In and out of the bubble

kabaddiMAY 07 – Welcome to the little village of Naurikot in remote Mustang, where views of lush, verdant landscapes and gleaming peaks are commonplace, a place far removed from the dust, chaos and callousness of big cities. The days unfold, each not too different from the last, at a languid, leisurely speed, everyone knows everyone’s history, and no one thinks twice before poking their nose into someone else’s affairs–there are few remaining secrets among the residents of Naurikot. But largely untouched as this slice of paradise might appear to be on the surface, it’s a bubble on the very verge of bursting, we learn–an illusion that is growing inevitably more fragile with time. For the outside world has long been beckoning the locals, promising a break from the monotony of village life, and dangling better, bigger, more exciting prospects in front of them. While the elderly are generally immune to these temptations, resigned to spending the last of their days in familiar surroundings, most of the able-bodied young ‘uns, meanwhile, are raring to leave, for the city or overseas, as soon as they possibly can.

It’s not a sentiment that Kaji (Dayahang Rai) personally subscribes to, though. The son of a village bigwig, he would be happy to forever strut around Naurikot’s cobbled streets in his puffy jacket, drinking, smoking and shooting the breeze with his two buddies-slash-minions (Bijay Baral and Buddhi Tamang). Given that Kaji leads a more comfortable life here than most, it’s understandable that he has very little desire to move; in fact, his ambitions go no further than snagging his cousin and one true love, Maiya (Rishma Gurung), and settling down with her. That endeavour takes up a big chunk of his daily exertions, as he and his friends huddle together to devise ways in which to secure Maiya’s affections, efforts that are fruitless considering she–already sick of the scrutiny and limitations of a small community–seems to despise Kaji with a real vengeance. Our hero, however, is certain it’s just a matter of months before his lady acquiesces and wedding bells are set to ringing. But when a dapper young stranger (Nischal Basnet) suddenly comes riding into Naurikot, catching Maiya’s eye in the process, Kaji’s neat little world is rocked like never before. Who is this mysterious fellow in the leather jacket? What does he want? And what oh what must poor Kaji do to stake out his territory?

Kabaddi, directed by Ram Babu Gurung, works best when it narrows its focus to reveal and revel in the whimsy that is inherent in a microcosm such as Naurikot. The film offers up some wonderfully quirky characters who feel entirely authentic to their sequestered settings–a product of easy-flowing dialogues, and of course, talented actors able to bring these to life. Rai, in particular, steals the show here–he makes Kaji his own, lacing him with equal parts cockiness and tragic vulnerability, and one can’t imagine anyone else doing a better job with the role. Tamang and Baral are just right as his ever-loyal and always bungling sidekicks, the source of most of the film’s laughs, and Basnet puts up a good fight (often literally) as the charming city-slicker. Gurung, although comparatively a bit stilted at times, does an overall decent job, and most of the other cast members, among them a fair few Gurukul alumni, fill up the remaining spaces capably.

What is so exciting about Kabaddi–or at least its first half–is how well it’s able to establish a distinct sense of place and context, thanks in part to mellow cinematography that grazes ever-so-gently over Naurikot’s picturesque surrounds, mimicking the pace of life among its inhabitants, as well as underlining their seclusion. The geographical terrain is much more than mere interchangeable ‘backdrop’; there is constant interaction between the people and the environment, accomplished in a manner that is organic, specific, and very subtle. Already populated by characters who look, talk and act like they were born here, the film’s inclusion of tongue-in-cheek sequences featuring village oddballs and regional cultural practices also add to the building of a vivid and tangible local atmosphere.

That charming beginning is probably why post-intermission, when we leave the small-town sensibilities of Naurikot behind and head off to more expansive urban spaces, the film falls into a noticeable downward slide.

The shift in location isn’t the culprit, of course; it’s the shift in tone that is. For Kabaddi suddenly comes to resemble your run-of-the-mill crime film, complete with stereotypical pony-tailed dons, evil brawny thugs with piercings who could’ve very well walked off the sets of a B-grade Hindi film, and a few too many chase scenes that get very old very fast. Sure, characters will have earned enough goodwill early on so that we’re still invested in their fates, and things are certainly rounded off nicely by the end, but the effect is muddied by what feels like a forced and ill-advised foray into predictable action in between.

Still, coming on the heels of one disappointing release after another in terms of local fare at the movies of late, Kabaddi is hands down the best Nepali film we’ve seen in a while, and definitely a recommended watch, if only for the hilarious series of Naurikot vignettes that line the first half. Hopefully, like me, you’ll be so enthralled by Kaji and his initial antics that you’ll be more than willing to forgive the flaws towards the latter half of the film.