Maoist insurgency in movies: Telling a tale of war from the people’s perspective 

Making a movie about real life events such as the Maoist insurgency isn’t easy. There is always the possibility of personal biases being reflected in movies especially with a matter as sensitive as violence or war.

Shrutika Raut

  • Read Time 4 min.

Kathmandu: There appears to be a revival in the Nepali artistic milieu in uncovering and retelling the stories of the people during the Maoist insurgency period. From movies like Dokh, Prakash, Paniphoto, to plays like Palpasa Café, Khat and Inside/Outside IV to music videos like “Pir” by Prakash Saput, there has been no shortage of retellings of the events that people had to go through during the decade-long war (1996-2006).

There have been a few movies that discussed the civil war in passing, but there have hardly been any that went in depth about the experiences of the common people during the civil war era. That is slowly beginning to change due to the upsurge in character-driven narratives rather than plot-driven ones. 

The Nepali film industry is going through an observable change from a cinematographic point of view. More stories, influenced not by popularity or propaganda but by the real life experiences of people,  are coming out. A number of filmmakers are going down the route of telling their stories through the lens of realism.   

Movies about such politically charged issues are always in the danger of provoking the people in power. An instance would be the 2010 movie Badhshala. It generated a lot of outrage from the army due to, what it called, “the misuse of Nepal Army uniform” which led the Ministry of Information and Communications to ban it outright until it was censored as per the instructions of the Ministry. 

Manoj Pandit, who has directed real life based movies like Badhshala and Dasdhunga, has a few things to say about the political climate for cinema back then. “When Badhshala was released, the civil war was still a fresh wound on everyone’s mind. It was a period of high sensitivity, and my movie dared to question the authority at that time,” said Pandit. “The main motive of the movie was to ensure that the newly formed democratic state didn’t repeat the cycle of violence and suppression of freedom that occurred during the insurgency period.” 

Manoj Pandit has seen that people’s perception toward movies based on the civil war and the nature of those movies is changing. “Back in the past, it was a period of hush hush, and even talking about the war was frowned upon. Nowadays, depiction of the insurgency is seen in a lot of mainstream movies,” said Pandit. “The movies being made now don’t directly question the people in power or the authority. Instead, they mostly focus on how the war affected the lives of everyday people, which is most likely why they have mostly faced outrage but not outright ban.” 

When questioned on what makes a good real-life based movie, Pandit said the main point to be focused on is how the movies depict the events. “A good movie always focuses on the struggles of ordinary people. It also needs to dig up and look into why the event discussed arises in the first place,” said Pandit. “The biggest concern to be kept in mind is that such movies shouldn’t just be social commentary. It should delve into how such events affect a person’s psyche. It’s not enough to document events. Its relevance in our present society needs to be explored.”

However, making a movie about real life events such as the Maoist insurgency isn’t without its own contentions. There is always the possibility of personal biases being reflected in any form of art, especially with a matter as sensitive as violence or war. Taking sides when retelling a real event, even subconsciously, can cause a movie to lose its impact. Thus there needs to be a thorough vetting of the stories being told, especially from a character-based perspective.

Dipendra K Khanal, who has directed many character-focused movies set in Nepali society like Chiso Manche, Aama, Pashupati Prashad among others is clear what a character-based movie should strive to be. “A movie is a coalescence of  various stories that are interlaced together, and when a movie is character-focused, it creates a more cohesive and streamlined narrative,” he said. “It leads to a limited number of characters, which means more control over the perspective that the story is told through. This helps lessen confusion among the audiences and make the story clear,” said Khanal.

When asked whether the real life-based stories are more powerful than character focused ones, Khanal is of the view that it is up to the directors. “It’s entirely up to the director whether to make the story character focused or event focused. Focusing solely on the character doesn’t mean that a story becomes more impactful,” he said. “There are many cases where even the absence of dialogue makes a scene thought-provoking. It all depends on how effectively a director can present the story on the screen. If the character you’re focusing on doesn’t have a great story to tell, it won’t be a good movie.”

Dipendra K Khanal’s movies showcase the harsh realities of the Nepali society from ordinary people’s perspectives. He has his views about the rise of the movies based on real life events like Maoist insurgency. “It is a beautiful thing to witness. The rise of character-centric cinema is something we haven’t seen much of before in Nepali cinema. So it is amazing that such movies are coming out. It helps tell the story of a person in a deeper, more meaningful way,” he said.