Disclaimer: Contains minor spoiler
The male characters in films directed by Ram Babu Gurung share some similarities with those written by Imtiaz Ali. They are often portrayed as man-child who feel more comfortable around their male friends than in the presence of females. However, unlike Ali’s characters, they lack the sufiness (madness) and romance, and their responses to women are often filled with anger.
The mention of Gurung is relevant here because Upendra Subba, who wrote and directed Jaari, also co-wrote Kabaddi, a popular franchise that started and remains the archetype story for such male characters.
Like Imtiaz Ali’s films, both Jaari and Kabbadi, despite being political and social at heart, are love stories. In Jaari, Dayahang Rai portrays Namsang, a character who, like Kaji, expresses himself through anger and irritation. He doesn’t hesitate to insult his wife Hangma (played by Miruna Magar) by comparing her to an infertile buffalo.
In the opening scene, Namsang even slaps and nearly kicks Hangma which causes her to leave and vow never to return. The story follows their journey over the next few months.
In recent times, no other writer has managed to make us care for such gray characters. Despite the characters repeatedly hurting each other, we don’t hate them and are always invested in their story.
One of the main reasons why audiences feel empathy for the characters in Jaari is that it’s not an ‘issue’ film. Instead of going for a documentary-style exploration of the larger social impact of the Jaari tradition, the movie remains focused on the personal stories of the characters, particularly women, who are impacted by it. The men in the film behave callously, and the responsibility of taking care of the household always falls on the women. Women’s fate is determined by men who win them over in Palum or through kidnapping using brute force. Unfortunately, those whose fate is decided by their parents don’t fare any better.
Hangma, whose marriage was arranged by her parents, is forced to live in a shed with her in-laws and work as a servant when her family can’t repay the ‘Jaari’. She’s treated like a prisoner, fed enough to survive but not enough to thrive. Despite accepting it as part of their fate, the women do voice their concerns. Hangma leaves Namsang’s house after a fight, but their protests don’t come from a place of empowerment. It’s not a rebellion, but rather the act of a wife who’s had enough. The film is set in the 1990s, a patriarchal time that isn’t ready for their awakening yet. It’s ironic that over 27 years later, things haven’t changed much.
After the success of Loot, Kabbadi popularized snappy, character-driven dialogues in Nepali cinema. It’s an understatement to call these dialogues just ‘realistic’. The mix of Limbu and Nepali languages effectively captures the authenticity of the setting while maintaining the film’s pace. Although the dialogue has a sense of improvisation, it’s clear that a lot of thought went into the script as well. Unlike in the Kabbadi series, the dialogues in Jaari flow smoothly, allowing viewers to fully engage with the more serious moments. As a result, scenes burst open, generating both humor and pathos in a single moment.
The script is just as impressive as the dialogue. The linear storyline sets the conflict of the story clearly from the explosive opening scene, even though we don’t get to see the previous sparks that led to the conflict. The film’s most brilliantly written and staged scene is when Hangma, played by Miruna Magar, breaks down after meeting her brother. At this point in the story, she is working as a servant in her in-laws’ house because her family couldn’t pay Jaari. The scene is crafted so well that we anticipate her breakdown, but she manages to hold it together until the moment when she finally breaks down.
The camera slowly pushes in, and the background score intensifies the emotion of the scene. In the subsequent scene, Hangma’s brother vows to take her back, and the sunset in the background matches the mood of fury and broken-heartedness. Throughout the film, slow-motion shots (such as a close-up of Hangma’s feet entering and exiting the house) and push-in shots (captured by DOP Shailendra D Karki) elevate the dramatic tension of the scenes. In a more lighthearted moment, there’s a visual gag (edited by Nimesh Shrestha) where Bijay Baral appears half-bent like a bull ready to mount a cow, coinciding with a pair of bovines seen mating in the background.
The impact of the moments in Jaari is not easily forgettable, thanks to the skillful writing. As Hangma begins to forgive Namsang, the hurtful words and past fights are not overlooked, as evidenced by the stains on the white walls. This allows the audience to empathize with the couple’s slow journey towards reconciliation, which is further complicated when Hangma’s brother arrives to take her back home just as Namsang tries to remove the stains.
Upendra Subba’s writing in Jaari demonstrates his prowess as a screenwriter, building upon his earlier works that have a sense of groundedness, such as Kabbadi in Mustang. Jaari is perhaps his most personal work yet, as it is set in his birthplace of Angsarang-8, Panchthar, with characters that reflect his own Angdembe heritage. The film is steeped in Eastern culture, from the scent of Marcha and Jaad to the casual use of curse words. Despite this, Subba avoids being overly nostalgic, creating a film that is both authentic and accessible.
I have mentioned Kabbadi and Ram Babu Gurung many times in this review. It is inevitable, as Upendra Subba, one of the important figures of the Srijanshil Arajakta (creative anachronism) movement, has stated that he learned screenwriting from Ram Babu Gurung. Additionally, fulfilling the desires of film critics to connect the director’s personal style and their screenwriting adds context to see if the latter simply capitalized on the themes of the former or truly has a personal touch.
Upendra Subba has managed to create a heartfelt movie with minimal missteps. However, the opening scene, while explosive, is sudden and lacks context for their marriage or previous fights. This lack of setup affects the latter scenes, particularly when Hangma must decide whether to leave with the man who won her over in Palum. Additionally, repeatedly cutting back to the same scene in later parts of the film diminishes its impact. The similarity between the characters of Namsang and Kaji (of Kabaddi), both played by the same actor, creates a feeling of déjà vu in some scenes. Nonetheless, the actors’ performances mitigate these minor missteps.
Jaari may be too small, delicate, and intimate to encompass the lasting impact of the Jaari tradition. Nevertheless, it serves as a reminder that a heartfelt apology can still go a long way and that atonement for our sins is possible if we are open to it.