Mahendra Highway is a 1000+km long road which passes through Nepal, very close to its Southern border. This film simply starts from the Eastern end, and takes us from Bhimdatta, close to Bangladesh, through the Himalayas until we’re in Mechinagar on the Indian border. The narration is not intrusive, it just tells us the basic facts and lets us watch for ourselves.
Maybe the first thing to say is that there is a lot to watch, from the beautiful landscapes to the colourful temples and villages through a wide range of climates and wild life. We learn how rhinoceroses were faced with extinction due to the (not necessarily accurate) belief that their horns contained medicinal properties. Thanks to close management of the forests, and increased vigilance against rhino hunters, the population is rising once more.
We meet various individuals on the way, from the tea planters to the park rangers, from the son of a sherpa who wants to follow in his father’s footsteps to the trainee monks playing football (why is it that every single film footage of young Buddhist monks shows them playing football?) We hear them talk about what they do, and are given all sorts of statistics about, for example, how much tea the average planter gathers in a day. Statistics that I have already largely forgotten.
In the Himalayas we learn how things have changed since the first successful climb, less than 70 years ago. Now, every second sherpa has been to the summit, usually accompanying rich Western climbers who are unable to do it on their own (this film is too nice to mention that). The young man, whose name I’ve unfortunately forgotten, sees it as the family business, but his father would rather he got a proper job which is safer and properly paid.
For much of the time, we visit the holy areas of a country which contains several active religions – from Buddhists to Hindus to Muslims. We view a little girl who has been deigned to be a holy figure. Every so often, she is given the appropriate make up and jewellery, and people come for miles to prostrate themselves before them and throw money at her. Then, when it’s all over, she cleans herself up and goes back to school.
One question that director André Hörmann consistently fails to put is Why? Why do the sherpas do all the work while the tourists claim all the credit? Why do these people have their strange beliefs? Now I completely get it, the religious rituals on show are no more ridiculous than believing that you are eating the body and drinking the blood of the Sun of God, but the film shows little curiosity to know why people think the way they do.
I have a suspicion why Hörmann is so reluctant to ask awkward questions. Following centuries of orientalist reports which exoticize people from colonised countries, he may well feel that questioning their heartfelt beliefs would be a continuation of Western arrogance, assuming that poor people from the Global South can only be understood when described through Northern eyes.
But the problem is that this lack of engagement with what we are being shown leads to us not really treating it seriously. We are asked to be impressed by the holy rituals without truly understanding what they are and mean. There is a lack of that word again – why? I realise that I’m not speaking for everyone here, but I found the whole thing beautiful but very cold and without emotion.
I can see a serious audience for this sort of stuff. When I first moved to Germany, I lived in a village at the edge of Stuttgart, you regularly saw home-made posters for events in the local village halls of someone showing slides from whichever country they visited last. It was the equivalent of someone you don’t know showing you their holidays snaps. I never perked up enough interest to go along, but given the number of events there were, I presume they were very popular.
Based on the prejudice of someone who wasn’t actually there, I presume that those nights in the village hall were a low-budget version of what we see here. Many of the scenes that we see are breathtaking, but there’s no obvious attempt to try to understand. This means that any exoticism comes from something that is exotic because it is foreign to us, something that we can’t understand.
Peculiarly, I could find no only review of Mahendra Highway, no IMDB entry, even though it’s been on in German cinemas for nearly a week. This is a shame, as I think there is something in the film to love – it just didn’t speak to me. I would like to read the response of someone who was able to react to it more positively.