Sunyata Cinema: An Interview with Kesang Tseten

From the Series: Who Will Be a Gurkha

Image by Kesang Tseten, director of Who Will Be a Gurkha (2012).

In the Summer of 2019, Aidan Seale-Feldman sat down with director Kesang Tseten in Kathmandu to talk about anthropology, cinematic aesthetics, and his practice of filmmaking.

Aidan Seale-Feldman: You attended boarding school in Kalimpong (West Bengal), received your BA in the United States at Amherst, studied journalism at Columbia University, and then returned home to Kathmandu. In what ways has your personal history shaped the films you make and the stories that you tell?

Kesang Tseten: I grew up in a Scottish Presbyterian school because my family’s circumstances had hit rock-bottom. The school was unusual, I’d say, even a unique place. On the one hand, because in India anything close to Anglophilia, the ability to speak fluent English, accorded you status and reflected privilege. The school was very British, but not rich, having begun as an orphanage, it remained very Oliver Twistian (please, can I have some more!). So on the one hand, it was very non-Indian, and on the other, it was mainly for poor, disadvantaged children. That was the interesting mix. And it had true diversity, with Anglo-Indian as the core, which was quite different from being Tibetan, Nepali, Bhutanese, Naga, Lushai, and so on.

I think that mix, as well as the fact that few came with entitlements, provided a very interesting bedrock. We were dislocated, separate from Britishness, anything English, and yet this little enclave in Kalimpong, at the foot of the Himalayas, was a very colonial environment, where you were taught the bible, and they really encouraged you to become Christian. And being poor, not to romanticize poverty, but it did put us on a level playing field from the start. That made you feel a deep commonality. And obviously that—I was in that school for ten years—had to have made an impact. And I think it kind of took me away from my own background, to which I came back later through a conscious re-appropriation. For instance, I didn’t study Tibetan but Bengali and Hindi. Only when I was much older did I become literate in Tibetan. But it also expanded my sense of self. It couldn’t help but make you aware of the sameness of different people. You lost your sense of identity, true, but also saw how similar we all were. In a very organic way, it made you more open to other ways of being. I think of it as sort of the cultural, social bedrock of my being in a way.

ASF: You have made many films, including a powerful trilogy on labor migration from Nepal to the Gulf and Malaysia; Who Will be a Gurkha (2012), a film about the recruitment process for the British Gurkha Army; Castaway Man (2015), on the mysterious disappearance of Dor Bahadur Bista, the first Nepali anthropologist and his critiques of caste-based hierarchy; and Trembling Mountain (2016), a film documenting the struggle of the Langtang community which lost around seven hundred people in 2015 when the 7.8 magnitude earthquake triggered an avalanche. There is so much to say about these films, but I want to start by pointing out that all of them seem to engage a kind of observational film practice. Has the tradition of direct cinema influenced your work at all?

KT: Absolutely. I didn’t go to film school, so when I began filmmaking it was all mimicry. It was like, how does a film look like and you copy it. I tried to make what sounded like a documentary film. I made a couple of films about the Nagas and the Lepchas in Sikkim, which were terrible films, but they kind of sounded like a documentary. You have to remember I left journalism. I was sometimes happy doing journalism but not really, I really wanted to write.

ASF: Write fiction?

KT: Just write, really. Fundamentally, trying to move from journalism to nonfiction, or literary writing, writing with some meaning, where you are expressing yourself from a deeper place. So I had already been working on a book for years, and that absorbed all my energies. I finished it but couldn’t find a publisher. In retrospect, I think the craft wasn’t quite there. It was at that point I began making films, almost accidentally. I was able to pull it off because I had a journalist background, a writing experience, it wasn’t difficult to string out a narrative of some sort. But as time went on I thought, hang on, I don’t want to be a journalist, I don’t want to ask questions, I didn’t like that kind of filmmaking. That’s when I came across the films of Frederick Wiseman and the Maysles, and just absolutely loved it. So I think Gurkha was my first stab at making that kind of a film, as well as Men at Work (2013), from which Gurkha grew. For me the distinction, the difference, is between someone representing who they are telling us who they think they are, as opposed to us seeing them with a naked gaze. There is a big difference to me, one is sensorial and goes beyond how I generally think. That really drew me in. Direct cinema really appealed to me because it meant trying to see, what does it yield when you behold a thing in itself, rather than its verbal representation, by someone saying, “This is what I think, this is who I am.”

