Kathmandu:

Powerful” and “Essential” would be words that would describe Kesang Tseten’s 72-minute docu-drama On the road with the red god Macchendranath. The primary audience is here in Nepal who need to be as engaged in their tradition, culture and heritage as the people in the film.

I mean the indigenous people of Nepal, residents form abroad or people passing through, should (ideally) learn from Kesang’s simple message about a festival and spread the word to the people of Berlin, Paris and Zurich, about a country rooted in its past heading towards tomorrow. Because that is what I got from Kesang’s gritty (Kesang’s word), edgy and intense film.

Kesang’s cast of characters (taken from his synopsis) include... “Every 12 years, impassioned devotees pull a 65-feet tall unwieldy chariot in the Kathmandu Valley, its rider an enigmatic god worshipped by Hindus and Buddhists, on a month-long journey proceeded by abundant ritual and animal sacrifice. The enterprise calls for extreme cooperation and rigorous observance of ritual in the building, sanctification and pulling of the chariot. But the jatra (festival) is an arena of gritty reality, where participants vie for everything from a share of ritual meat, to status and proximity to the god. The chariot teeters, as does the community, between chaos and order, conflict or solidarity. Thus, every 12 years, the same question: will the journey succeed?”

The other characters are the chariot itself, a priest separated from his mother just as the god Macchendranath was and then “the Jatra actors” about whom Kesang says, “Like the priest, the other jatra actors are motivated both by love and fear of the deity. They derive their identities from their roles, yet engage in disputes and conflict over property and status, tradition and convenience…”

And finally there is the journey itself, which is 10 miles long and can take two to four months to complete. Kesang describes this as, “From start to finish, the success of this ancient, primal enterprise cannot be assumed. All depends on the rath enduring and people coming together, but rath and community can just as easily fall apart.”

“There is a larger cast whose themes make for extraordinary viewing. They are the carpenters, the vine-lashers, the brakemen, the malini, the government office, all of whom do their thing for the jatra and derive their self-definition and role and pride from it... each one thinks they are indispensable….”.

Kesang’s film is an important one because it dwells on the complexities of god and man, people helping people, people versus people, cast, creed and above all, change because you can see it in the film as mobile phones, the occasional disco step, cars covering sacred spots, suggestions to modernise, keep coming up.

The movie is about a schism and is best embodied in the priest of whom Kesang says, “Best capturing the complexities and contrariness of the festival is the tantric priest Kapil Muni Vajracharya, who zealously serves a god stolen from his demoness mother to save the Kathmandu Valley. In a bizarre twist of irony, Kapil too was separated from his mother at a very young age. Throughout the jatra, he directs ritual and animal sacrifices to appease and ward off the demoness who badly wants back her godly son, even as Kapil waits and hopes to reconcile with his mother.”

Towards the end of the film there is a declaration that mankind has the propensity to go to the brink of chaos and then come back and therein lies hope, salvation.

Encore Kesang Tseten.