I was really intrigued by the trailer of Kalo Pothi when it came out in 2015. The 2001 Mugu district, the far western Nepali dialect, the Maoist insurgency, two early teens – Kiran and Prakash navigating their lives amidst the conflict, and in the center of all is the pet black hen, Karisma, named after the popular actress. The trailer of this Nepali feature movie was very alluring and I was desperately trying to find the movie both in regular and sketchy websites without any luck. Only recently I got to watch the movie on an online video website.
After watching the movie, however, I had mixed responses, mostly positive though. The movie centers around the life of Kiran and Prakash, two best friends from different castes, trying to get back Prakash’s pet hen which his sister left him when she joined the guerilla Maoist group. But when Prakash’s father sells the hen without him knowing, he sets in the journey with his best friend to get it back before his sister returns home.
The portrayal of rural Nepali lifestyle during wartime is excellent and praiseworthy. You do not see that often in Nepali movies, at least not in realistic ways. More importantly, it’s rural Mugu in war times. It was one of the centers of the Maoist insurgency. The rural district, never touched by any modernism, and as distant as possible from ruling city of Kathmandu provides perfect condition to breed and flourish radical revolution and to enroll (force) child soldiers. Dozens of teenagers are abducted to fight for Maoist from the rural village and Bijuli, Prakash’s sister also joins the guerrilla group. We do not know exactly what motivated Bijuli to join Maoist, maybe, my guess, the teenage curiosity to explore something beyond but certainly not Marxism or Maoism. There are many scenes in the movie that reflects the war experiences of common people.
Another highlight of the movie is its portrait of typical Nepali events. There is a very long scene in the movie of a Laure (generally a person who has been out of the village for a long time) returning home. He is welcomed by dance and music and is carried on the back. Another scene includes villagers gathering around chieftain’s (Mukhiya) house to discuss the disappearance of the teenage girls. There are many other examples of these events that used to shape common village life in Nepal.
There is something unique about Kalo Pothi in the way it shows Nepaliness of 2001. The news of Radio Nepal, the way people address the King – Shree paanch badamaharaja dhiraj Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev (learned it in 1st grade I think), the song – Gau Gau Bata Utha and more. These were in some faint memory lane of my childhood and this movie refreshed it for once.
The real treat for me was the western Nepali dialect. The modern Nepali also traces its root to one of these regional dialects in the Midwestern region. If you have good Nepali background, you should have no trouble understanding the dialogues. For me, the movie was ten times more interesting just because of the dialect.
There are also very interesting symbolic scenes in the movie especially depicting the state of mind of the hero, Prakash. This is a very interesting experiment in Nepali movie rhetoric.
Most of the Nepali movies have roughly the same plot. A villager hero and a feudal head of village as the villain. They conflict usually because the hero falls in love with villain’s daughter or the villain is the mortgagor of his property and threatens to seize it. The hero in desperation goes to city (or abroad) to test his luck, makes money and returns. He rebels against the feudal head and gets the girl and the property.
Six decade of Nepali cinematic history has given only few movies that are worth remembering. Nepali movies were/are plagued by poor dramatics, forced comedy, idiotic action and sometimes blatantly copied plot and music from Bollywood (some original music were great though). Last decade has seen a renaissance in Nepali movies with release of movies depicting modern Nepali youth (Sano Sansar, Jhole), recent and ancient political history (Badshaala, Daasdhunga, Seto Baagh, Jhola) and some with innovative romance and action plots(Loot, Kabbadi, etc). Rise of character driven movies like Talakjung vs Tulke and Hari are also not to be missed. Kalo Pothi is no doubt the continuation or even the next level of this new trend.
The biggest let down of the movie is its failing to depict the Maoist insurgency and its effects in more depth. The reason I spent two hours searching this movie was not to see the search for the black hen but to explore the experiences of the people during the war in my native land. Kalo Pothi completely sidelines the war and focuses on the black hen instead. I was hoping the opposite from this movie. Until about the 45th minute into the movie you still believe that there may be some substance coming up but after 60 minutes, you give up on the story.
Even though the story turned out to be not what I expected, I did not feel bored at any time during the movie. The presentation, dialogue and the setting of the movie are interesting enough that it was a worthwhile movie. It is certainly one of the most watch movies among Nepali movies even though it fails to perform on the expectation set by its trailer.