Diwa Shah’s Bahadur the Brave (2023) is set in a hill station town in India during the COVID-19 pandemic. There is a crisis of regional laborers in the filmmaker’s feature debut, as many migrant workers have returned to their hometowns due to the nationwide lockdown. The protagonist, Hansi (Rupesh Lama), who is a migrant laborer, sees the potential to increase his income while everyone else boards vans to to Nepal. Dil Bahadur (Rahul Mukhia), the character’s brother-in-law, offers him unauthorized employment at a godown. When the man gets accused of theft, the situation takes a terrible turn.
Bahadur the Brave strikes a delicate balance between the mundane and the profound. The simplicity and subtlety of its pervasive humor, along with the courage of building a film around Nepalese laborers in India, is matched with remarkable directorial control. The narrative skillfully portrays the struggles and vulnerabilities of the Nepali migrant workers, highlighting the harsh realities they face while also showcasing their resilience and humanity. This unique perspective offers a thought-provoking commentary on the socioeconomic dynamics between neighboring countries and the exploitation of laborers in the region.
Bahadur the Brave was selected for the New Directors competitive section at the 71st San Sebastián Film Festival. Ahead of the film’s premiere on September 23, 2023, I spoke with Shah about portraying the lives of Nepali migrant laborers, working with non-professional actors, the evolution of independent filmmaking in India and much more.
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Dipankar Sarkar: You didn’t direct a short film or documentary before your maiden venture, Bahadur The Brave. Despite not having prior filmmaking experience, what was the driving force behind your decision to take on this project?
Diwa Shah: I think the driving force for me has always been writing, even before filmmaking came along. I had finished my master’s in creative writing from Durham in 2018, and I came back to India and was writing a lot of prose. I had written two novels that were on the verge of being published at the time. But then they couldn’t [be released] because of COVID, and everything was put on hold. A lot of friends of mine were into filmmaking, and they had equipment for a few days with them. They wanted ideas for a short story. During this time, Bahadur (a Nepali migrant laborer) had come home. He was having a funny negotiation with my mom over the money. I found him very interesting — very shrewd about money and funny at the same time. I thought maybe I’d write a short story about him. Since my friends were waiting to make a short film, I narrated this idea and they liked it. So, I was just narrating it to everyone those days, and as I narrated the idea to my mom one day, she said, “Why don’t you get to know them better? Get to know their whole background and what happens in their life. I mean, why don’t you get more depth on the issue?”
During the pandemic, there was this news story about how all the Nepalese migrant laborers were stuffed inside the buses and sent to Nepal. However, due to budget constraints, my friends could not complete their film. But I got interested in the migrant laborers of my hometown, whom I’d seen around since I was growing up. I started talking to them. Since I couldn’t walk up to them and just generally talk to them about life, they wouldn’t indulge in conversations. But whenever I talked to them about COVID, there was so much that they wanted to speak about or tell me about the hard times and the situations. I was very interested in writing the story back in the day. I didn’t know if I was going to write it in prose or as a screenplay. I had also been seeing a lot of movies, and I was with my friends, so I was also getting experience on a film set. So, I thought, “Why not try writing a screenplay?” And that’s where it all began.
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Dipankar Sarkar: The plot of Bahadur the Brave unfolds during the COVID-19 pandemic and focuses on the desperate situation of migrants trying to reach their homes. What attracted you to the story?
Diwa Shah: So, what attracted me to the story is the fact that I realized that a lot of them get their families from Nepal to India. Like, only a rare one or two would have, like, a family visiting them. But I realized that they’re just here living with their male friends and making a family out of the people that are around them. When I went to their home in my hometown, Nainital, it was just men living together in this ghetto. It was dark, and all of them had this bond with each other. And usually they’ll be in a pair or they’ll be in a group, like a group of three or four Nepalis who would stick around. Maybe they’re from the same village, or there’d be, like, these two friends who are always hanging out and who are always confiding in each other. I think, personally, with the kind of friendships that I’ve had in life, I realized that just living with your friends who become your family when you’re away from home makes you more attached to them than your own family.
Regarding the impact the situation had on their lives, I think that while I was researching and talking to them, they had so much to tell me about that I realized that I had to tell this story. A lot of what you see in the film is inspired by all these real accounts that the Nepali migrants have narrated. So that became a huge inspiration.
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Dipankar Sarkar: You’ve taken a compassionate approach to the story that looks real and portrays the basic human emotions of an ordinary citizen in a land that does not belong to him, yet he is an integral component of society. It reflects a sense of belonging and the complex dynamics of identity in a diverse world. Share your thoughts on the treatment of Bahadur the Brave.
