stories are about the harassment, rape and torture of the innocent by local government forces, as the Maoists wage their battles against such ‘regressive’ elements. In fact, Lal Salaam, written by current Maoist MP Janardan Sharma (‘Prabhakar’), is the only production that does not wholly follow this trend. Envisioned as a kind of fictionalised documentary, the film outlines the evolution of the Maoist movement from the time the party went underground till it emerged to join the People’s Movement of April 2006 against the autocratic monarchy. Still, this story too is presented as a clear-cut battle between good and evil.
Of course, an argument can be made that, as commercial undertakings, these films were created to entertain, to tug at the heartstrings with their starkly drawn battle lines – not to explore the nuances of the conflict. The prominence in many of these narratives of romances between the cadres, complete with dance numbers to revolutionary lyrics, certainly does much to justify this point of view. Or it could be that revolutionary romance was a real part of the ‘People’s War’. These films have also been recognised on the awards circuit. During the National Film Award ceremony this year, where the prizes were handed out by now-Prime Minister Dahal, Jana Yuddha received five awards, including best film and best actor, while Lal Salaam won two trophies for best art and best action direction. But these films have not been commercially successful. While the special screenings organised by the CPN (Maoist) are well attended, regular sales of both theatre tickets and DVDs, which cost anywhere from NPR 250 to 400 (USD 4 to 6), have been less than spectacular. Again, this is perhaps not surprising. As it is, the Nepali film industry, vastly overshadowed by the popularity of Bollywood, is faring poorly. Seeing as how the Maoist-produced films released thus far do not even outshine the average Nepali film in terms of acting, cinematography or script, most viewers have little reason to watch them, added to the didacticism that is a part of the baggage.
What is missing on the part of the Maoist producers and directors is the realisation that such undertakings could well find a larger audience if they simply delved a bit deeper into the many issues surrounding the actual conflict, as Nepalis themselves have come to know and understand it. At a time when Nepal has known peace for only a short while, and political stability remains but a distant aspiration, the country has yet to begin examining the ways in which the war has impacted society and the structures of the state. Bringing the political parties together, abolishing the monarchy, holding of elections, forming a functional government – these have largely eclipsed all else. Consequently, as the country struggles onward, the mass culture can and should play a significant role in sparking much-needed public dialogue. And in this, Maoist productions could have offered much more than others. If these rebellion films were able to even begin to approach the last decade in some of its complexity, this could not only have helped them to sell more copies, but could also go a fair distance in healing some wounds.
Walking out of the Bishwa Jyoti Cinema after watching Jana Yuddha, a sense of closure is oddly lacking. In the final scene, a big battle ensues between the Maoists and the police; and though the former win, there is little talk of victory. Instead, the remaining fighters speak of the hard road ahead in continuing the movement. That the movie does not end on a triumphant note is instinctively unsettling. On second thought, however, such a sentiment is in line with the party leadership’s stance on ‘continuing revolution’. Reacting to criticism from other armed leftist groups about their entry into mainstream politics, senior CPN (Maoist) leaders have continued to stress that the move does not signal the abandonment of the revolutionary agenda. The effort to better the lives of the people through radical politics and action, they claim, will continue. Perhaps it is impossible for a film made by rebels so recently out the jungle to chart a course independent of the politburo’s ‘line’. But it would be noteworthy if Maoist filmmakers were to create movies that enhance the public debate on the multifaceted past decade of Nepali history.