WHO WILL BE A GURKHA
Whosoever fought alongside or against these men feared or derided them, but all were smitten by them. ‘Bravest of the brave,’ and loyal – ‘never had a country more faithful friends;’ ‘gentle and jolly and yet the ‘deadliest natural-born killers,’ as a British officer put it, intending it a term of endearment.
The Gurkhas began soldiering for the British colony in India 200 years ago, following a war in which the two were enemies. Impressed with the raw fighting prowess of the khukuri-wielding Nepalis, who seemed not to fear death, Britain began recruiting them. In the following centuries, these soldiers have seen more continuous fighting than any in the world, deployed in one war after another, from Borneo, Burma and Africa, to France, Italy, the Falklands and, more recently, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The recruitment of the Gurkhas has been a subject of much fascination, this despite the fact that the number of Gurkhas recruited for the British Army has dwindled from the 200,000 who fought during the Second World to a couple hundred. Young Nepalis, however, continue to be lured to become ‘lahureys’, the common name for ‘Gurkhas’, named after Lahore, then the conscripting base.
Today’s potential recruits are not rustic hill boys – a far cry from when conscriptors combed the hills for raw material, ‘the better if illiterate’ – but a new generation of urban=based Nepalis with a school or higher education, attracted by wages equaling British soldiers now, undergoing one of the most grueling tests, with some unique elements. Selection also means partaking of the myth and glamour of the Gurkhas, adventure and danger, in spite of the very real prospect of dying in battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The recruitment, carried out with meticulous planning and execution in the confined setting of the British Gurkha Camp in Pokhara, within sight of Macchapuchare, Annapurnas and Dhaulagiri, presents an elaborate modern-day ritual born in the days of Empire. It shows the processes of the army as an institution, except that these young men are joining someone else’s army. A fascinating disjunction of two cultures. The film offers a unique multi-layering of people, institutions and societies, British and Nepali, officers and applicants, and their multi worlds.
I was making a film to do with masculinities (a sure conversation stopper!), i.e a film about about men. I thought of simply selecting four settings that seem to me to be particularly men-ly, having the smell of men. One of the four such settings I thought of gradually became one about soldiers, the Gurkhas.
I didn’t know much about the Gurkhas, didn’t know that I just couldn’t walk into the British Gurkha Camp in Pokhara and film, and that very few had ever been allowed into the camp to film the recruiting process, and no one to film the entire process.
When I realised this and then, through a quirk of lucky circumstances, managed to get permission to film, I only planned to do a few days of filming. But I was so struck by the whole setup where the selection tests happen, the physical process of recruiting, the young men armoured with 6-pack bodies, their distinct motivation and their earnestness (in contrast to the fearsome Gurkhas), I decided to film the entire process and make a separate film about it.
Everyone is interested in the Gurkhas. It is, after all, a huge narrative of Nepal, but I wasn’t so interested in the subject as a filmmaker, in the way I’m less inclined to make a film about Mount Everest and the Sherpas, that is, the iconic stories that Nepal instantly conjures. World interest in our countries is often proportional to how exotic the subject is. I find myself in my films trying to counter this exoticising by demystifying, often deconstructing, at times exaggeratedly, just to say, we are real, and sorry, not all of us meditating on mountain tops. Fighting the Shangrila effect, as one might put it. There is a woefully tiny appetite internationally for stories that depict normality. I thought the observational approach would allow me to show the non-excessively dramatic, show people and things as they unfold, anchored in their actuality. As a writer I admire said, ‘the greatest honour you can bestow on anyone is to accept them in all their specificities.’
This ‘direct cinema’ approach doesn’t employ on-camera interviews. There were other reasons I didn’t adopt this approach. First, it would be hugely intrusive to pull out individuals from their intense recruiting activities, whether they be potential recruits or officers conducting the recruiting, to ask them what they are doing and why. Even if possible, and they were willing, it would diminish the action; here instead we have an opportunity to show rather than tell it as it is. And because of what the process meant to both applicants and officers, they weren’t too bothered by the camera, thus allowing us to film as though no one is filming, in their natural process, as it were, and discovering the script and the film from the yield of the material captured.
At the end, however, we had identified some potential recruits who we’d ‘followed’ as they went through the process of recruitment, including their downtime, right til their selection or rejection, their transformation to recruits beginning their training in the British Army, of their oath-taking and swearing to the Queen, and their departure from Nepal.