Home-Grown Gurkha Recruiting Documentary

The locally made documentary "Who Will Be a Gurkha" has been reviewed in the Nepal press by Kathmandu based Indian author and journalist Peter Karthak.

I found it an interesting review which unusually, gives a lot of space to his perception of the differencies between the British and Nepali officers involved, but I am a bit puzzled by his suggestion of HM Queen being buck-toothed.

Another Rubicon called the Brigade of Gurkhas
This piece is on “Who Will Be A Gurkha,” the 75-min documentary film made by Kesang Tseten and shown at the recent 10th KIMFF (Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival).[It actually took first place-T50]

The unpretentious but revealing film highlights thousands of late-teen Nepali male applicants aspiring to join the Brigade of Gurkhas of the British Army. All eligible Nepali male citizens are invited to a recent “free, fair and transparent” selection process – allegedly the most rigorous of any army recruitment drive in the world.

Finally, less than 200 recruits are accepted as infantrymen in the Brigade of Gurkhas. So the Biblical adage of “Many are called but few are chosen” is seen in the film’s depiction of so many hopefuls vying for so few places. As retention is low and rejection is as high as 98%, there’s much more sadness than triumph when the gates are closed at the end of the present British Gurkha recruitment marathon.

The wannabes want nothing short of individual soldierly berths in the Brigade of Gurkhas, in the failure of which there’s such a colossal wastage as to boggle one’s mind. For every Gurkha recruit selected, 49 other aspirers must be rejected and tearfully frustrated, as detailed by Tseten’s docudrama.

Not surprisingly, one of the Nepali Gurkha veterans in charge of the selection process at the Gurkha Brigade’s recruiting center in Pokhara, where the documentary was shot, advises one failure to look for other options available in life as “the British Army alone isn’t the only thing for you.” Indeed true for concrete consolation from an oldster who’s been through decades of varied experience in the Brigade: The young wannabe failed to belong to the elite force, but he shouldn’t consider himself a poor loser. But will his parents, siblings, fellowmen and girlfriend in the village understand this?

It’s UK – or bust! Two aspirants already fantasize about Britain : “Perhaps we won’t be taken by road. It’s all zigzag. So we’ll be flown in aircraft which is straight and direct.”

All this, despite another senior Nepali Gurkha officer in charge admonishing another young rejected applicant: “Why do you so wish to join a foreign army like this?”

The other reason is more valid. A Gurkha counselor has the last words for a particular applicant: “I don’t ever want to see you here again.” He is obviously a repeater. “Your eyesight is hopelessly weak, yet you reappear here. Don’t do it from next year, okay?”

As it is, the rejection rate is so high. But these young men want to have what they want – and most can’t! That’s the message of the documentary film.

As the viewer delves steadily into the documentary, other visual and narrative skeins unfurl.

The first is the curiosity and anxieties of the mostly Mongoloid and non-Hindu Nepal-born recruits gathered to try their luck. Today’s would-be British Gurkha “Lahure” are steeped in visits to the libraries in town, surfing the websites and Wikipedia and reading reference books, and thus answering the interviewing panel’s questions as if by habitual rote in clichéd English – of all languages.

This should make the new British Gurkhas the first English-language-prone soldiers in the world. Their past predecessors were almost illiterate in the olden days; while they were trained in warfare, they were also taught the 3Rs in service. Not so these days, as the documentary makes clear. Previously, Gurkha recruits appeared almost nude, in scant loincloths; today’s would-be Gurkhas are clad in t-shirts, jerkins and their feet in running shoes. They prepare themselves in athletics, calisthenics and other physical training routines before they report at the recruitment center.

In the viva voce sessions, the documentary shows a lack of articulation in both the British and Nepali Gurkha officers in explaining fully the pros and cons to the recruits. The three or four British officers speak in different accents of Berkshire, Kent, Gloucestershire and elsewhere, leaving the recruits puzzled in deciphering the intonation and pronunciation of the phonemes and morphemes spoken by each of the “Gora Saab” officers who include one female officer. The Nepali officers mainly communicate in Nepali to the “rangruts” but their Nepali also has some tinges of otherworldliness.

Coming to the panel of interviewers comprising Sandhurst-commissioned officers, who are always in combat camouflage in the film, and their Brigade-hardened Nepali counterparts in smart mufti, the inner or in-service politics of the army comes to the fore. In these collective decision-making rounds, the Nepali officers seem to surpass head over heels. Some instances:

While the lady officer makes her opinions about one interviewee, the Nepali officer to her right mutters “yes,” “yeah,” “ummm,” “ahem” ad nauseam and keeps stalling, not expressing a single word. The officer looks at him and waits for his verdict. The scene fades and shifts, to the viewer’s relief!

