Editor’s note: this film is no longer available online.
In 1815, British authority in India was put to severe test by the forces of an expanding Nepali state.
Impressed by their art of hill warfare and tenacity, Britain began recruiting Nepalis for a special elite brigade. Over 220,000 Gurkhas fought for Britain in World War I and II; over 40,000 were casualties.
For many Nepalis, service in the British army is a strong family tradition, but competition to join is fierce. Every year, many thousand Nepalis compete for the few places to become a Gurkha.
This film offers a broad perspective on a 200-year-old military tradition that still provides status to young Nepalese men who strive to join an elite British army brigade in the Himalayan region.
What does it take to be a Gurkha?
We examine how the young Nepalese men fare in the rigorous three-phase selection procedure that extends over six months in the mountains and how the aspiring soldiers’ physical condition, intelligence and motivation are all put to the test.
By Kesang Tseten
Before making this film I did not know much more about the Gukhas than most people. In fact, I thought I could just walk into the British Gurkha Camp in Pokhara, Nepal, and start filming. However I soon found out that very few had ever been allowed into the camp to film the recruitment stage and no one had ever filmed the entire process.I first got the idea to make Gurkha School while filming an entirely different project about masculinity. For this project, I had to select four scenarios which represented manliness. One of these scenarios included the training of soldiers, namely Gurkha soldiers.
I applied for permission to film, and thanks to a quirk of lucky circumstance, I got clearance to begin making my documentary.
I had only planned to do a few days of filming but then I was fascinated by the various stages of training to become a Gurkha.
I was intrigued by the physical process of recruitment; the young men with their armour-like six-pack stomachs, their distinct motivation and their earnestness (in contrast to the fearsome Gurkha stereotype) and so I decided to film the entire process and make a separate film about it.
The Gurkhas form a huge part of the cultural narrative of Nepal, but I wanted to make a film that would show the reality of just one aspect of the Gurkha’s story – the process of recruitment. I wanted to represent the soul of this subject but also not exoticise it and simply show it as it is.
I decided to film this documentary in the observational style because it would allow me to show the drama involved in Gurkha training and to share the scenarios as they unfolded, anchored in their actuality. This ‘direct cinema’ approach meant I could not include any on-camera interviews, crucially, because it would have been hugely intrusive to pull out individuals from their intense recruitment activities in order to ask them what they were doing and why.
Even if that were possible, and they were willing to accommodate me, it would have diminished the action so I thought it would be better to show rather than tell.
Also, due to the importance of the process to both applicants and officers, I knew they would not be distracted by the camera. I found them behaving naturally, as though no one was filming.
Once we had identified some potential recruits to follow, we captured their training as they went through the process of recruitment, right until their selection or rejection. For those who succeeded, we also documented their training in the British army and their eventual departure from Nepal.