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Dark waters

Tuesday, October 1st, 2013


To say I am concerned about the wellspring of inspiration nourishing Nepali (short) filmmakers is an understatement. Where is the lunk loping across mustard fields in a lather of testosterone, the object of his desire a vision of chiffon, heaving bosom and pouty lips? Where is the ruler line of morality that demarcates the good son, the violent junkie, the leering madman and the innocent victim? Where is the build-up, the climax, the release? Where is that loving feeling? The Nepali entries I watched at the Eka Deshma Festival de’ Contemporary Cinema last weekend took me to a different place, where the waters run deep and strong.

There is love in these labours: love of the self, primarily, though the protagonists may not think so. But what strikes the viewer is how these (mostly commendable) shorts deal in damage, disability, and death. The Contagious Apparitions of Dambarey Dendrite tracks the visions of drug-addled Dambarey and his crew of lost souls; in Chhorā a Nepali man in France struggles to hold on to his family and his country; Mānushi braids the tangled psyches of two innocents; and Pratibimba – well, this too takes blindness as its subject, but conveniently screened first, served as a hapless foil for the rest.

In fact, Pratibimba exemplifies the failure of modern Nepali cinema. It looks good in a way that Rajesh dai never could, but the song remains the same. Who wants to watch the smarmiest blind man alive dining on “strong cappuccinos and muffins” while placing bets with the waiter on the true nature, the “mānché bhitra ko mānché”, of unwitting customers? Is this how we are meant to understand that blind people are not disabled, but differently abled? The dialogue is stilted, the romantic trajectory predictable, the product placement blatant, and its vision, blinkered to the point of blindness.

Mānushi also follows two young hearts, but it’s a much darker (and “brighter”) take on marginalization. Kiran Pokharel’s short depicts the star-crossed acquaintance of two mentally disturbed youth living within the Pashupati temple complex. The love of a boy for flying kites costs him everything twice over, but he does not know it. It’s an unforgiving vision on the place of madness in our society – invisible as far as possible, abused if it calls attention to itself. That the audience voted it their favourite perhaps indicates Nepalis are ready for unconventional narratives, and not-so-happy endings.

High as a kite, too, are the street kids of The Contagious Apparitions of Dambarey Dendrite, a film by Bibhusan Basnet and Pooja Gurung. As they race through the pulsing soundscapes of Kathmandu (scored by Rohit Shakya) and grope their way through Dambarey’s fog-shrouded hallucinations (set in Narendra Mainali’s wonderfully grainy vistas of the city), the only constant is the lure of easy money, the huffing and puffing of dendrite bags, and the obscenities that garnish every other utterance. It’s anyone’s guess what the point of it all is, but that would be beside the point. This is an unflinching look at some of the most vulnerable members of our society, and if Dambarey’s visions are fantastical, they never lift him very far from the anomie, deprivation and violence of his existence. But they do inject some welcome humour into what might otherwise be an intolerably grim portrayal, and in so doing force us to confront the essential humanity of these damaged children.

More subdued, but no less powerful, is Subarna Thapa’s Chhorā. This French/Nepali production traces the struggle of a Nepali man to fulfil his duty as a father – from the inside of a French prison. Unable to attend his own father’s cremation in Nepal, the protagonist (perfectly pitched by Subarna Thapa himself) takes comfort in the knowledge that his young son and French wife travelled back to his village. But things are not what they seem. Faced with his wife’s growing estrangement, he leans on his culture to counter his rising desperation, and insists on the value of the cultural knowledge he wants to transmit to his son. This is no nostalgia trip for Nepalis abroad. Our protagonist, serving years for an unspecified “bêtise”, is by no means a hero – we sense he has failed his wife and may yet lose his adoring son. But he has our sympathy, not because he is Nepali, but because we can understand the meaning of home, away from home. The father corrects the son’s Nepali; the son the father’s French. Perhaps both are still learning the ways of their adoptive countries.

This reviewer only caught a quarter of the Nepali entries at Eka Deshma. But with the exception of Pratibimba, the impression received was of intelligence, honesty and technical accomplishment: a rare combination for Nepali film. It is as though the documentary truth that began to come through a decade ago is finally seeping into our feature films. After the false dawn of the Nepali new wave, which promised to deliver us from the bear hug of Rajesh Hamal but mired itself in a bog of urban swagger and last season’s lip-gloss, Eka Deshma was a sight for sore eyes. It’s disappointing that only 3 Nepali films were selected for the juggernaut of Film South Asia, opening this week. But judging by these efforts, it may not be so long before that festival really comes home.


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