There’s an age-old reason for such adamant nose-up taciturnity on the part of the Nepali officers. A freshly-minted Sandhurst-manufactured 2nd Lieutenant of 23 years of age may outrank all Nepali Gurkha officers, but there’s no way to contest a veteran’s years of experiences which a Gurkha Captain or Major will have begun accumulating at a time when the said officer was a mere toddler and in potty training. So Nepali Gurkha officers call these British greenhorns “Sanu Saheb.” In the case of this lady officer, she would be addressed as “Sanu Mem” or something like that. There’s no misogyny suggested or displayed here; it’s just the earned values added to a veteran Nepali soldier’s maturity which an upstart British military brat must unconditionally respect.

In another scene, the presiding Sandhurst officer is positive about a particular candidate and awaits comments from the Nepali officer by his side. The Nepali counterpart vetoes by stating that the candidate’s racial slurs and casteist views are for earning “sympathy votes” for his selection. Case dismissed!

There’s a grading to be awarded in another scene. The Nepali officer, perhaps a retired Gurkha Major, the most senior rank for Gurkha enlistees, toys with his reading glasses, unhooking the frame from his ears and placing it on the table, putting it on, and repeating the process all over again. While the Gora Saheb looks on and waits, his Nepali junior counterparts have mirthful smiles on their faces as to what will transpire. Finally, the taciturn Major awards a measly number to the recruit’s written test paper. There!

In another session, a would-be Gurkha mentions “dhotis” in denigration, indicating a certain country and its people. The British officer gently reprimands him in no uncertain English. There’s hint that perhaps the Sahab himself is another kind of dhoti? That’s his parting shot before being rejected.

Then there’s a fun party at the Brigade of Gurkhas camp with parodied dances, a scene already suggestive of John Masters characters in the offing in the new British Gurkhas.

There’s a cast of characters among the recruits as well. The documentary records their talks and repartees. One among them is the smartass of the lot, talkative, and a jester. As viewer, I already consign him to the slush pile. Such a “clever” character isn’t fit to be a Gurkha. Not surprisingly, he’s rejected. With wet eyes, he shoulders his overstuffed bag and walks to the gates where his waiting guardians take him back into the family fold. The two UK dreamers are also homeward bound, along with the other 9,800+ rejects, including one who loves his mom and dad “so much” – words of affection guaranteed to doom a potential Gurkha material.

“Who Will Be A Gurkha” ends with the passing-out parade of the accepted recruits, following their months of training, and they file by after taking their oath in front of the portrait of bucktoothed Queen Elizabeth II.

By 2027, each of them will have completed 15 years of service in the British Brigade of Gurkhas, and will be eligible for honorable pension for life. The oldest among them will be 35, a prime age with enough experiences, and more fitting for the next employment prospects – the Singapore Police, the luxury liners plying the pirate-infested Strait of Malacca, professional security posts in Nepal or the Gulf, embassies and international agencies in Kathmandu. The list is long.

Meanwhile, the final fading seconds of KesangTseten’s documentary heralds the future of a freshly burnished contingent of Gurkhas. Will there be recruitment next year, or the year after that? Let’s hope there’ll be, as long as there’ll be newer Kosovos, Afghanistans, Iraqs and other troubled spots in the world needing Gurkha deployments.


I saw the documentary while I was in Nepal this spring. The dialogue is 50/50 between English and Nepali but everything is captioned so you can understand everything.

It was a very good watch, though limited in scope. It focuses purely on fly-on-the-wall style film of the training at Pokhara. There are no interviews or attempts to put everything into any kind of context. For example, some members of the Maoist party in Nepal (the biggest party) want an end to recruiting. Issues like that are not discussed at all.

The opening scenes are very powerful. Black and white shots of recruiting from around the 1940s (?) are intercut with near identical shots of same things happening today - chest measurements, that kind of thing.

Some of the filming is a little amateurish - some poor sound and out of focus camerawork - but the editing is very tight. There are no boring stretches. The film follows several people but there are no attempts to focus on 1/2 individuals and it never feels emotionally manipulative. Seeing the old fashioned 'doku' (sp?) race is great.

The Gurkhas come across very well. They are clearly very determined but also very funny. That was one struck me - the recruits come from such a large pool that the people who make it through really are the best of the best.

While I was in Nepal, you saw lots of adverts in the papers and posters for private companies that train you to pass the course. The film shows lots of officers warning the recruits to stay away from these companies as some are scams or make false claims.

Many of the recruits are clearly from poorer, hilly areas of Nepal. At one point, several discuss whether they will be taken to England by bus. That raised a laugh from the urban, educated, fashionably dressed Nepalis that were in the cinema.

I went to a few of the poorer places in Nepal - including Rolpa and Rammechhap - and a lot of people in those places still had very hard, physical lives, despite improvements like better water and electricity provision. You could see that Gurkha recruitment would still offer a route to a better life. Loads of Nepali people go to work abroad every year - something like 500,000 people. So getting one of the 182 or so British Gurkha slots is much better than driving trucks in India or being exploited on a building site in 42C in a gulf state.

From speaking to people in Nepal, reading the papers, and seeing the Facebook posts of new Nepali friends, it seemed people in Nepal were very proud of the Gurkhas. The film went down well there, from what I read.

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