As an experiment, when I was doing Gurkha, I thought “Ah, will this make a film?” Because here was the dramatic story of colonialism and the Gurkhas are so proud of their history—it’s almost melodramatic, the social history. How do you show it? Maybe it needs telling, so I tried doing a few interviews while we were filming. But edited into the film, it felt flat. I decided the thing itself is so much more interesting, says so much without it being predetermined, compared to these very neat pieces of opinion, or it being explained. Having said that, most documentary films are hybrid. And that is the beauty of documentary, they are hybrid in their very essence. And you can do whatever you need to do to address the particular task or need, as long as it serves the purpose.

ASF: I think one of the interesting aspects of your films is your ability to find marginal stories and tell them in a way that cares for their mundane aspects. I think for an international audience one of the first things people notice in your films is the kind of access you have. Not only to particular places, like the Gurkha training center in Pokhara, but to people and how comfortable they are around the camera and how comfortable your camera is around them.

KT: What does a director do in a documentary? Documentary footage is very inexpensive, the technology is such that you don’t have to worry about how much you’re rolling. So what does the director do? Things are happening spontaneously. I might tap the cameraman’s shoulder and give some instructions, but I don’t really say how to shoot it. I might say, don’t forget this angle or a wide shot. Rather, the work of the director is making the choices about where to shoot, who to shoot, what to shoot, how much to keep rolling, to tell the camera, “keep rolling no matter what. If you think it’s boring, keep rolling.” It’s those decisions that determine your material.

Another important aspect is defining your crew’s presence at the site. You have to be proactively shaping how you interact with the subjects or with the environment. So you are giving these cues—“Don’t take notice of us, we’re nobody,” or “we’re just here and this is what it’s all about.”

ASF: Is there a word that captures this quality of relating?

KT: It’s so important because you’re actually giving cues to your subjects as to what you want, what is your preferred mode of interaction. And so what you film is a result of your relationship to them. Thus, it makes sense that you should relate to them in a kind of way that will bring out that behavior, that kind of “performance,” that way of being from other possible ways of being. If you go and tell people, “Do this, do that,” in a direct, instructive way, they will be always waiting for your cue rather than generating their own way of being. So you are setting up, you are defining the relationship. You are really treating people as they are, relatively speaking. You are a filmmaker, no point concealing that, and yet, you don’t want to be too instrumentalist. You are there to make a film and them to “be” who they are. That’s the task at hand.

ASF: In a place like Nepal where so many depictions have historically tended toward the exotic and the dream of Shangri-La, I love to watch films that are resolutely about the normal and the mundane. In a previous interview, you described filmmaking as an encounter. You said, as filmmakers “we don’t really find what’s interesting, we encounter what’s interesting.” Can you say more about this encounter?

KT: I really believe that what is of interest is people. When you do a documentary, there might be five directors making the same documentary, so what is the difference? There’s not a hell of a lot of difference. The constraints are given. So what can make the difference? I think the difference lies in the particular way someone speaks, the particular way someone acts, the subtlety. And that depends on the way you’ve interacted with the people. Sometimes, the reality shown is everywhere, but when you see it in a film, in a juxtaposition of sequences with other clips, it makes all the difference.

ASF: Do these moments seem more real?

KT: Absolutely. I think mainly you are trying to see; it’s all about perception. People talk about character. What is character? Basically, if you think of an hour-long film with four characters, each character has fifteen minutes, if you subtract general shots, that means each character only has ten or twelv minutes. But they can come across as deep and distinct characters. You actually don’t do a hell of a lot, so how does it become greater than the parts? Film is a lot like mime. You do very few movements, but they suggest many other movements, something much larger. I think that is basically what we do with film. You are putting together a string of sequences that suggest a world that is much larger than those individual parts. It’s a careful selection. That’s why you shoot five hours in order to get ten minutes. So there is enhancement at work, you create the inflection, the sub-arcs of dramaturgy. Therefore what you are seeing is going to convey to you if there is something special. And that special thing is, for instance, an instance of spontaneity, something from below the skin. It comes from the relationship. People don’t become spontaneous by themselves. It is always in relation to something else. When I see you interacting with someone else, to me that says much more about you than just focusing on the individual. I think Kazuro Ishiguro said, character is not someone looking deeply at his navel, but how the characters relate to each other and the environment. So the linkages are much more telling. Immediately you get a sense of a network of things. Many things beyond the frame.

ASF: Why did you choose to make a film about Dor Bahadur Bista?

