Though slow, this doc about the Naxalite movement and India's bureaucratic state offers great insight into an unexplored world
From its dramatic name to the opening expository title cards about Maoist insurgency and threats to the Indian security state, one might expect documentary A Rifle and a Bag to be a punchy, startling look at conflict. Instead, though, this film from the NoCut Film Collective is something altogether gentler, more peaceful, and, just perhaps, a little more boring than its introductory minutes suggest, focusing more on the balance between idealism and pragmatism when it comes to building a future for your family.
The subjects here are a couple, wife Somi and husband Sukhram, former members of the multinational Maoist Naxalite insurgent group who have returned to civilian life through the “surrender” scheme of the Indian government that allows pardons for Naxalites if they leave the group. Now living a relatively normal life in rural India, the pair’s struggles have gone from armed combat to navigating the aggravating Indian bureaucratic state in order to get their kids officially recognised by the government.
It's a fight made difficult by the inherent faceless inefficiency of governmental bureaucracy, which, combined with India’s caste system and the fact that Sukhram is missing is documents (they are back in his home state, where he will face violent reprisals for his former Naxalite loyalties) makes for a series of Kafka-esque interactions. To really get this across, A Rifle and a Bag is, by default, repetitive, which can test the patience somewhat, but this is mitigated by the moments of warmth and intrigue.
Whether it’s the friendly and understanding family doctor joking around with Somi, an extended monologue about Somi’s time at a Naxalite gathering, or the blatant indoctrination going on at her son’s school (one lesson closes out with the teacher leading a bunch of seven- or eight-year-olds in a chant about joining the army), these are the scenes that keep A Rifle and a Bag interesting. It’s stripped down and unhurried to a fault, but this is still a remarkable insight into an almost entirely unfamiliar world.
A Rifle and a Bag is released on True Story on 21 July.Where to watch