Ama Khando: a different road trip film from Nepal

Road-trips are not an established genre in Nepali films, like romance, action or comedy even though they may have all these elements. But in the last few years more than a few have made it to commercial cinema as a trend.

Road trip movies tend to be mostly romantic and usually feature guy and girl trekking to Jomsom or Mustang with a gaggle of friends to bicker and eventually fall in love. Dollops of crude and convoluted sex jokes spice up the script, and keep the plot moving.

There is usually a dead parent, a crazed brother or a failing orphanage in the mix as part of a thinly established back story or a point of conflict. The mountains always glisten in the backdrop as romance blossoms. It is a Nepali movie-goers have to suffer.

However, there are a few memorable films within the sub-genre if we look at the last couple of decades. CaravanKaagbeni and Highway come to mind – adventure, horror, and the last a political drama.

Ama Khando is an addition to this list. It is an intimate comedy-drama depicting the journey of two families from Lo Manthang in Mustang to Pokhara, as part of an annual trip. But this year is different, especially for the little boy who is co-lead with his mother in the film.

The eponymous Khando of the movie’s title is Ama, or mother, to a school-skipping, fight-picking 10-year-old who never seems to listen to her. Even though the film’s central relationship is between Khando and her son Dhondup, the family friends who are travelling with them also ebb and flow inside the story.

The elder son Lobsang of the other family wrestles with his fate of having to abandon his studies for a lack of money, and has a terse relationship with his father because of this.

Khando, a financially vulnerable single mother is also frustrated with her son as she worries for his future. The elders in the story are concerned for their children’s prospects in the difficult terrain of Mustang as the world closes in. Even though they are conflicted about the idea of the city, its bustle and pollution are a draw.

For young adults like Lobsang the idea of remaining farmers is financially and socially unattractive. Much like most of our young migrants overseas, they can only be nostalgic for a homeland they are already moving away from.

For children like Dhondup , who does not care for much beyond food, entertainment and his long lost father, these larger themes do not interfere in his small adventures, but will eventually decide his fate.

Writer-director Tshering Dhondup is from Upper Mustang, and drew from personal experiences to create this story. He plays himself in some portions of the film and so does his own mother, and his friends have roles too.

The film is made up of little moments, small talk and chance encounters. There are no spectacles here, but much like the colossal mountains that make for the background in this journey, brooding themes of love, loss and identity are quietly visible under the surface.  Here at least, the mountains do stand for something. Here is a road movie where the characters are real and the emotional stakes highly resonant.

The film does occasionally falter (musical cues seem needlessly placed and expose a proclivity for forced sentimentality, and some handheld shots feel random) but in the larger scheme of things, Ama Khando works.

And one reason it does is the lead actress Pema Dolker Gurung’s performance which is unencumbered by showiness and lends itself so beautifully to the screen. The score by Pushpa-Sangam, and the understated cinematography by Ali Rasheed and Manoj Panta blend well.

Made by a skeletal crew and under the painful circumstances that come with filming in far off locations on a shoestring budget, the film nevertheless has heart enough to travel. The film was selected for the prestigious Busan Film Festival and the 50th International Film Festival of India in Goa, coming home in December to a warm reception at the Kathmandu International Film Festival, where it won the audience award for best film.