Nischal Basnet is excited about his upcoming film, Talak Jung vs Tulke, set during the decade-long Maoist insurgency. The film is due to be released next month.
The young Nepali is part of the new crop of filmmakers who have been trying to chart a new course in terms of storytelling and technique.
“I wanted to make an entertaining film with generous doses of humour that will resonate with the Nepali public,” the 33-year-old director told Al Jazeera.
The film, loosely based on Chinese modernist author Lu Xun’s short story The True Tale of Ah-Q, marks a departure from a typical Hindi cinema or Bollywood film that dominates Nepal’s cinema.
Granted, there are a few hits and more misses, but the content and stories in Nepali cinema are evolving.
Basnet describes Talak Jung vs Tulke as a dark comedy with the main protagonist, a Nepali common man, in a search for his identity against the backdrop of the conflict.
The 1996-2006 civil war shook the very foundations of the Himalayan kingdom, triggering the country’s transformation from a Hindu kingdom to a secular republic, and bringing to fore issues of inclusion, transitional justice, as well as social and political change.
The conflict provided fodder for a slew of films in the period that followed, but they failed to captivate Nepali audiences.
“It’s difficult to say, but perhaps people don’t want to revisit that phase in Nepali history,” Basnet said.
If Talak Jung vs Tulke succeeds at the box office or even manages to draw respectable numbers, it will reinforce the trend set by Basnet’s 2011 debut film and smash hit Loot – a gritty tale of a motley crew of misfits who carry out a bank heist against the backdrop of the capital Kathmandu’s underbelly.
The film marked a departure from the staple Bollywood fare that dominates Nepal’s film market. It also did not conform to mainstream Kollywood – the nickname for Nepal’s fledgling film industry – productions that unabashedly ape popular Hindi cinema, complete with invincible heroes, nubile heroines, doses of melodrama, and prolonged song and dance sequences.
Kabbadi, the more recent film produced by Basnet, is doing well. It is set in a mountain village of Mustang in western Nepal. Two men – one a village loafer with some social standing, the other a town boy – vie for the attention of the local village belle. Marriage is the least of the girl’s priorities as she is bent on going to the capital to pursue higher studies.
Of course, there is a twist to the tale and despite inconsistencies in the story, Nepali viewers welcomed the colloquial accents, rustic flavour, and believable characters.
“The strength of the current crop of films lies in their fresh ideas and originality,” film critic and commentator Yangesh said. “Granted, there are a few hits and more misses, but the content and stories in Nepali cinema are evolving.”
Affordable digital technologies, along with a generation of savvy directors who are in tune with global trends in cinema, are changing the way films are made today.
Without the state supporting various aspects of filmmaking, it's impossible for the industry to grow. We have to level the playing field if we want to make better films. Today Korean, Iranian, and Israeli films owe their success at home and abroad to protectionist state policies.
Guerrilla style techniques
Filmmakers have adopted guerrilla style techniques; they share production costs and undertake their own film distribution with marketing and PR campaigns tailored for specific film projects.
“One has to credit them with the creative energy and market savvy in cultivating an audience that at some point had given up on Nepali films,” director and producer, Tsering Rhitar Sherpa, told Al Jazeera.
“However, it is still early to say whether they will have a sustained influence and will provide the industry with a much needed boost given the outstanding challenges it faces,” he said.
In a virtual David versus Goliath scenario, 80 percent of Nepal’s film market is dominated by Bollywood, the world’s largest film industry that churns out 1,000 films annually compared to 95-100 films released domestically.
With an overwhelming majority of Nepal’s film audiences concentrated largely in urban Kathmandu, where the growth of multiplexes and city malls has transformed the cinematic experience, Bollywood, and to a much lesser degree Hollywood, enjoy a distinct advantage over local films.
For every hit, there are several misses, including Sherpa’s 2013 production Uma. The film about a brother and sister on opposing sides of the conflict, failed to recoup its investment, making producers think twice about investing in future projects.
“Without the state supporting various aspects of filmmaking, it’s impossible for the industry to grow. We have to level the playing field if we want to make better films,” Sherpa said. “Today Korean, Iranian, and Israeli films owe their success at home and abroad to protectionist state policies.”
Not archetypical Kollywood
Last week, the government’s efforts in trying to overcome its indifference towards the arts was apparent at an event organised by the country’s Film Development Board, where Nepal’s president handed out national awards for films released over the last four years.
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Despite the lack of a nurturing environment, several independent films have won critical acclaim even though commercial success has eluded them. Sanghuro – a film about the sexual psychology of a Nepali couple struggling to find privacy in the confines of a squatter settlement was picked up by British TV’s Channel 4. Highway, a 2012 road movie about the intertwined lives of several bus passengers, premiered at the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival.
Jhola, a century-old tale of a young woman forced to commit sati, or sacrifice herself on the funeral pyre of her aged husband, won accolades at SAARC Film Festival 2014, and Soongava – Dance of the Orchid, a sensitive story of love between two women, was nominated as Nepal’s official entry to the 2014 Oscars in the foreign film category.
Film critic Yangesh is quick to point out that these emergent themes underscore the social, political, and cultural transition sweeping post-conflict Nepal. Another telling indication of change, he says, is reflected in the current crop of actors. They no longer resemble the archetypical Kollywood superstars.
Rather, they seem to be angst-ridden, flawed, and diverse true-to-life characters.