Like his 2012 feature-length debut Highway, Deepak Rauniyar’s second feature, White Sun, is about setbacks along the journey to a destination. In White Sun, the hiccups occur during a funeral procession that has embarked from a hilltop village to the banks of a river. The two protagonists, Chandra and Suraj, carrying the corpse of their father, delay the funeral with their constant bickering. The animosity between the siblings, alluded to by their names, is the spine of the film’s narrative. For the viewer, the film feels like the descent down a steep path—you slip, you fall, but you eventually reach the bottom. Luckily for us, the uneasy walk to the river comes with robust storytelling and plenty of humor.
The story is set in a village in post-earthquake Sindhupalchowk, in the household of a former Pradhanpancha who has just died. The village is a patriarchal, tradition-bound place. Able-bodied men have migrated abroad, and women and villagers of lower castes are not allowed to touch the deceased, making the physical task of carrying out death rituals difficult. Upon the Pradhanpancha’s death, his eldest son, Chandra, returns home after a ten-year absence. Chandra, the jetha, had abandoned his father’s politics, his home, and his wife for the ideals of the Maoists’ call for war. But the kancha, Suraj, the dutiful son, had joined the Nepal Army and fought opposite Chandra during the war.
As the two sons carry the corpse through the difficult terrain, the film gradually unfolds to tell Nepal’s contemporary history. A destroyed bridge that once spanned a gorge portrays the destruction of the country’s infrastructure during the war—it has been replaced by a makeshift pulley system. In another scene, a Maoist leader buzzes in a helicopter from Kathmandu to briefly attend his son’s wedding during the midst of drafting the new constitution. Other scenes include villagers huddled around a radio, listening to the news that the long-awaited constitution has finally been proclaimed, amid massive uprisings. Meanwhile, a splinter Maoist group camps on a nearby hilltop, threatening a dissonance that could erupt at any moment.
Amid historical moments that are presented as mundane realities, the characters in the film try to make sense of their situations and their lives. Chandra, played by the prolific superstar Dayahang Rai, seems resigned underneath his nonchalant demeanor. He no longer has the zeal of “Agni,” his nom de guerre. His armed rebellion aspirations have turned futile, especially in the muddle of parliamentary politics. Chandra’s wife, Durga, starred by the talented Asha Magrati, had married into her husband’s upper-caste Thapa household. Steadfast, she continued to look after her father-in-law and their dwelling despite Chandra’s long abandonment. She is determined to find a man who will claim to be the father of her daughter, Pooja, and sign the girl’s birth certificate. Pooja, acted by Sumi Malla, on the other hand, longs for a father figure and wonders if Chandra is indeed hers. Other characters include Badri, a young street boy played by Amrit Pariyar, who accompanies Chandra into the village as his porter. With his street smarts, he pretends to be Chandra’s son, jeopardizing Pooja’s hopes of meeting her father. The subtle character developments and inter-family dynamics bring the film to life. The cinematography complements the story and its vernaculars, allowing the viewer to become a close witness to lives unfolding as history of immense proportion is in the making.
Rauniyar has compiled production talents from across the globe, including Santiago-based writer/editor David Barker, Montreal-based cinematographer Mark Ó’Fearghail, LA-based musician Vivek Maddala, and Kathmandu-based producer Tsering Rhitar Sherpa. White Sun arrives in Nepal after a prestigious world premiere in Venice in September and after showing at festivals worldwide, including Toronto and Busan. It is one of several recent Nepali films with an international trajectory.
In the most rudimentary sense, White Sun is a hopeful film. In an environment where the elderly are entrenched in out-dated social values, and the middle-aged are busy bickering, the film points out that it is up to the children to take matters into their own hands. When contemporary history has proven austere, when the adults have failed, children seem logical sources for optimism. In this way, White Sun is a fictive drama that is eerily familiar. It is a well-crafted film put together by people who take their art seriously, and it is a respite from the recent surge in gangster dramas aimed at box-office success. But most importantly, the film tells a tale of our lives, that, in ways we often fail to notice, are affected by the history we witness.
Watch the trailer:
Aadi Production, October 12, 2016
Cover photo: A scene from White Sun.