Bahadur – The Brave Review: Sensitive Portrait Of Poverty In The Time Of Pandemic

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Bahadur - The Brave Review: Sensitive Portrait Of Poverty In The Time Of Pandemic

A still from the film

The power of simplicity, coupled with the art of sustained subtlety, informs Bahadur – The Brave, the first Indian entry ever to win the Kuxtabank New Directors Award last month at the San Sebastian Film Festival, one of the oldest cinema events of its kind.

Debutante director Diwa Shah’s precise and unfussy approach is the film’s biggest strength. It allows her to drill deep into the social reality that the film brings to light in a quiet but profoundly touching manner.  

The Kumaoni-Nepali-Hindi drama, written by Diwa Shah herself, is a sensitive and telling portrait of poverty set in the time of a pandemic. The film is now scheduled for its Asia premiere at the upcoming MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, where it is in a 14-strong South Asia Competition line-up.

Bahadur – The Brave, produced by Visvesh Singh Sherawat of Mumbai-based Hardhyaan Films and Thomas Ajay Abraham’s Sinai Pictures, turns the spotlight on a segment of the population of Nainital that has never been seen in our cinema before – Nepalese migrants who work as porters and do other odd-jobs in the touristy hill station’s Mall Road and bazaars.

Besides the markets of Nainital, the 83-minute film plays out (especially in its last one-third) on the Uttarakhand side of the Indo-Nepalese border that the river Kali off Dharchula town represents.    

Shah, born and raised in Nainital, focuses on two men – Hansi (Rupesh Lama) and his brother-in-law Dil Bahadur (Rahul Nawach Mukhia) – who stay back in Nainital during the Covid-19 lockdown with the aim of making some extra money.

People are in isolation, the streets are deserted, cops are on the prowl to impose fines on those that violate protocols, and the curfew is lifted for limited periods of time to facilitate the supply of vegetable and essential commodities. That is when Hansi and Dil Bahadur get to work.

Masons from Bihar and workers from Nepal have returned home and shops in Nainital that are still operative face a labour shortage. Hansi and Dil Bahadur step into the breach. They load and unload goods, take the money and go back to their cramped dwelling.

The men cook frugal meals, play cards, drink (although alcohol isn’t easy to come by) and indulge in friendly banter that sometimes give way to raging arguments and even minor scuffles. They survive on a pittance but labour on in hope.

Hansi’s wife, Shanti, wants her husband to return to Nepal as early as possible. She worries that he might die alone, away from home. Dil Bahadur, too, tries to convince Hansi to take a bus across the border but the latter always finds excuses to bail out of the trip.

Hansi does not want to return home until he has saved up the sum of money he needs for the treatment of an ailing son. We see his days in locked-down Nainital unfold before our eyes. He does any job that is available – cleans a carpet, moves a heavy cupboard, delivers an LPG cylinder, lamenting all the while (but not complaining) that he has no choice but to keep going.

The precarious state of his family back home is revealed only through verbal exchanges that Hansi has with his worldly wise, assertive brother-in-law and via telephonic conversations that the two men have with Shanti.

Bahadur – The Brave, a film dedicated “to all the Nepalese” who keep the markets of Nainital moving, tells a story that is as much about despair and hopelessness as about one man’s resolve to hold on to the faith that he will one day have the means to pay for his son’s operation. How long can he hang in there?

It is clearly a catch-22 situation for Hansi, a hardworking and tough-willed but simple-minded man who has no clue how to free himself from the cycle of apathy and exploitation that he is caught in. The class and power divide are unbridgeable for a man at the very bottom of the pyramid. Apathy leads to hopelessness. Exploitation only pushes him to a corner from where there is no escape.

In one implicitly expressive scene, Hansi runs an errand for a police inspector. As he enters the latter’s home, a canine pet (off-camera) barks incessantly. The cop’s wife remarks: Luri (the dog’s name) always barks when he sees Bahadur (that is what all Nepalese men are called). For the people that he serves, Hansi has no identity other than a generic one. He is an outsider and will always be. The dog will bark no matter how many times he goes to the policeman’s home.

The writer-director, who attended a creative writing programme in the United Kingdom in 2019, was in the middle of authoring an unpublished book about a Yemeni immigrant in England when the pandemic struck and the whole world was forced indoors.Her book remained incomplete but as the harsh realities of bottled-up lives, deaths, shattered dreams, containment zones, sealed borders and the plight of people desperate to return home hit us, Shah turned what she saw around her in her hometown into a film script.

Bahadur – The Brave has been shot by cinematographer Modhura Palit. With an unfailing eye for the minutest details within the spaces that Hansi and Dil Bahadur inhabit and work in, she creates frames, and lines of vision and obstructions within frames (in some of which the audience cannot see the Nepalese man even as he delivers his dialogues) to convey the migrants’ precarious relationship with a place that they can never call their own.

Bahadur – The Brave of great significance because, in terms of both its pertinent content and its steady and extremely effective craft, it is quite an exceptional achievement.

Apart from announcing the advent of a young filmmaker gifted with the ability to cast an empathetic and illuminating gaze in the direction of those that we often choose to turn a blind eye to, Bahadur – The Brave has an innate sheen that emanates from its creative integrity and sharp articulation of truths that are there for all to see but are rarely underscored with the striking acuity that Diwa Shah achieves in her debut film.   

Cast:

Rupesh Lama, Rahul Nawach Mukhia

Director:

Diwa Shah

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