Deepak Rauniyar's new film, Highway is an experimental film for Nepal in many ways. It is the first film that anyone has directed to date, here, in which all of the acting of the considerably large cast is improvised. Astonishingly the dialogue too was largely improvised, and, as a result,for the first time in Nepali cinema, we hear our language spoken as it is on the streets and in our homes and not in the stilted clichéd accents we have become used to in other Nepali films. The literature that we studied growing up is beautiful, but it does not seem to translate well into spoken dialogue on film, a mystery that is yet to be solved. Perhaps it is something to do with the fact that our spoken Nepali today is an odd amalgam of Nepali and English with all kinds of other things thrown in, and therefore it sounds rather inelegant on the screen. Highway's improvisational spirit has managed to circumvent this problem neatly, and with not a little innovation.
The screenplay for Highway was written by Abinash Bikram Shah and is a classic interweaving of stories a là films like Crash (2004) or Syriana (2005). We are shown a number of disparate characters: Pratiek (Eelum Dixit) is a troubled, possibly gay young man travelling home to his lover; Pooja (Shristi Ghimire) is a young pretty medical student travelling with her mother to Kathmandu to get married; Mahili (Nirmala Rai) is a mother going home to counsel her daughter against divorce; Manoj (Dayahang Rai) is a former Lahure rushing home to his wife after consuming a potion from a local healer that might reverse his impotence (it must be made good within 36 hours of consumption). All these different players are brought together with the device of a bus that is travelling from Eastern Nepal towards Kathmandu, at a time when bandas were (well, still are) the flavour of the month.
As the bus is stopped by the usual destructive angry mob enforcing a banda, the group on the bus collectively concoct a cock and bull story involving the two youngest people on the bus (Pooja and Pratiek) being newly weds and claiming that the bus is, in fact, their wedding bus. Fortuitously, the bride-to-be has her wedding clothes, and there is a band on board complete with their uniforms and instruments.
The film flashes backwards as each character's previous history is revealed. Most laudable is the diversity of the actors in age, gender and ethnicity. This, of course, is the higher motif that lies behind the title Highway – not merely the story of a bus stuck on a road, but also of a cross-section of the country coming together at different periods in their lives and somehow interacting - cooperating constructively for a common goal.
Some of the performances are the best I've seen to date in Nepali cinema. Reecha Sharma as the dance-bar girl with a small daughter, who is also the girl friend of the bus-driver, is raw and heart wrenching as she portrays the bravery that is required of single women in a dodgy profession in a fast devolving metropolitan city. Likewise, Shristi Ghimire is charming and very convincing as the vulnerable young medical student torn between her lover Ronit (played by Saugat Malla) and the America returned boy Abiral (played by Karma) that she is headed to marry.
There are many great performances that induce both laughter and tears in this small gem of a film that has for the first time pushed the boundaries of our local, homegrown cinema (the film played at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival). Made simply, but not simple, with an experimental open-ended conclusion, Deepak Rauniyar has shown us that we can make good, and brave new cinema economically, but beautifully if our hearts are in the right place.
It is in theaters now, see it for a breath of fresh air and for its sincere and true contribution to our cinematic future.
"Why should a film be real?", MOLLY JO GOREVAN