Study areas: Asia, Nepal, Armed Insurgency, Women, Politics, War, Communism
From 1996 to 2006, Nepal was wrenched by a bloody internal conflict that pitted a Maoist-inspired insurgency against a dissipated monarchy presiding over a weak parliament. Kiran Deol has produced a moving film that recounts this conflict through the eyes of Uma Bhujel, “codename: Silu,” a poor village girl turned revolutionary. Interspersing scenes of her in uniform in the People’s Liberation Army, archival footage of battles, insurgent training camps, and political events, and interviews with Silu and members of the family she left behind, we follow her rise from footsoldier to battalion commander.
When peace is negotiated in 2006 and the Maoists enter the political process, Silu is elected to the new Constituent Assembly. Now we see her as an increasingly confident and articulate politician, returning at last to her native village to be reunited with her parents and childhood friends.
Throughout it all, Silu frames her decision to join the revolution in terms of her aspiration to improve the condition of women in her country. We hear of a galvanizing tragedy from her childhood: the suicide of her older sister, who had been married off at twelve and mistreated by her in-laws, only to return home and hang herself in despair.
The film opens with scenes of women sweeping and winnowing rice. In a voiceover, we hear Silu: “They used to say that when the rooster crowed, the hen could only listen. They used to say that when the women pick up guns, they won’t work.” Silu was attracted to the Maoists by their egalitarian ideology and their rejection of traditional class and gender disparities. 40% of the Maoist combatants were women, and she was proud to wear the uniform and fight alongside the men.
A disquieting tension emerges here: her brother was in the Royal Army, fighting against the Maoists. Both brother and sister, interviewed separately, worry for each other’s welfare. But when asked directly what she would do if she came face to face with her brother in battle, Silu struggles to find a way to say what she is supposed to say: that she would do what the Party commanded her to do. She prefers to say “arrest” rather than “shoot.” These unsettling reflections linger as an undertone during the next, seemingly innocent domestic scene: a young girl shooting a cap gun and laughing while her elders smilingly look on.
Near the end of the film, where we see her surrounded by her proud family, there are poignant reminders that the changes Silu hopes for are only just beginning to come. Her father acknowledges that it was Silu, who called for revolution — and not her brother, who wanted the insurgency to stop — who seems to have been right all along. Still, he concludes: “What changes take place, that remains to be seen.”
And although her family seems sincerely proud of their heroic, prominent daughter, her mother still yearns for a more conventional aspiration: a grandchild. She is asked, “Uma, If you were to have a baby, boy or girl, which would you want?” The (male) questioner himself proposes the answer: “A son, of course.” Silu at first can only laugh in embarrassment; everyone is amused by the teasing. But then she turns serious and gives her own reply: “Women have always faced discrimination and violence. I want a daughter who will continue to fight against that.”
This awkward moment is a reminder that Silu’s struggle goes far beyond the Maoists’ opposition to the monarchy and the caste-based social system that favors the elites over the poor. Although the new assembly is 33% female, a new political order will not in itself bring an end to the problems faced by women in Nepalese society.
At times, the film notes the mixed feelings of ordinary Nepalis about the Maoist insurgency and the resulting loss of life. The PLA’s leader, Prachanda, appears only briefly, in a grainy clip captured on a television screen, where he can faintly be heard admitting to worries about how the struggle will be perceived by the public if it drags on. But we are never told what made it controversial.
Maoist insurgencies in various parts of South Asia have been responsible for considerable brutality, sometimes against non-combatant citizens. The PLA is known to have recruited child soldiers, for instance. The only indication in the film of the moral ambiguity of the fighters is a scrap of footage provided to Deol by the PLA, which shows an insurgent coming upon a wounded enemy soldier after a fire-fight, and shooting him dead over the protest of his fellows.
The incident passes without comment, and Deol seems to leave us with the general impression that Silu, at least, was motivated by the highest ideals. She says that if it had been possible to “seize rights” without violence, they would have done that. She seems happy and relieved when, after the peace agreement, she explains to her troops that they will now “fight in a new way” — by helping the poor and building a new society.
It is in fact the biographical focus on Silu that allows the film to skirt the ugly side of armed insurgency: the film’s moral compass tracks hers, not that of the PLA or its ruthless commander. Rather, we are encouraged to make her aspirations our own, and to allow our doubts, like hers, to lie unspoken and obscure behind her knitted brow.
As a piece of documentary cinema, the film is well paced and beautifully shot and edited. The historical background of the story is woven unobtrusively into Silu’s personal narrative. And although the dark side of Maoist insurgency is soft-pedaled, the film never sounds preachy or ideological, and plenty of hard questions are allowed to hover around the edges of the generally sympathetic narrative.
These features make it an excellent choice for stimulating discussion in courses on women’s rights, gender relations, politics in developing countries, or philosophical ethics.
Timothy Lubin is Professor in the Department of Religion, and Lecturer in Religion and Law in the School of Law, at Washington and Lee University, as well as an associated researcher in the Department of Indology, French Institute of Pondicherry, in India. He has degrees from Columbia and Harvard, and taught earlier at Harvard and at the University of Virginia. He publishes on a wide range of topics in Sanskrit religious and legal literatures, teaching courses Asian traditions, the comparative study of religion, and the Sanskrit language. His research deals with Indic legal traditions and Brahmanical Hindu ritual codes, the connections between them, and their reception in modern India. He recently co-edited Hinduism and Law: An Introduction (Cambridge, 2010), and is at work on a two volume study of Brahmanical authority in the history of South and Southeast Asia.
Woman Rebel is available online from the distributor's website.
Last Updated: February 24, 2013