like this programme coz once in every week for 30 minutes, our TV set turns into a mirror; reflecting the society and it's people. It's me and my feelings. I find my parents there, solutions to my problems and most of all, it makes our family come together within a boundary of understanding," a teenage girl wrote in an email to the crew of Catmandu.
Visit a Catmandu shoot and you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd ended up in a high school instead. The young people-actors, directors and the technicians-responsible for one of Nepal Television's most successful shows ever are an exuberant lot, a characteristic that carries over well into Catmandu.
Although on paper Catmandu could sound kind of, well, boring, and NTV is hardly what most teenagers watch, the UNICEF project targeted at developing life-skills among young people has managed to strike a chord among the capital's young TV watchers. Since September last year Catmandu, which airs at 7PM on Saturdays, is estimated to be watched by 50 percent of all people who tune into NTV. Targeted mostly at Kathmandu's urban youth, it is above all real and definitely not preachy. The characters go to discos, hang out at fast-food restaurants, speak the cringe-inducing mix of Nepali and English you hear on New Road, dream about studying abroad-in short, mirror the aspirations of urbanised Nepali youth.
"We aim to get young people to think about the choices they have in life, be aware of who they are, what they want, what would make them happy," says screenwriter Sushma Amatya. Like all young people faced with the choices that modernity throws up, Catmandu's characters too often have to make tough decisions, or get into messy situations. The difference is that they use such skills as self-awareness, communication, interpersonal relationships, decision-making and problem-solving to sort things out. They come across as people in the process of maturing admirably. The idea is that if the audience can identify with these characters-and they do-they will pick up some of these vital life-skills from them.
The weekly series has been a major break for director Nitesh Raj Pant. He learned his TV skills while acting in and assisting the director of the popular satirical NTV show Hijo Aja Ka Kura. Catmandu gave Pant with a chance to direct a crew. UNICEF wanted a young person to run the show, and that's what they got. While most 20-something people like Pant might just be starting their acting careers, the young director has worked with electronic media for about a decade. "My age helped. Catmandu is a project produced by and for youth," explains Pant.
He's doing his job well. The show's reach has far expanded what UNICEF initially envisioned, and has even caught on in the towns and villages. The producers gets hundreds of letters and emails every week-one teenager from remote Udaipur writes that since his village has no electricity, he watches the show on a battery-powered TV.
The other big winner in this whole exercise has been NTV-finally, young people are tuning in. "Catmandu is the first programme I've really liked on NTV," says Vijay Singh, a college student. His classmates Avinas Shrestha and Sumit Malakar nod in agreement and chime in that the serial is "cool" and "reflects the young generation" perfectly.
UNICEF's biggest challenge was encouraging this leap in viewing loyalty, and they realised they could only do it if they made their messages seem like fun, not Lessons. When Amatya came on board, the only resource she had was a research report of a 2001 joint UNAIDS and Unicef project, "A Survey of Teenagers in Nepal". Then she had her imagination-and the expertise of the staff of UNICEF's other hit, the radio show Sathi Sanga Manka Kura. (See "Someone I can talk to", #87.) She spoke to the producers and analysed the feedback sent by the listeners to understand how and what teenagers think these days. Feeling she was still missing something 'real', Amatya then conducted extensive meetings with young people from Kathmandu schools and colleges. The result is a script of near-ethnographic precision.
Pant and Amatya, who has a creative writing degree from Australia and has previously scripted another UNICEF serial, Chetana, are the only professionals on this team. Everyone else is an amateur, often a first-timer. Suraksha Shah, who plays Neeva, and Apeksha Thapa, who plays Abha, are both higher secondary students. The girls say they're glad how much being associated with Catmandu has taught them. "Nepali youth are very cynical about a lot of issues, and they don't welcome criticism," says Shah.
Usma Lama who plays Binny, a major character, never thought she'd act, but now she is considering trying other acting ventures too. She's most concerned about two things: first, that she wants to maintain the respect that she has earned through Catmandu, and second, that she would keep up her grades as she entered her final year in a BBS program.
One area in which she has had chances to put her new self-understanding into action is in dealing with the repercussions of being a public figure. Often in public people identify her with the character she plays and make comments, even passes. "We try to educate people about being sensitive towards others, so when people recognise me and try to trespass on my individuality, I feel like a failure," says the articulate Lama.
Santos Silwal-Giri, who plays a male lead, Bhanu, was already a household name as a radio jockey with Hits FM, but that wasn't as satisfying as making a difference in individuals' lives through Catmandu. Says Silwal-Giri, who is also chief assistant director of the show: "We practice what we preach. There are no pretences, everyone can throw in their ideas and they can be themselves on screen." That naturalness continues to draw more young people to Catmandu.
But a number of viewers have one suggestion: Catmandu needs to get more interactive. College student Pooja Thapa says: "They should create a channel where we can ask questions and share our problems too."