Rite of Passage: Deepak Rauniyar’s Nepal-set drama ‘White Sun’ blends the personal and political

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In White Sun, a battle-scarred veteran of the civil war returns home to bury his father. In Western myth, this archetypal journey is embarked upon in midlife, when the hero is compelled to heal the spiritual and psychological wounds he suffered as a young man. In the opening sequence of the film, Chandra (Dayahang Rai), who is not yet 40, climbs the rocky slopes to his mountain village, laden with bags and luggage—literally and figuratively burdened by the past. In White Sun, directed by Deepak Rauniyar, and co-written by Rauniyar with editor David Barker, the protagonist is a Maoist revolutionary who fought against the royalists, supporters of Nepal’s monarchy. A skillfully wrought drama, named for the image on the Nepali flag, the KimStim Films release is currently playing at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and opens on Sept. 29 at the Laemmle Music Hall in Los Angeles.

Chandra’s return coincides with the ratification of Nepal’s constitution, in 2015, right after the country’s devastating earthquake that hastened its passage. The ideals that sustained Chandra, during the intervening decade between the end of the internecine conflict in 2006 and the vote for ratification that the audience first hears announced on the radio, are nowhere apparent. Leaders of the Maoist rebellion, ensconced in Kathmandu, have been vitiated by their newfound power, and in Chandra’s village the monarchists, having lost the war, cling to their reactionary beliefs. “I wanted to shoot in a mountain village that reflects the identity of Nepal,” Rauniyar says, in an interview in New York City during Labor Day weekend. “Nepal is a mountain country.”

In fact, Nepal is home to eight of the ten tallest mountains on earth, including Mount Everest, all in the Himalayas. White Sun was shot on location, on Annapurna, the tenth-largest peak in the world, in the village of Nepaltar in the Gorkha District. “About 249 years ago, a Shah King from Gorkha marched against the other kingdoms and established that dynasty and most of the land that is now Nepal,” Rauniyar explains. “Coincidentally, one of Maoist leaders was from Gorkha, and was the chairperson of the constitution drafting committee. His voice is heard on the radio defending the ratification.” Taking their name from the Gorkha dynasty, Gorkhas are now famed Nepali soldiers, members of the U.N. Peacekeepers, and the British Army, which they once defeated.

In White Sun, Rauniyar’s protagonist is estranged from his brother, who was a monarchist like their father; the siblings are the only able-bodied men in the village. The priest who presides over the funeral rights insists that they carry the corpse down to the river. As the movie unfolds, it becomes apparent that the corpulent patriarch represents the forces of the past, the difficulty in getting his body out of his house and down to the river a metaphor for Nepal’s resistance to the changes the revolution has wrought. “Chandra thought that as a Maoist he could change everything,” the filmmaker says. “Coming back home after ten years, he finds that his village has moved backward.” A bitter disagreement between the siblings results in Chandra’s brother abandoning the funeral procession. “People like Chandra, who believe in change, have nowhere to turn now,” Rauniyar says, “because the Maoists are corrupt, and the villagers, like the priest, think that if they lose these traditions, we will lose everything.”

Rauniyar was born in the south of Nepal, on the plains; in the former Nepali caste system that dates to the country’s 18th-century Hindu rulers, he would be of a lower caste, skin color being one of the determining factors. In Nepal, and in India, which has exerted the strongest cultural influence on Nepal, prejudice based on skin color still persists. White Sun is the writer-director’s second feature; his first was Highway (2012), a movie comprised of several stories about passengers on a bus traveling to Kathmandu. The first Nepali film to premiere at the Berlinale, and made with a very small budget, Highway is an impressive first feature. Unlike many of the 100 movies a year made in Nepal, neither of Rauniyar’s films appears to be influenced by Indian cinema.

The filmmaker was 17 years old when Nepal’s civil war began in 1996. “Chandra is a bit younger than me,” he notes, “but he is from my generation.” Dayahang Rai, who plays Chandra, is Nepali, as is the writer-director’s wife, Asha Maya Magrati; both appeared in Highway, and Magrati is Rai’s co-star in White Sun. Interestingly, neither Rauniyar nor his two accomplished actors speak the same native language. The writer-director’s is Maithili, and Magrati’s is Nepali. As for Rai, his native tongue is Bantawa Rai. While Nepali is a nationality and the national language, the people of Nepal do not share a single ethnicity. The country is home to dozens of different ethnicities and over 120 languages. White Sun is in Nepali (with English subtitles), but Gurung, the local tongue (and an ethnicity), is heard as well.

During production on White Sun, Magrati, who was born in the mountains, felt compelled to assume a role on other side of the camera. “It was a difficult shoot, as Nepaltar is very remote,” Rauniyar says. “I picked it because I needed that path you see in the film that went down to the river.” The traditional funeral ritual, an all-male affair, is conducted near a river. “During shooting, the people would often look to Asha because she is from the mountains,” Rauniyar recalls. “When the villagers, a lot of them extras in the film, would not listen to me, they would listen to her. She was very strict.” Durga, Magrati’s character in the movie, is a single mother; she and Chandra were once married, although because she was from a low caste and Chandra’s father was a village leader, their union was frowned upon.

It is through Durga (named for a Hindu warrior goddess) that White Sun grapples with a troubling issue in Nepal, that of the position of women in a patriarchal state with a de facto caste system. Durga’s daughter Pooja is not Chandra’s child, but without a statement of paternity from him, she will be unable to enroll her in school. “When we were writing the screenplay, we talked about this a lot,” Rauniyar says. “We thought maybe we had to reveal the father, but then once we talked about the father, we couldn’t say what we wanted to about this issue.” Pooja is the name of a female character in Highway and in the writer-director’s two shorts; the word means “rites” performed in praise of a deity. Rauniyar uses it to remind Nepalis of their treatment of women and girls; to “pooja” is to honor but not to value. “The mother is the only true parent,” the filmmaker observes. “You can’t lie about that. If your mother didn’t tell you who your father was, how would you know who he is? That was what we decided upon.”

Rauniyar and Magrati split their time between Nepal and a diverse neighborhood of New York City where there is a small Nepali community. The couple are leaving for Nepal soon to scout locations for the writer-director’s new film, which will be set on the plains. “In White Sun, I wanted to say that there is tradition, but for whom?” he asks. “The father could easily be carried through the door of his house, but instead they take him out of the window because of tradition. We can respect tradition, but we have to be practical.” Rauniyar’s movie ends on an optimistic note; while the adults are squabbling, the children of the village take matters into their own hands. “People are very sad in Nepal, and I also feel troubled,” he says. “I feel like Chandra, that my country is going nowhere. For us to have hope in the future, where else can we look but to the children?”