Saturday Features

For love of the game

  • Though bold in concept, effective in drumming up interest in the titular sport and commandeered by a terrific lead actor, Chhetan Gurung’s new Damaruko Dandibiyo unfortunately doesn’t live up to its promise in execution

May 12, 2018-

I’ll confess, going into the new Damaruko Dandibiyo, directorial debut of one Chhetan Gurung, I knew very little about dandibiyo except that it had long been the country’s national sport—a fact drummed into our brains by those ubiquitous GK books at school—until being replaced by volleyball a year ago. By the end of the film, however, I’m happy to report that I not only came away with a fair bit of understanding about what the game entails, but actually found it quite interesting—which, for someone as hopeless at anything outdoorsy as yours truly, is a feat and a half. So, if it had been Gurung and his team’s objective to pick dandibiyo out of obscurity and question its recent demotion, they’ve certainly succeeded.

But though bold in concept—this isn’t the sort of subject most of our visibly risk-averse filmmakers would dare touch with a 10-foot pole, after all—and commandeered by a terrific leading man in the form of Khagendra Lamichhane, who also wrote the script, Damaruko Dandibiyo unfortunately falters in execution. Flaws are especially evident in the second half, resulting in a hit-and-miss effort one doesn’t regret having seen, but which had the potential to be so much more.

The film opens in a little corner of Ghale Gaun, where life as residents know it is about to be shaken up. The headmaster’s son Dambar aka Damaru (Lamichhane), having just completed his post-grad degree in Kathmandu, has returned, and no sooner has he roared back on his motorcycle, he’s started to rock the proverbial boat.

Eschewing his family’s expectations of landing a stable government job, Damaru has come home with the sole purpose of reviving dandibiyo, a sport he had been taught to play and love as a child by his father, Yogendra (Anup Baral). The old man had been something of a trailblazer for the game in his heyday, and had exerted himself quite a bit to elevate its reach and stature beyond rural roots, not merely into the national mainstream but the international realm as well. Unfortunately, the attempt had been thwarted by bureaucratic hurdles, and ever regretful of the time and resources he and his fellow players had “wasted” in the process, Yogendra had turned his back on dandibiyo, locking up his love for the game much in the same way he had his tools. So, upon learning of his son’s plan to start a team in the village, he is staunchly against the decision, intending to do everything in his power to stop Damaru from setting the cycle in motion again.

Damaru, for his part, won’t be dissuaded that easily. With help from his friends, including BFF Mukhiya (Buddhi Tamang) and long-time squeeze Mala (Menuka Pradhan)—as well as other talented local recruits (Laxmi Bardewa, Ingi Hopo Koinch Sunuwar)—he presses on. Lines, both literal and figurative, are drawn in the sand, as father and son go head to head: the former desperate to prevent his son from repeating his own mistakes, the latter determined to show his father that his only failing was in giving up on the game when he did.

That tussle between Damaru and Yogendra, which occupies the film’s first half, has definite heft; it’s refreshing to see a sports drama—a genre that more often leans towards larger-scale events—focus on such intimate, personal stakes. But the script belatedly tosses in a handful of other conflicts, presumably in an attempt to inject more complexity into the story, and render victory more hard-won—but they only end up prolonging running time and diluting the film’s effect. The sudden souring of relations between Damaru and Mala is one example, but even worse is the mustache-twirling stint of cartoonish villainy assigned to Aashant Sharma as a vengeful old-timer, a subplot that could’ve been excised from the film altogether at zero cost.

Among the film’s disappointments is its treatment of female characters. While the casual integration of women in the incipient team is a great move, the problem lies in the motivation of the players: neither of the two appear to be in the game of their own volition, despite them both turning out to be just as skilled as their male counterparts. Mala’s participation, for instance, is only secured when Damaru withholds his affections, and it’s a similar story with Bardewa’s Nirmala, who is entirely under her father’s thumb; one keeps hoping that she might eventually come to love the sport so much that it inspires her to rebel against Daddy Dearest, but that never happens.

And at the risk of being labelled a Luddite, I’ll admit that I’m also not terribly fond of stories where major plot twists involve social media virality, something a lot of films incorporate today, including Damaruko Dandibiyo. While I’m not suggesting we need to pretend technology doesn’t exist or impact us to a great degree, hinging a major portion of the narrative entirely on the vague possibility of online popularity—and its questionable long-term implications—just feels a bit, well, naive.

Whatever its shortcomings, though, one can’t deny that Damaruko Dandibiyo’s very presence in the multiplexes is exciting, a sign of changing times and tastes, and a heartening indication of room for more diversity in storytelling in Nepali films. When it comes down to it, this is a plucky choice—not simply because of uncertainties to do with the appeal of the game in question, but the sheer newness of the sports drama terrain in local cinema. Besides which, depicting the mechanics of dandibiyo—given that it doesn’t appear at first glance to be the most theatrical of sports—in a manner that is comprehensible and interesting must not have been an easy task, but Gurung has done a commendable job under the constraints. Although occasionally repetitive in structure, scenes from the playing field are some of the film’s most compelling. Of course, helping matters along is an early tutorial by the lead actor himself—intended for his new pupils in the story, but a clever way to enlighten clueless viewers as well.

Speaking of that lead actor, Lamichhane reaffirms here his position as one of the more likeable and effortlessly natural actors working in the Nepali film industry today, offering the film a solid, unwavering centre. Tamang, another exemplar of understated realism, is also among the film’s standouts, taking up the sort of home-grown role that he feels tailor-made for. 

And finally, I’m just glad that Gurung and Lamichhane have chosen not to turn the patriotism dial up to the level they could have—an easy trap to fall into. By avoiding that, and by allowing the game to come through on its own merits rather than as something to be revered simply by virtue of its association with ‘national pride’, the film makes a much stronger case for the preservation and promotion of dandibiyo. Mission accomplished, I’d say.

Damaruko Dandibiyo

Director: Chhetan Gurung

Actors: Actors: Khagendra Lamichhane, Anup Baral, Menuka Pradhan, Budhhi Tamang, Aashant Sharma, Laxmi Bardewa, Ingi Hopo Koinch Sunuwar

Genre: Sports drama

Published: 12-05-2018 08:50

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