KT: When I worked at Himal Magazine, we published quite a few pieces by Dor Bahadur Bista. He had written Fatalism and Development (1991). I had met him, but he wouldn’t have remembered me. But I was part of Himal. I read that book and I was fascinated by it. Why was I fascinated? Well, in a way it’s a small book, but within its slim covers, it’s making a central argument, driven by a single idea. Some might say he overstated his case. There is nothing more powerful than someone providing you a lens into a reality, saying, this is the way you should see this. Give me one easy yet compelling take on Nepali society. So I was immensely moved. And he was very interesting as a character because he was beyond, he was way ahead of his times. I think he was a romantic. It’s said he had various alliances. And to me, he seemed like a romantic, a modern person, though he was married traditionally, and traditional in most of his ways because of the time, but there was also this modernity, this contemporariness to him.

I was invited to make a film for the South Asia Justice Project, and I said I wanted to do something on Dor Bahadur Bista, and pitched it. And the group of filmmakers involved said, the story of the controversial anthropologist who disappears is interesting, but—to my utter surprise—they asked, “What’s it got to do with justice?” I thought, what? To me, it was obvious that Bista was fighting for justice, or writing about a fundamental injustice, as obvious as daylight. Then the group said, “How are you going to do it, he’s not even alive?” They finally okayed it because for me it was this or nothing. So they agreed. But then, how do you do it?

So this leads back to your first question, the background I came from, maybe my own sense of fairness and justice, which I purport to have. It mattered to me. I came from that actual lived experience of diversity, both discrimination as well as acceptance of the other. Really, when I look back, there were a lot of bad things at the school, how they kept you hungry and mistreated you in many ways, really authoritarian, but one abiding good thing was the peers, the bonding between the children. And at a time when you didn’t know who these people were, who their parents were, who I was. We were in this melting pot for ten years. I think that experience was very formative. Also, I like ideas, and caste is a big idea, about history, about culture. There was a lot to bite, a complexity. Not just being for or against, but it offered a subject, one which fills library shelves, and so if you can do it in a film, if this particular story offers a narrative into this big idea, an entry, a simpler route, and without sacrificing depth, this would provide a wonderful opportunity on all those fronts.

ASF: I think today especially with the rise of Hindu fundamentalism, his critiques have a renewed resonance.

KT: We have to remember ideas are related to material being, situations, conditions. And just because an idea was articulated long ago, it doesn’t mean the situation has altered. The thrust of the reality might prevail. We still have a society where the Brahmanical dominate the leadership as well as the civil service, the face of government for most citizens. It doesn’t mean there are no Brahmins that are poor, that isn’t the argument, but that they dominate, and even more, that Brahminism as a value system dominates. So his ideas are very relevant. People say he’s not that radical, well, who else is? Writing a paper that has some critical points about the caste system is not quite the same. Bista tried to do something with ambition; he wrote a book propounding a whole view, a theory of Nepal itself.

ASF: Did he die for his ideas? It’s one thing to write about caste as a foreign anthropologist, but to be in Nepal taking up the kind of role—there is a sense of danger.

KT: There is. It is not a fancy. Fatalism and Development was read, but it wasn’t very widely read because it was not in Nepali. To this day. I instigated Basanta Thapa to complete the translation, which he hadn’t done. I recruited Basanta to help me. Only then I realized that Basanta had actually been quite good friends with Dor Bahadur. It must have been in my unconscious. But for me, he was the go-to man for help. I always trusted his understanding of Nepali society. So I made him the character who is looking for Bista in more ways than one. When I showed Castaway Man as a rough cut to a bunch of friends, a variety of normal people. It just happened that most of them were Janajatis (members of indigenous groups), most of them were naturally sympathetic to Dor Bahadur. They said, “You’re going to be in trouble. This is like a bunch of Janajatis conspiring!” Someone else said, “oh yeah, you’d better be careful.” I must say that did make me nervous.

ASF: You include contemporary commentaries on caste as well.

KT: Yes, in that rough cut one Gurung guy said, “The Brahmans, they creep on you and do you in.” That was the only thing I took out. But strange, some criticized the film, saying “Ah, Dor Bahadur was such a radical, but the film isn’t radical enough.” I don’t know, perhaps they wanted the film to link it to the Janajati movement. Fair enough, but that isn’t the film I intended.

ASF: Which of your films has been most successful internationally and why do you think some stories more successful with an international audience than others?

KT: Castaway Man was hardly accepted anywhere, but Gurkha resonated with international audiences.

ASF: Why do you think that is?

KT: Gurkha did because I think in one frame you have the British, white faces, as well as Nepalis, so a clear polarization, a binary. Gurkha are the people to whom something is being done, people had heard of them, though a lot people hadn’t. For some people, something is common, for others it is exotic, like even eating rice is exotic to some people. The world is much more varied and multi-faceted than we think.

ASF: So are you saying that because the Gurkha story is more exotic to outsiders it is more interesting to them?