Diwa Shah: Regarding the treatment of the film, we were very clear from the very beginning that we wanted to do this very realistically, right from the looks to even the way the characters behave. It had to feel like nothing was staged or prepared. Hence, we made the choice not to use background music. We didn’t want to enhance the emotions. We didn’t want to do anything that would maybe build up or build down the emotions. We wanted to stay true to the story that we were trying to tell. The reason for the realistic approach was an organic decision, because when you spend time with them and see their lives, a lot of the time they’re doing very mundane activities, like just carrying cylinders on a slope, and it takes a while to reach the top of the mountain. Most of the time, they’re just carrying very heavy material from one place to another, and a whole day is spent doing that. So, it is not a very happening or, say, entertaining kind of life. It’s made up of all these mundane chores. We really wanted to do justice to the Nepali migrant laborers whose story, like, I really wanted to tell, and I thought those choices were made from the very beginning. Moreover, we wanted to do a lot of long takes because we didn’t want to break them. It could feel almost like a documentary, or it could feel a little more real and we didn’t want any disturbance. We didn’t want too many cuts. We didn’t want anything to make it look artificial in any way.
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Dipankar Sarkar: Bahadur the Brave incorporates everyday activities like making tea, playing cards and working as househelps. Meanwhile, subtle and dramatic moments build up to a tragic event. These seemingly mundane activities highlight the fragility of life and the unpredictability of fate. Tell me about the process of shaping up the screenplay.
Diwa Shah: So, in the process of shaping up the screenplay, as I told you, I didn’t get much information when I just went to the migrant laborers and talked to them about their lives, because they wouldn’t share much. But once I started talking to them about their situation due to COVID-related restrictions, they had a lot to say because it was very unique to them. Most of the time, they’re busy with their mundane activities, but it was very new for them to be just locked in the house and not know what was going to happen. They’re not going to go to work tomorrow, but they also cannot go home. I think the biggest inspiration was that incident when Bahadur came home, right when the COVID restrictions had been lifted and the spread of the virus was still prevalent. My mom wanted to get a tank cleaned, but none of the local porters would do it. Only a Nepali porter could do it, and none of them were available because everybody had fled and gone home. During this moment of crisis, I saw a Bahadur (a Nepali migrant laborer) who came to our home for work. I was very curious. Why did he choose to stay back? Why did he not go back home? What was he doing away from his family? After the work was done, my mom paid him two hundred rupees, which he thought was less and got very upset about. It was almost hilarious because, the way he is, he can’t understand Hindi. I thought there was so much more to this person. That’s how the screenplay came about, because I knew I wanted to talk about this person that I had just met, who later became Hansi in my story. I also knew that COVID had to be like a big theme because, under its umbrella, so many things happened that changed their lifestyle. So, I chose to talk about COVID, and that’s how it all came about.
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Dipankar Sarkar: Hansi is a hard-working Nepali migrant laborer in Indian territory. Though he projects himself as a docile and submissive worker, he is also a chronic liar and a manipulator. How did you build his character?
Diwa Shah: So, once I started talking to this Bahadur, who’s called Hansa, I realized that there were so many layers to him. People loved him in the Tallital bazaar. He was very popular there, and everybody would be calling him. He’d come across as very innocent, but if he was offered less money, he wouldn’t talk to people. I remember he’d even gone to the police station once when he thought he wasn’t being paid fairly enough. At the same time, he was also very innocent in some ways. So, in trying to understand him, I realized that there were perhaps too many layers to him, and I could never get to the depth of them. But it was important to understand where he was coming from. He was extremely poor. One of his employers had told me that he came from a village where there was no electricity at the time. Before he first came to India, he hadn’t seen cars. So, he was so scared to cross the road that he had this wooden plank behind his back, and he just didn’t know what to do. One day, as he just started crossing this busy road, this woman fell from a scooter and it was hilarious. He would lie, and then he would always charge his phone in very offbeat locations. But yet everybody was very fond of him because he was extremely hardworking, and there was this certain amount of honesty that he had towards his work. So, he was a very interesting person that I wanted to talk about. I realized that there was no black and white. I couldn’t portray him in any particular way. There were too many layers to him. All I could do was be authentic in showing him as he is.
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Dipankar Sarkar: Whenever Hansi is working in Bahadur the Brave — either as a laborer carrying a sack of flour or as a house help — it looks like he is being exploited. But at the same time, Hansi impresses an inspector by saying that if there are no migrants, there will be no one to carry the cylinders to their house. So, has he accepted that to survive as a laborer in a foreign land, he must endure exploitation and dependency on his employers?
Diwa Shah: I think all the Nepali migrant laborers have a certain amount of acceptance because there is exploitation. They are dependent on their employers, but they are no less so. There are people who steal now and then. So, I think Hansi has also accepted his fate as a laborer if he has to survive in a foreign land. All the Nepali migrant laborers do it because, after a point, they understand that there will be exploitation and that they have to be dependent on these employers. They also know how to take advantage of these employers. They know how to get their work done. They build homes back in their hometown, they take money on loan, they work really hard, extremely hard, and they have their own ways. In order to survive, you have to have that sort of acceptance because it just becomes the way of life, and so one always accepts his fate.
