When Nepali films started being made in the 1960s, the state tried to use the medium of movies to support Nepali nationhood, unity and to bolster government programs. The job of the Panchayat government's Ministry of Information's was to popularise and strengthen the partyless polity and making Nepali films was conceived as one of the most effective ways to do it. So at the request of King Mahendra, Bollywood filmmaker Hira Singh Khatri came to Nepal and started work with the Department of Publicity Film Division and, for the first time, Nepalis saw a film made in their own country, Aama. "It was a great thrill to see a film with a Nepali story, Nepali actors and in our own language for the first time," recalls actor Gautam Ratna Tuladhar.
Nepalis craved for more films, but production was slow. It took the ministry and director Khatri another three years to produce a second film. Then came Paribartan, based on a drama by Janardhan Sama to popularise the Back to Village Campaign. Finally, it was with the production of Maiti Ghar that the development of Kollywood began.
But it has been a long, hard struggle. It took almost another 15 years to attract investment from the private sector to make Juni, produced by Sujata Films and directed by Jharendra Shamsher Rana.
The government's Royal Nepal Film Corporation made movies at an average of one every three years. Yet they played to capacity crowds. It was only in the mid-80s that Nepali filmmakers like Tulsi Ghimire, Shambhu Pradhan and Uddhab Paudyal finally started the Kollywood trend. Ashok Sharma also moved from acting to producing and directing. One of the leading directors of today, Yadab Kharel, also entered the scene along with stalwarts like Prakash Thapa, BS Thapa, Laxmi Nath Sharma and Prem Basnet.
By 1999 Kollywood was putting out more than 20 films annually and Nepali filmmakers were making history. Those who went into debt no longer worried because films now guaranteed a return on their investment. Cinema became not only a breadwinner but also a platform for recognition and fame. There was a time when actors worked for a month and were jobless the rest of the year. They were now so busy that they had difficulties giving dates for new projects. Even before one film was finished, they signed another.
Kollywood made great strides technically, too. Filmmakers no longer had to go to India for recording, editing, processing and final production. Production gradually started taking the shape of an industry and also provided opportunities and created more jobs. Better studios meant songs were recorded in Nepal. Companies like Prime and Cinematrix that saw potential in processing, dubbing and editing made huge investments that paid off.
Filmmakers like Tulsi Ghimire, Shambu Pradhan and Kishor Rana, who concentrated on Bollywood, turned their eyes homewards and made Kathmandu their work base. The Royal Nepal Film Corporation was privatised into the Nepal Film Development Corporation and by 2000, 32 films were being produced every year. In 2001, that figure was 52.
Despite eight years of violence, killings and terror, film production has not ebbed. In fact, the number of films is growing. It seems escapism has its own market momentum. There are, however, challenges in expanding to the international audience. While films like Prem Pinda and Caravan earned a reputation outside Nepal, very few films meet international standards. "I couldn't afford it anymore. Our government's fiscal policies have to change," says Neer Shah, who believes that the government's anti-economic concept is a huge obstacle in the way of high budget quality films. And then, owners of movie theatres that are not certified deluxe are not allowed to decide ticket prices.
"How can you get returns by selling tickets for just Rs 28?" asks Shah. When his film was shown at the old Jai Nepal cinema, he was not allowed to increase the price of the ticket. "There are people willing to pay more for a quality product," adds Shah. His revenues from ticket sales came to around Rs 3 million, not even breaking even with the Rs 3.2 million invested in the film.
The financial side of the industry might frustrate Shah, but he is hopeful about a bright future for Kollywood. "Our film directors and producers have become more quality conscious and that is a positive symptom," he says.
Producers can no longer afford to act hastily and put out just any film. They should evolve from the stereotypical subjects of ill-fated love, macho heroes duelling evil villains, erotic 'item' dances and stale comedy routines.
here is room for growth and the audience is tired of the same old themes. "There is strong need to give a new direction to Nepali cinema. We can no longer identify with a hero dying of tuberculosis and there is little use of a director who looks at life in such a unimaginative manner," explains Dipak Neupane, an avid Kollywood fan.
Veteran actor Rabi Giri believes people and social perspectives change according to time and should be reflected in the movies. "If in one scene, there is a boy who dumps his girl after sex, the next scene will have her trying to commit suicide by throwing herself in the river or hanging herself. Should we be teaching today's generation that the loss of virginity is the loss of dignity? Should we be telling them that the only answer is to end one's life? Can't a girl go ahead with her life after that?" he asks. It is necessary to abandon the four-decade-old conservative mentality of script writers, directors and producers if Nepali films are to bloom.
It's not as if Kollywood has never displayed originality and innovation: just look at the work of directors Chiring Ritar, Navin Subba and Ravi Baral. It is possible for Nepali cinema to take on a new lustre with a new breed of bright and talented actors, technicians and producers. Today's filmmakers are already more critical of their products than in the past. Recognising mistakes and identifying room for improvement are the first steps to creating a better film. Efforts at breaking the mould, putting out a film worthy of the Nepali audience, should be recognised and applauded.
The first ever Lux Film Awards 2060 is just the kind of affirmation and support that Kollywood needs. It accords a kind of respect and sense of dignity that originates from the audience to all the artistes who make Kollywood what it is. "This kind of event is a real inspiration to us all," says actress Jal Shah. On Saturday, 29 November, when the cr?me-de-la-cr?me of Kollywood walk the red carpet to the awards, our stars will have the chance to shine just a little bit brighter in the future.
Viplob Pratik is a poet and film critic.