The road ahead for Nepal

Still from Baato.

A family embarks on a 300 km journey from the remote mountains of northeastern Nepal to Dharan in the plains. There is no road yet to their village, so they trek for five full days before getting a jeep, then a bus to reach the market just to sell a few डोको baskets full of medicinal herbs that they have collected over months.

The journey involves physical hardship, much walking uphill and downhill, through rough and steep terrain (including on a wobbly makeshift log bridge over a fierce river at night) and preparation and planning for how to get a permit for their herbs at a national park office, and past police officers at checkpoints along the way.

The feature-length film बाटो Baato is a rich visual document that records the villagers’ ambivalent lives and aspirations of ‘development’ as a new motorable road cuts through Nepal’s hinterland. Directed by Lucas Millard and Kate Stryker, the film follows Mikma and her family and reminds one of We Corner People by Kesang Tseten, who also happens to be the executive producer of this film.

Baato was screened in the recently concluded Kathmandu International Film Festival (KIMFF).

While Baato primarily follows one family on their journey to market from mountains to the plains, it also offers a sneak peek into the politics of roadbuilding in rural Nepal showing us, on the one hand, road as an aspirational object of modernity and, on the other, its building as a contested process.

While some villagers are concerned about the possible loss of land and homes as the excavators arrive, the contractors worry about possible disruption and dissent by local communities. And there is the government in the form of Roads Division that is concerned about the emergent illegal road-side structures and encroachment of public land.

This 82-minute film immerses viewers into the reality of roads in rural Nepal. It makes us think  about the distinct meanings and consequences of roads and road-building for the protagonists involved -- villagers, contractors, traders, the government.

At the micro level, the villagers anticipate a better life with less walking as jeeps arrive at their doorstep. The process of road building itself involves corruption, bribery pressures from vested interest groups, during construction. Zooming out to a macro level, we see the road and its construction bring to the fore discourses of development, connectivity, globalisation and international assistance as the government promises the economic upliftment to villagers if the road is completed.

This observational film is an anthropological gaze into people’s lives in the marginal hinterlands that are yet to experience the infrastructure and amenities of modernity: road, electricity, television, and market, among others. The link between road and everyday life is one way of looking at the film, and the politics of infrastructure would be another level of understanding it.

The film captures everyday life in a still-remote corner of Nepal, showing us the sorrows and difficulties hidden underneath the majestic mountains and valleys. Millard and Stryker try to document the uncertain and precarious lives of people in these isolated and far-flung communities. In doing so, they also show us the humility and improvisations with which the family relates to emergent, ambiguous, and adverse situations -- a young family member getting sick, or the bus stuck half-way into the journey with to engine breakdown.

As the villagers sort out things in those precarious circumstances, we get a glimpse of  perseverance and toughness amidst the physical, mental and social challenges they experience. Even after five days of walking carrying heavy loads, the family reminds us that life goes on amidst adversity. They cut jokes and laugh, they smile, and they cherish the little moments of togetherness.

Viewers can watch बाटो just to glimpse the reality of life, or they can view it as an anthropological study of how connectivity and infrastructure, development and globalisation, citizens and the state, perhaps even politics and geopolitics play a role in Nepal and beyond.

More importantly, the film hints at a larger transformation taking place in Nepal’s Himalayan villages with the advent of roads, and how this is affecting every facet of life for Mikma and families like hers.

Watch trailer.

Bicram Rijal is a PhD candidate at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Simon Fraser University, Canada.