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Dipankar Sarkar: In Bahadur the Brave’s climax, a boy is shown playing with a paper plane and requests the guards at the bridge to let him go home. The two guards ignore his plea, and one of them talks about the troubles his family members are facing due to the pandemic. The guards’ indifference to the innocence of the boy’s request highlights the tragic irony of the situation. What was the purpose of the scene?
Diwa Shah: The purpose of the scene, basically, was to talk about the fact that, at the end of the day, we are all just pawns at the hands of the bigger powers at play. They are the ones who are playing the game or who are bringing about these decisions, which are causing us to endure the suffering. These people at the border or the Nepali migrant laborers aren’t the ones who are making each other suffer or who can cause any tragedy. If you look at the situation, it’s not that the guards are doing that to him. The guards don’t even know why they have to close the border. They’re just following commands from someone above them. The Nepali migrants are also desperate. They might like the little boy who walks up to the guards, thinking that “If I would request them, maybe they would open,” because it’s them who, at the end of the day, have closed the border. But it is not for the common people. It actually has nothing to do with the common people.
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Dipankar Sarkar: As Bahadur the Brave ends, Hansi sits alone in a corner, plagued by guilt, while the rest of the world is engaged with their own lives, oblivious to his internal turmoil. Will this incident change Hansi as an individual, or is it just a brief moment of regret?
Diwa Shah: I think it’s for the audience to decide. I don’t want to convey any particular message or any particular opinion through the film. I think all you can do is be honest in portraying the situation as it happened and when it happened. I mean, some people don’t even like Hansi. They don’t understand Hansi, and they think it’s very crooked or confusing that he’s lying. But then he sometimes seems very innocent, but he’s not supposed to be likable. More than that, there are layers to every person. Just because they say one thing doesn’t mean they can’t feel anything else. There are a lot of emotions inside of us, and if we look deeply, there are a lot of situations that make us behave the way we do because it’s also about the circumstances. I think if this incident will change Hansi as an individual or just be a brief moment of regret, it will also depend on the situations and circumstances that he gets himself into. Through the film, a lot of the decisions that he took and a lot of the activities that he did were also because the situations were like that. His son had fallen, and he had to really cater for him. He desperately wanted Dil Bahadur to go because he knew he didn’t want to miss out on the money that he was making. So, a lot of our decisions come from the circumstances that we’re facing at the time.
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Dipankar Sarkar: The performances from the non-professional actors are so convincing that it feels like we are watching real-life events unfold on screen that add depth and authenticity to the overall viewing experience. Share your casting process.
Diwa Shah: So, the casting process was very simple and small, as it is with independent films. I did not want to cast any known actors. The only brief that I’d give all the people who are cast in the film is that we don’t want you to act. It was like one brief that was constantly repeated: that we didn’t want the acting. My assistants, Vivek Bhagat and Anupam Lamba, helped immediately in the process. What we’d do was make a poster, like a casting call for people who could speak Nepali that we’d circulate. One of these posters got really popular in Nepal, so they put out a casting call on YouTube, and we got these auditions for that video. Rupesh Lama, who plays Hansi in the film, viewed it on Facebook, and that’s how we got an audition from him. So, it was very simple — nothing too complicated, nothing too fancy. It was very basic. We just wanted to approach people. All the non-actors that are cast in the film are people from my hometown. All we were trying to do was walk up to them to see if they could face the camera or not. And that’s what the process was like — mainly seeing if they’re comfortable with the camera and can do the lines. It was a mixture of some people who had done a little bit of theater, who knew a little bit of acting, and other people who had never faced the camera before.
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Dipankar Sarkar: The cinematography captures the essence of the small town setting, showcasing the simplicity and beauty of everyday life. This attention to detail not only enhances the visual experience but also perfectly conveys the emotions of the characters, making their stories even more intriguing. Share your collaboration with your cinematographer.
Diwa Shah: The cinematographer, Madhura Palit, is based in Calcutta, and she’s way more experienced. Madhura also won an award at Cannes. I was really grateful that she said yes, because it’s my debut film, and I was just taking my chance by trying to call her and tell her this story. Madhura is very genuine and humble. Even though she had a very busy schedule, she said she’d take some time, and her experience helped a lot. I think what me and Madhura were clear about from the very beginning was that we did want to settle for the long shots. We didn’t want too many cuts. And the usage of the negative space with Hansi in frame — post Dil Bahadur leaving Nainital — those were some of the decisions that we took together before we started working on the film. Madhura was very convinced by the story, and it’s hugely because of her that we were able to shoot the film the way we did.
