108 minutes, Nepali, 2001
Directed by Nabin Subba
For a Nepali feature film, Numafung is remarkable in many ways. There is of course the fact that it is set within Limbu culture and community (one of the non-Indo Aryan groups of Nepal), and while the predominant language used in the film is Nepali, Limbu bhasa is interspersed throughout via various characters. There is also the immense relief that that there are no song-and-dance sequences; or a valiant hero rescuing damsels in distress; or melodramatic emotional scenes exemplary of the bad versions of Bollywood which run rampant in ‘Kollywood’. But most importantly, the fundamental extraordinariness of this film lies in its amazingly sensitive treatment of women and the lives they live structured by patriarchal norms of society. The film addresses the entire range of issues, from the treatment of daughters, marriage, marital obligations, widowhood and in-law relations, to the struggles, the moral dilemmas, and frustrations of being female. Yet the women in the film are far from mere victims, and are portrayed as strong, determined, full of agency and will, even as patriarchal forces and social structures seek to reign in their independence, ambitions and freedom. Acts of verbal and physical resistance to the societal norms values that attempt to structure their lives are manifest in many of their everyday actions and form an intrinsic part of their day-to-day negotiations.
Written and produced by Nabin Subba, a Kathmandu filmmaker, the film Numafung is situated within a Limbu community in easternmost Nepal and centers around the life of the older of two daughters (Numafung, “beautiful flower”) of a poor Limbu farming couple in a nondescript rural village. The main story line consists of Numafung being married against her wishes to a young man of her own age – a happy marriage that ends abruptly and early with the young man’s untimely death. Following a miscarriage that according to societal norms terminates her relationship to her in-laws, Numafung returns to her parent’s home, only to be married off again. Her second husband, Girihang, is older, richer and a truly odious man – a violent, arrogant drunkard. Suffering gravely at the hands of this man, Numafung runs away with another man who has shown her consideration, a lahuray (a migrant worker, often a recruit) and her parents and younger sister lose their home as a result of having to pay jari to the husband (a form of compensation usually paid by the man who takes the wife from the husband).
Much could be said about the film from stylistic points, such as Subba’s use of the younger sister Lojina as an excellent narrative foil for her sister’s story. Two of the important revelations of film are not explicitly stated (the death of Numa’s first husband and her leaving of her second husband) but are segued through Lojina’s dream sequence. On occasion, the acting of some members of the cast is stilted and mechanical, especially that of Numafung’s father, and this is perhaps to be expected given that most in the cast are not professional actors. However, rather than delving into the technical aspects of the film, this review will limit itself to a study of the social issues raised with respect to gender, more specifically the matter of patriarchy, resistance and – within the framework of the Limbu community – how notions of “multiple patriarchies” may enlarge the territory for feminist theorisation and activities in Nepal.
Patriarchy is broadly understood as a system in which men control women’s bodies and labour. In this sense, Numafung can be seen as a very perceptive portrayal, and thus implicitly a critique, of patriarchy. That women’s bodies are owned, controlled, and bargained over by men with other men in a transference of ownership, is made explicitly clear throughout the film. The depiction of the selling of Numafung in both marriage proposals is replete with very realistically presented negotiations over a nanglo (wickerwork tray) of money and gold placed between the two parties of men. That the active purchase of Numafung is being undertaken, is reinforced in Lojina’s innocent questions to her sister in their room upon seeing the first marriage negotiations: “What do the men downstairs want? What are they here to buy?” That once the terms of the “purchase” have been settled, there cannot be a re-negotiation, is made clear when a more than reluctant Numafung is forced to marry for the second time because the reet, customary payment, has already been accepted by her father.
After the wedding, the transference of ownership by marriage is explicit – the shift is from paternal patriarchy to conjugal, masculine patriarchal right. This is evident in the everyday ordinariness of Numa having to ask her husband’s permission to visit her maiti, the maternal home. Conjugal patriarchy presumes inherent sexual rights and this aspect informs the bedroom scene between Numafung and Girihang, and permeates a particularly unpleasant sequence in which Girihang tells a group of his friends tauntingly that they are welcome to take her if they can afford to pay the jari. Making references to her sexuality, he expands that she used to be “rusali khasali” but now “ras pani sukheko chha” – that since she had been married before, her “juice” had dried up.
