Documentary channel

Three documentaries shine a light on the harsh conditions faced by Nepali migrant labour

Kesang Tseten’s trilogy of films examines the reasons for the huge flow of Nepalis to the Gulf.

The recent allegations of rape involving Nepali women at the Saudi Arabian embassy in Gurgaon near Delhi are shocking ‒ but they are also familiar for anybody who tracked Nepali migrant labour over the years. Filmmaker Kesang Tseten is among them. The filmmaker has made a series of documentaries on Nepalis who leave behind their villages and fields to move to the Gulf and work as maids, construction labour, and restaurant staff. Through such documentaries as In Search of the Riyal, Saving Dolma and The Desert Eats Us, Tseten provides rare and piercing views of the forces that push Nepalis to faraway lands, the conditions in which they work, and the feelings of the families they have left behind.

One of the employers in the film In Search of the Riyal peddles a common stereotype that “Nepalis are quiet people.” Tseten thoroughly debunks through this notion through his empowering interviews with migrants, who freely discuss their aspirations, fears, and anxieties and provide a bottom-up perspective of the labour market in the Gulf.

In Search of the Riyal from ShunyataFilms on Vimeo.

In Search of the Riyal (2009), the first in the loose trilogy, is divided into three chapters: going there, being and returning. Sparrow-chested young men lift sacks of cement to prove their strength at a recruitment centre and receive lessons in social etiquette from their handlers. These migrants from rural Nepal who not even been to Kathmandu, let alone beyond the borders, toil in sun-bitten countries in the Gulf in low-skilled jobs, including waiting tables and caring for camels.

The Desert Eats Us from kesang lama on Vimeo.

The Desert Eats Us (2010) is set entirely in Qatar, where Tseten maps the often miserable conditions in which Nepali migrants toil away for precious wages that support their families back home.

Saving Dolma from ShunyataFilms on Vimeo.

Saving Dolma (2010) tracks the case of a Nepali woman who was sentenced to death on the charge of murdering her Filipino co-worker.

The sheer numbers of Nepalis who flee their country every year in search of better opportunities encouraged Tseten to make the trilogy. One in three Nepalese families depends on earnings of migrant workers, he pointed out, and the films were made “because of its [migration’s] significance in every sense, its economy, where remittances amount to something like 27% of the GDP, where migration has by now become a passage of rite for many young men in the rural areas, in spite of the obstacles and risks, because the outflow of such significant populations (1,600 or so workers leave Nepal every day) affects the makeup of society, population growth and birth spacing, forestry, agriculture and so on”, he said.

As a result, Nepal remains heavily dependent on foreign remittances, added Tseten, who has also directed a lovely documentary on a reunion at his boarding school in India, titled We Homes Chaps, and a film on recruitment for the Gurkha regiment called Who Wants To Be A Gurkha.

“One out of three households are sustained by remittances, and typically, if a worker borrows money at 24 to 60 percent to pay the manpower and recruiting agencies fee, he shoulders immense pressure to cope with difficult working conditions, the heat, long hours, loneliness so that he can repay the loan,” Tseten pointed out. “To fail is to exacerbate already dire economic conditions.”

The reported rape of Nepali domestic workers in Delhi invokes “outright shock and horror”, and not only because of the nationality of the victims, he said. Saudi Embassy First Secretary Majed Hassan Ashoor fled the country after the allegations surfaced, denying the charges and claiming diplomatic immunity.

“Unfortunately, in spite of abuses such as these, huge numbers of women go out for work, to better their poor conditions back home, where too it isn’t all pastoral, in the belief they can improve their lot and that they have a right to do so,” Tseten said. “The fundamental problem, not specifically in terms of the Delhi case, is that women are fundamentally more vulnerable than men, because they work in private spaces as compared to socialised work situations of men, in the Gulf States and Malaysia, where it is a matter of chance what they encounter.”

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”


“Like what?”


A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”




“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:


This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.