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Dipankar Sarkar: Similarly, the sound design not only enhances the visual experience but also transports the audience into the heart of the rustic setting, making it come alive. By capturing the various elements of nature, as well as the silent ambience due to the pandemic, Bahadur the Brave builds up an immersive quality. How did you achieve it?
Diwa Shah: Similarly, for the sound design, [producer] Thomas Ajay Abraham and I discussed from the very beginning that we didn’t want background music and also didn’t want the audience to feel the lack of it. We knew that we had to use the sound design in a way that helped the story move forward so that you didn’t feel that something was missing. We made sure that we didn’t use a sound that we would actually not hear in a place like Nainital. Like, we would hear a certain kind of sound made by fireflies specific to the region. My location recordists, Rakesh and Jishnu, were also very particular about the kind of sounds they were recording. I wanted the sound to play such a role that if a person from Nainital hears it, he should be transported to the place. For example, the sound of a rickshaw bell would transport one to the business on Mall Road. So, I was very particular about that, and I think so were my sound designers, to make it as real as possible. I would like to emphasize that we did a bit of designing towards the middle of the film when we faded to black. Those were the sounds that we wanted to play with because we would never be transported back to the place where Dil Bahadur had died. We don’t go back to Dharchula. But with the help of sound, we do try to build up those sounds in Hansi’s head so that he keeps imagining Dil Bahadur drowning. We didn’t want to do it visually, but we thought we would try to do it through the sound design of the film. And the sound designers — Thomas, Rakesh and Jishnu — were hugely responsible for coming up with the idea.
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Dipankar Sarkar: How did participation in the NFDC Work-in-Progress Lab help in the development of Bahadur the Brave?
Diwa Shah: Participation in the NFDC Work-in-Progress Lab was very helpful. I think it helped me grow as a filmmaker more than anything. During the work-in-progress lab, we were very fortunate to get feedback from these really great mentors from around the world. In such a lab, we’d not only get a local opinion but also the opinion of a person, say, sitting in some foreign country who’d never been introduced to this town or these people. The only time you’re making the movie again is at the edit table, and editing is a very crucial and lonely process, and getting Clemence Claire, who was our French editor, helped me and my editor, Viraj. We had a great time with her because we had cut it at a different pace before the work-in-progress lab. We realized that changing the pace slightly — a bit more or a bit less — could bring about a huge change in the film. Had the lab never happened, maybe we wouldn’t have been open to changes. I think it helped us make the film more global because we could incorporate the opinions and good suggestions of people like that.
But a huge part of the filmmaking process is that you have to keep working on it and not get stuck. I think what the lab really did was help us come out of that shell and explore new ways in which we could edit the film. Now there are no regrets, because you know that you’ve tried enough and that you’ve settled only for the best or what you thought was best for the film. So, yeah, it was really, really helpful.
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Dipankar Sarkar: Bahadur The Brave was selected for the 71st San Sebastián Film Festival. How important is the recognition and what are your expectations from the festival?
Diwa Shah: The recognition is important because my all-time favorite independent films have been featured in San Sebastian, and I’m really excited. I think getting your film into prestigious festivals helps you get exposed to newer opinions and to newer cinema. It’s also helpful because then the reach of your film becomes much bigger than it would have been had it never gotten an international premiere. So, the reach becomes obviously greater. It also, I think, gives you an innate sense of confidence and maybe some hope to keep doing it if the reach can be that global. It also makes you realize that [it’s] so personal — that maybe people don’t even understand that [Nainital] ever existed in India. If people can relate to the film globally, it gives you a sort of encouragement to keep making the kind of cinema you want to make.
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Dipankar Sarkar: Do you think that independent filmmaking in India is evolving and making a significant impact on the global film industry?
Diwa Shah: I think independent filmmaking in India, for sure, is evolving, and it is having a significant impact on the global film industry, too. Like, say, a few years ago, one could never have thought that a film like Eeb Allay Ooo! (2019) could go on to win, like, a Filmfare Award. Obviously, it did very well in Berlin, and it was an independent film, but it went on to do so well, even with the masses. It got released on Netflix, and so many people just knew about that film. I think one can create that kind of impact in today’s world. It’s still very difficult to make these kinds of films and to find funds for them — to find, like, an infrastructure for the kind of independent filmmaking that you want to do, especially in a country like India, where most people won’t understand [the purpose] if there’s no star or if there’s no music. But it is evolving, and things are changing, especially with documentary filmmaking. We’ve made such a huge difference with The Elephant Whisperers (2022), which won an Oscar, and All That Breathes (2022), which reached Cannes and the Oscars. It’s encouraging to all the filmmakers out here, especially indie filmmakers. But we still have a long, long way to go.
Dipankar Sarkar (@Dipankar_Tezpur) is a graduate in film editing from the Film and Television Institute of India and currently based in Mumbai. As a freelancer, he frequently contributes to various Indian publications on cinema-related topics.
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