Such comments, of course, are part and parcel of the policing mechanisms of patriarchy that ensure the maintenance, reproduction and continuation of male-dominated hierarchies. Societal norms and ‘culture’ play upon internalised values to ensure that women do not resist or challenge either norms or the status allotted to them. This policing process takes physical and verbal forms. For instance, in the film, there is a sequence where the women are being chaperoned to a fair. That this reflects a need in men to protect women’s sexuality is highlighted. in the ‘humorous’ comment by one of the escorts that a marriage proposal for Numafung, who is one the girls in the group, would be more than welcome as they are tired of ‘herding.’ Then there are the more blatant rebukes such as when Girihang says, ” I don’t like to hear this and that from women and children” on being asked by Numafung to try and have more harmonious relations with the rest of the village. ‘Putting’ or ‘keeping’ women in ‘their place’ has been a key strategy in maintaining existing power relations. There are the staple demands for Numafung to think about her family’s ijjat, or honour, another foundational platform of patriarchy. Women are also carriers for the cultural perpetuation of patriarchal norms. For instance, it is the first mother-in-law who tells Numafung that while they love her more than they would a daughter, since the reet has been taken, for the sake of the ijjat of the maiti she must marry a second time as directed without thinking of herself.
Women’s role in perpetuating patriarchal norms is especially evident in the internalised policing mechanisms that prevent disclosures of injustices. Numafung makes Lojina promise not to tell the parents about Girihang’s behaviour. The sense of moral duty ingrained in Numafung and the self-sacrifical behaviour expected of women is starkly portrayed when she physically intervenes in an attempt on Girihang’s life – placing herself between the intended victim and the khukuri-wielding assailant. The husband is spared, but as the circle of his attackers walk away, Girihang kicks Numafung to the ground.
Not just victims
It is clear that Numafung and the other female characters in the film are firmly embedded in the patriarchal norms and have had their lives structured accordingly. Yet, to label them as merely oppressed and dominated victims is clearly to ignore the multifaceted ways in which women resist or defy, and challenge, the forces of patriarchy, and the director has been sensitive enough to address this matter in Numafung. The subtle and not so subtle levels of individual and private sites of protest make clear the agency of these women.
Numafung’s resistance to the social trajectories mapped out for her is evident both physically and verbally throughout the film. Her dialogues before both marriages are sharply critical and intensely clear. Before the first marriage, she openly declares, “I will not marry now” to her parents and her grandmother, only to be rebuked and admonished. During the second marriage negotiation, the camera moves to the second floor of the house where Numafung is furiously packing her clothes. Her mother comes upstairs looking for her as she is to serve the guests. Even as she continues with her packing, Numafung says, “You gave me away forcibly once, and you are still not satisfied? What do you think I am something you sell? I am not your cattle. I will not marry”. She declares that she is going to her (first) husband’s house even though, as reminded by her mother, the absence of offspring has rendered all formal ties to her former husband’s household void. Numafung manages to escape and does go to her dead husband’s household. Only at the intervention and counselling of her mother-in-law to get married a second time does Numafung travel back to her maiti.
Her continued opposition and resistance is made delightfully clear in the shots of her refusal to touch knees with Girihang as they sit cross-legged during the wedding ceremony. Indeed, so open is her objection to the marriage that through the ceremony Aumafung’s hand has to be forcibly steered by another. From returning to her maiti following Girihang’s bad behaviour – and declaring her unwillingness to return – to her eventual running away with the lahuray, Numafung’s active resistance is clear.
