Basking in the success of Darpan Chhaya, the first Nepali film to run for 51 days in eight of the Valley's theatres simultaneously, the film's director Tulsi Ghimiray was delighted. At a ceremony last week, Ghimiray and actors Neeruta Singh, Uttam Pradhan and Dilip Rayamajhi met fans outside a downtown theatre. "Owing to your energy, the Nepali film industry has gathered momentum," said Ghimiray. "I hope you continue to watch our films. If we fail you, you have every right to curse us."
Ghimiray had reason enough to get emotional. Having entered the Nepali film world in the mid-80s with a number of quick successes after a long apprenticeship in Bombay, his later movies had flopped one after another. In a last-ditch effort, the director banked everything-his reputation, knowledge of film grammar, and finances-on Darpan Chhaya. As he puts it, the film would decide whether he would make it or break it in Kollywood, as the Nepali film industry calls itself. The gamble paid off, fortunately for both Ghimiray and Nepali cinema.
Tulsi Ghimiray's Darpan Chaya is a simple "you'll laugh-you'll cry" story about a bunch of college kids. What makes it stand out is that it is imbued with a certain 'Nepaliness' that most local productions sorely lack. The film is devoid of the bloody brawls, trashy innuendo, melodramatic, crude sex and histrionics that characterised the flood of films produced in the mid-nineties. This was when novice producers who were more speculators than cineastes made films that can at best be called poor copies of Bollywood productions. What these copycat movies lacked, however, was the real edge Bombay has-production values and quality.
Incidentally, another film by Ghimiray had started the trend. His family action drama, Chino, was a big hit in 1991. Ghimiray understood that a Nepali public fattened and made lazy ( having gorged?) on a 40-year diet of Hindi films had to be given comparable themes and quality. Based on the familiar father-murdered-brothers-separated-reunion-final retribution theme, the film managed to do just that.
But the spate of copies that followed failed miserably. There was overkill and Kollywood took a nosedive. This was a bleak period for Nepali cinema-sometimes producers couldn't even collect Rs 50,000 on a film. The industry also fell victim to the novelty of satellite television in the early 90s, when viewers preferred to stay back home and watch the latest Hindi hits in the comfort of their living rooms.
Nepali over Hindi
Films are big business in Nepal. Theatres, whether cavernous buildings cramming hundreds, "hi-vision" video halls that are converted garment factories, or wood-and-straw shacks posing as cinemas are spread all over the country. In the remotest of hamlets, posters of film stars vie for pride of place with pictures of deities and family portraits. Film magazines do brisk business, and just about everyone can hum the latest hit tune.
Once under the spell of Hindi films, this fan following is gradually switching loyalties to Nepali films. Except for the tarai, demand for Hindi films is shrinking and Nepali films now have 70 percent of the market share. This has come with the industry beginning to understand public taste and inclination, and also making the most of existing technology and new tax breaks. The government last year decided to exempt Nepali films from the film development tax. Instead of paying tax on screenings, exhibitors can now share part of the earnings with producers and distributors.
Narayan Puri, one of Nepal's youngest and most prolific directors, also attributes this change to a newfound "Nepali pride". His film, Aago, based on the Maoist movement, was shelved for a year while a battle royale raged with censors. The Rs 3.4 million film was finally released in October last year and did brisk business in Kathmandu. Now showing outside the Valley, Aago expects a turnover of Rs 15 million.
Darpan Chhaya, produced on a modest Rs 4 million budget (Rs 3-5 million is average for a Nepali film) has already made Rs 6.5 million. Even by conservative estimates, the producers expect a turnover of Rs 10 million.
Says filmmaker and president of the four-month-old Film Development Board Yadav Kharel, "It's a healthy sign that Nepali films are being bought and sold while still on the floor of the editing room. Businessmen, including exhibitors and distributors, are investing too. Distributors are putting up 40 percent of the capital required in exchange for exclusive distribution rights. Thematically and artistically, Nepali films still have a long way to go but they can replace Hindi films in terms of quality and economic achievement," says Kharel.
The Nepal Motion Picture Association, the body that represents the interests of producers, distributors and exhibitors, is working with the Film Development Corporation to get government recognition for the movie business as a production-oriented industry rather than a service-oriented sector. This would entitle it to tax concessions when importing raw material and equipment. Already after the tax break announced last year, production has doubled.
In 1995 Nepali theatres screened 20 Nepali films (compared to 124 Hindi films) in 148 theatres within Nepal, and Nepali-speaking areas of India like Darjeeling. This year, about 40 Nepali films (compared to 80 Hindi films) were screened in about 336 theatres around the country, including 64 hi-vision halls. Once-underpaid actors are working double shifts, and their price tags have shot up. Popular male lead Rajesh Hamal charges Rs 300,000 per film, while actresses like Neeruta Singh and Jal Shah are demanding as much as Rs 200,000, more than double they made just a couple of years ago. It's not just the stars who're having a field day-film technicians are in demand too, confirming dates for the next project before they're even done with this one. Dance masters and fight masters are also fully booked.
Finally, tech-savvy directors are making most of technology to cut production time and costs. Director Puri edits and dubs his films on digital computer. "In terms of time and money it's cost effective. What might take 200 hours on analog can be completed in 100 hours."
While Kollywood can't compare with Bollywood in terms of scale, it is now producing the same number of films as, say, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or Australia. "This is the beginning of the best period of the industry," says Ghimiray. He believes that it is because the middle class has returned to theatres. New theatres and multiplexes in Kathmandu have also lured the upmarket crowd back. As film enthusiasts line up to watch Darpan Chaya outside Biswajyoti, manager Motiram Pradhan is confident: "It'll probably complete 100 days. That means other Nepali films waiting in line will have to wait a long, long time."