To be a Gurkha

April 11, 2013 , by Shreya Thapa, Leave your thoughts
To be a Gurkha » My Dreams Mag
Photo: Kesang Tseten / Shunyata Films
In recent years, there has been much debate over what it means to be “Nepali”. It unearths the sentiments of nationality and the land that we would risk our lives for. But as a Nepali, what does it take, and what does it mean, to risk our lives for a country not our own? Kesang Tseten’s documentary Who Will Be a Gurkha offers insight into the men during the recruitment process. 

Each year thousands of young Nepalese men apply for the opportunity to become a member of the British Gurkha army. For the life the title offers, they subject themselves to rigorous physical training, strict regiments, interviews, tests, and undergo weeks of competition. Within the background of Nepal’s history, in the context of the nation’s current state, Kesang Tseten’s documentary Who Will Be a Gurkha opens a window to watch highly ambitious Nepalese men compete for those few coveted positions.

“It’s an important issue but right from the beginning I didn’t want to get into the debate,” Tseten says.

He adds, “On one hand you want to tell the whole world who the Gurkhas are and to do that you have to allude to their reputation as a fighter, but if you do it overly you endorse it which I don’t want to do.”

And so, using an objective approach, Tseten and his colleague’s cameras followed the proceedings during the recruitment process in the British Gurkha Camp in Pokhara over roughly three weeks.

Without a set story in mind, Tseten went to the camp to collect footage of the camp settings, believing that somewhere among the hundreds of men, he’d find a story.

“I went in without a story, except the idea of what it was about. There’s a camp, there’s recruitment, there’s British and there’s Nepalese – British recruiting, Nepalese applicants. It’s an ongoing, unfolding of events. There’s going to be a lot of activities – heave ups, push ups, interviews, discussion, guys coming and going The only thing is will that make a film or not? But I believe you always get a story because you don’t find a story in one place, you find a story by linking three or four things.”

Roughly following the chronology of the recruitment process, the seemingly unrelated clips of various recruits offer a comprehensive picture of the young men as they stand on the brink of a potentially life changing opportunity. The men are lined up with numbers on their chest, they are seated and given instructions, they are given written exams, they are physically tested, and they are interviewed by recruiting officers.

Certain portions of the recruitment process are placed in juxtaposition with black and white footage of recruits from over 50 years ago. The men from previous generations are assigned the same tasks and measured in the same way as current recruits adding to the layers of stories that unfold.

For Tseten, the story lies less on characters and more on the situation.

He says: “Here are young Nepalese who look impressive, everyone looks strong and full of vitality, and they all want to get into war. If they get into the army it’s a life changing opportunity, if they become a Gurkha they get to go to the UK, they get a good salary, unlike the old times. And so here are these people who want something really bad, they’re going to compete because there’s a contest which is always exciting.”

And so, in the end, there is certainly a story although told in unconventional methods. The documentary has no real characters, no exact plot, and there is absolutely no interaction between the filmmakers and the subjects of the film.

“Everyone wondered how it would work without proper characters,” Tseten shares but he was able to manage to pull it off by interweaving clips pulled out of around 80 hours of footage.

Through these snippets Tseten shows audiences the range of people, emotions, and events that take place on camp grounds. He manages to infuse humour into the film while never undermining the gravity of the reason the men are there. While some wonder if they’ll be taking a bus from Nepal to England, others admit they’d be okay with dying a Gurkha because at least then their parents would be taken care of.

Overall Tseten’s unconventional method of storytelling has won rave reviews and garnered positive feedback. After being released in theatres nationwide last month, Tseten comments on the response, “You’re always a little bit surprised, but when you experience something you get a certain feeling.”

And it’s a feeling that any Nepalese watching the documentary will  also experience.

Tseten adds that his film inspired different responses in Nepalese and non-Nepalese viewers.

“My European editor didn’t see the point in including the clip where a young man responds to a recruiter saying his greatest weakness is his parents because he loves them so much,” he says. “They were more content focused, but for Nepalese it’s not just content, it’s also the emotion.”

Perhaps for the non-Nepali speaking audience, some of the essence of the film is lost in translation though the subtitles because the documentary does inspire a range of emotions from pride and pity to anger and hope.

“There’s something there, it may not all translate into film but seeing all the men, their mannerism, the vibe and getting to see the officer – on one hand it’s these young guys, and on the other they’re going to war.”

And it was that concept of men, war, and masculinity that gave Tseten the idea of covering this topic.

“There’s a South Asian masculinity project with men looking at gender, looking at men,” he says. “For decades it was women looking at women or girl child, but men should look at gender too,” Tseten explains the background to the Let’s Talk Men initiative that inspired men from five different South Asian countries to focus on masculinity.

“Rahul Roy, a filmmaker from Delhi, decided to have Let’s Talk Men 2 and got almost the same guys from 12 years ago.”

With that prompt Tseten explored potential ideas, “I was going to make a film called Men at Work, I didn’t want to get into theories of gender because how do you convert theory into film? I thought gender was everywhere, gender pervades our being, and we practice one form of masculinity or the other. So I thought I’d choose a few settings that have the smell of men–that are manly!”

One of his options being Gurkha soldiers.

After somehow managing to attain permission to film at the Pokhara Camp, Tseten says, “So I went to shoot this one segment film that would show guys in one kind of masculinity and I realised it was very interesting without having a story, without an obvious story of what’s-his-name, what’s-his-family. It was nice to have this one confined specific setting and go close up to see what little things come up.”

All the “little things” accumulating into an insightful film that looks at young men as they compete to become British Gurkhas.

Without having a specific message in mind, Tseten explains some of the most crucial dynamics of the film.

“Nepal was never colonised but you strip away the language and it comes down to power. The employer and the employee, the recruiter and the applicant, and when you have two different cultures – to me all that was very interesting. And it doesn’t have a complete arc but you see aspects of these relationships. I think the indoctrination of the guys…they take it in slowly to be a Gurkha. Some of them take two to three years to train, so in a way they’re already Lahures they just don’t get the job. The enormity of their ambition versus who actually gets the job is really sad.”

Sad it may be, but Tseten offers a film that depicts reality, and perhaps for that reason –regardless of what one’s opinions of the Gurkhas may be.


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