The everyday resistance of those whom we usually label as being ‘powerless’ and ‘helpless’ is also made visible in young Lojina and how she reacts to her bhena (brother- in-law). She calls him “motay” (fat) and “bhunday” (pot bellied) when alone with her sister; she rudely thumps the container of thongba (alcoholic beverage made of fermented millet seeds) in front of him when he comes to take Numafung back; and most hilariously, she surreptitiously spits into the bowls of dal before serving the food to him and his companion. These would all be acts of what the theoretician of resistance James C Scott would term “disguised aggression”. Indeed, in the same manner that Scott describes how slaves actively manipulated rituals of subordination to their own advantage – an art form of successful manipulation – Lojina’s “respectful service” to her bhena serves as a tool for her agency. While not dramatic or confrontational, these are acts of resistance.
The Teej festival in September brought to centre stage the manner in which women voice their criticisms of unjust and oppressive social norms. Songs sung on this holiday for women are sharply critical of social injustices such as household burdens and the behaviour of men and mothers-in-law. What Numafung makes clear is that these political struggles, insofar as they challenge power relations, occur on an everyday basis at local and personal levels. Such an understanding problematises the simplistic depictions of women in Nepal, in developmental literature and elsewhere, as ‘helpless, patriarchally oppressed women in need of consciousness raising’. However, it must also be made clear that notwithstanding resistance and agency, the positions of the dominated, the subaltern and the peripheralised remain unchanged. Material reality does not alter just because one recognises the agency, forms of resistance and self-definition of the women.
Any discussion of Numafung that did not refer to culture would be incomplete. Clearly, the fact that this movie is located in Limbu culture has an important bearing in Nepal where, historically, ethnic groups and their cultural values and norms have been sidelined if not denigrated. Culture forms both the context and medium of the story in the film, and the norms and values are intrinsic to the storyline and the characters. Thus, for example, you have the ever-present image of thongba served as khaja (light meal) to tired workers on the one hand, and to the young Lojina and her friend upon arrival at Numafung’s first married home on the other. That the crowd at a recent screening of the film in Kathmandu giggled and laughed at the scene of a young girl being offered alcohol, revealed the ‘strangeness’ and ‘foreignness’ of this very ‘Nepali’ cultural practice for many other Nepalis.
In the same vein, while the moral dilemmas, the forced choices and the oppressiveness of social norms and values would touch the heart of many if not all women in Nepal, it is clear that the patriarchy of Numafung is qualitatively different to that usually envisioned as existing in ‘Nepali society’. To name a few examples: the easy remarriage of Numafung even as a widow; the social acceptability of her running away with another man while already married; her addressing of both husbands in the more egalitarian “timi” and not the more respectful ‘tapai’ or even ‘hajur’; the open dancing at the fair between strangers of different sexes and the splashing of water between two men and women at Numafung’s second wedding. There are clearly very particular notions of purity, sexuality and gendered norms in the Limbu world. Feminist battles for Limbunis (Limbu women) would not need to fight notions of sexuality that underlie prohibitions against widow-remarriage; in that sense, rethinking the struggle against patriarchy as struggles against the ‘multiple patriarchies’ in existence within Nepal may be a more profitable strategy for feminists in Nepal.
Numafung heralds a new form of filmmaking as far as the Nepali audience is concerned. From the widening of the frame to accommodate nuances of Limbu culture, to the underlying perceptiveness with regard to gender relationships – whether it be in critiquing the altered forms of the originally positive arrangement of marriage payments, which were meant for the security of the bride, to the overall presence of strong female characters (Numafung, Lojina, the second mother-in-law and the regal grandmother) or in amplifying the agency of women in constructed positions of inequality – the multiple sensibilities which inform this film are extraordinary.
Issues could be raised with the film of course. There is, for example, the portrayal of that which is defined as being ‘beautiful’. With her oval face and her overall non- Aryan features, Numafung clearly portrays an alternative to the widely accepted notion of beauty that privileges sharp aquiline noses, large eyes and accentuated cheekbones. Numafung is a Limbu beauty. However, unlike the stocky, wellbuilt lasses one is more likely to encounter in Limbu villages, she is slim and svelte and thus still conforms to certain ‘hegemonic’ standards. Thus the potential for the cinematic portrayal of alternative forms of beauty in Nepali cultures seeitis somewhat muted. This is but a small point to raise in the context of the achievements of Nabin Subba, the director, whose next endeavour this reviewer awaits with great eagerness. Numafung must be seen.