KT: It becomes more accessible because there is the white guy and the Other. One is obviously the servant, the other obviously the leader. So in one frame you’ve got Britain, you are showing capturing a bit of British history, as well as Indian and Nepali history, war, World War, white and brown, etc. It is very visceral, very tangible. I think that is why even if people hadn’t heard of Gurkhas, they would recognize the tropes quite easily.

ASF: With Castaway Man there are no tropes available.

KT: It was very difficult. V. S. Naipaul wrote that one of the biggest challenges for him to write a novel, because the novel is a British form, is that British writers had the advantage. The Western writers, the European writers, had an advantage because they were writing against a well-known landscape known to readers, in which they planted the story. But as a part-Indian, Trinidadian writer, writing about Africa or India, you couldn’t assume that landscape.

ASF: When I watched the film I came away with the sense that you are not exactly critiquing the use of Nepali soldiers for the British Army. Especially because we see how prestige and the desire for a good salary, pension, and access to retirement in the UK is part of why young men are actively choosing to undergo this grueling competition, and put their lives on the line in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think this critique of Empire is one that foreign audiences are prepared to hear, and yet that is not the dominant narrative of the film. So why have you chosen to go with the narrative that shows how much people want to participate.

KT: It is really a complex issue because this is such a polarizing subject. Like you either stand here or there. About the issue itself and about the people who are talking about the issue. So generally, it will fall into the non-Gurkha people, who say these people are shameless to fight for money, and the others will say, “What the hell, we are very proud of it.” When the issue is extremely binary, my response is to go the opposite direction. Like, don’t directly respond to the binary, especially if you want to simply illuminate. I think in a somewhat unwitting way, my film company called Shunyata Film Production aspires to be that. Sunya in Buddhism means emptiness, the absence of any intrinsicality, of all things. That is to say, nothing is permanent. But it also suggests a very distinct relativity, not just a relativity that comes from balancing, which says, “This is right, and that is right too.” It is a differently textured relativity coming from a different source, of sunya which means, no-view, no depiction, that is, no position is especially privileged. To me this felt like the right time, in this environment of full-blast binarism and polarization, to simply illuminate, acknowledge the various threads, with a kind of parity. So who are the protagonists in the film? The young people, the candidates, who dream about, and who are passionate about joining the Gurkha regiment. It is important to show that, but not to go out of one’s way to privilege that aspect. Further inflecting that would distort. It’s the challenge of showing things, different sides, with dispassion.

I don’t think anybody in their right mind would say it is great to fight in someone else’s army. I honestly don’t think so. I think the issue has become a debate, the polarization it is for various reasons. So what is in the film? It shows sympathy for the protagonist, so hopefully, it corrodes the binary, polarized, essentialized positions of the debate. And a part of that is somewhat unwitting but a function of the way I see things. Because my films have been remarked on, criticized, that it doesn’t take positions. For instance, in my films on the migrant workers, there is no clear stance of showing the manpower agents as scoundrels. They well might be. I’m not afraid of not saying the populist thing. In any case, even when people said positively that my films have no clear message, that they are open-ended, I couldn’t figure out what they meant. I didn’t really understand. Because I’d never consciously set out to do that. It is amazing how unconscious we can be. I didn’t know that I had a way of seeing that is different, which made people think I’m very open, and that I let you decide. I am not trying to do that as much as it is my natural response to the issue. Because at the level of the film of the material I am encountering, I never know more than anybody else. It is just that I have the position to shape the material as I see fit. That’s really my position. I don’t know anything more than anybody else.

ASF: I appreciated the ambivalence and ambiguity of the film.

KT: It is really an expression of me. I think that is sunya: this is this, but this is also this. A juggling of relativity. Rather than, “This is this, so therefore that must not be so.” But often people respond with a “Yeah, but surely there is a hierarchy in the way they are so?” Of course, you are the one shaping it, but you are also shaping the particular manifestation and expression of each thing, doing it in a way that lets it breathe, not in a way that precludes the other thing. So we let this have its place and let that also have its place, and yet the other thing has its other place. Because, actually, most things are experienced in that way. We don’t experience things as a single distillation of good or bad. Rather, we allow the seeming contradictoriness. We open it up. How? By showing sympathy, or simply acknowledging that which seems contradictory. So there are often parts that you don’t need to wrap up with a clear conclusion. If you did that, you would always be imposing, completing the definition, having the last word just in case people don’t get it. And to me, that is the distortion.


Bista, Dor Bahadur. 1991. Fatalism and Development: Nepal’s Struggle for Modernization. Hyderabad, India: Orient Blackswan.