Nabin Subba’s film A Road to a Village follows a family in a remote mountainous village in Nepal where the new road to the city brings modernity but threatens their way of life.
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Early in Nabin Subba’s affecting, humanist drama A Road to A Village, seven-year-old Bindre refuses to do his homework when the electricity goes out in their mud house. His mother, Maili, reminds him that they’ve only had electricity for three months, and he undoubtedly managed to do his homework before that. The electricity, we can assume, was made possible thanks to the titular dirt road connecting this remote village in the mountainous region of Eastern Nepal to the city. The road was meant to modernize the village and improve the lives of its people, but it’s a double-edged sword.
A family struggling with encroaching modernity
Bindre’s father, Maila, a basket-weaver, soon finds modern amenities come with modern, capitalistic problems. His craftsman’s skills no longer hold the value they once did, socially or economically. It makes paying the electrical bill and feeding his family challenging. His neighbour who went abroad came home with riches, including a smartphone and the biggest TV in town, which draws crowds and brings status. It’s a blow to Maila’s pride that he can’t keep up. This leads him to make a series of ill-advised decisions that exacerbate rather than solve their problems. He attempts multiple business ventures with unexpected pitfalls. Then, he digs his heels in against every solution offered to him out of pride.
Initially, Bindre seems like the driving force behind his father’s need to succeed financially in an increasingly harsh, capitalistic world. He demands electricity if his parents want him to study, Coca-Cola in exchange for attending school, and a TV. Maili accuses Bindre of being spoiled and Maila of spoiling the boy. But how much Maila is driven by his pride instead of love for his son is never quite clear.
A loss of community
By connecting the village to the outside world, and therefore capitalism and greed, the road has also made Maila’s life more immediately complicated. Divisions between the haves and have-nots increase now that helping someone has a quantifiable cost. Even though Maila gave up part of his land to allow for the road and sold his valuables to pay for the electrification of the village, Maila’s neighbours are unwilling to help him with the exorbitant electricity bills he can’t afford. Because the road makes it easier to leave town, able-bodied men like Maila feel increasingly obligated to go abroad to support their families. Often, this means abandoning their traditions and homes. The luxuries of electricity and road access may also be the death knell for Maila’s way of life.
Switching points of view
Subba switches points of view between the father, Maila, and his son, Bindre, both ill-equipped for the modern world. As Bindre learns that material possessions confer status, he unthinkingly uses a Coke bottle to turn his friends into underlings. He fashions sunglasses out of every object he can find, unknowingly destroying something precious to his parents. As a child, he’s forgivably all id. But his careless actions have major consequences, many of which his parents can’t predict in this new world order and thus can’t avoid. Maila, by contrast, refuses to face up to the realities in front of him. Sometimes, he feels so helpless that he reacts by putting all his eggs in one basket (once, quite literally). He naively assumes each new opportunity is a likely panacea well before proof of concept and longevity.
There’s a lovely tenderness between Maila and Bindre as Maila tries to teach Bindre about a world he increasingly doesn’t understand. They take walks in the mountains and look out at incredible views. Maila teaches Bindre about the land and traditions he grew up with, telling stories of his youth, as we wonder whether Bindre’s future will look anything like Maila’s past. The fact that you can’t eat scenery is still as true today in Nepal as in the ‘80s in Scotland. There’s a melancholy to A Road to a Village even as Bindre gets excited about every modern convenience and his father struggles to keep up.
Nabin Subba drops us into a remote village in Nepal
Like so many films in TIFF’s Centrepiece section, one of the chief pleasures of A Road to a Village is the opportunity to see a completely different part of the world: its rituals, its spaces, and its gorgeous landscapes. Cinematographer Josh Herum captures the rugged beauty of the town and the simple lifestyle it once housed. People still live in mud huts, now with electric lighting. The drone shots from afar of the newly built road cut into the mountain tell us just how remote this village is and how precarious its traditions are becoming. The film drops you into a different world with relatable characters, and you laugh and cry with them.
Related reading/listening to Nabin Subba’s A Road to a Village
More Pawo Choyning Dorji: Listen to our podcast on the 2021 Best International Feature Oscar. We discussed Dorji’s Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, which was nominated.
More films like A Road to a Village: TIFF 2023 programmed several films set in Asia about the ambivalence of encroaching modernity (and capitalism). Read our review of Pema Tseden’s Snow Leopard. Read our review of The Monk and The Gun.