When Nepal’s first feature film, Ama, released in October 1964, only a handful of countries had their own movie industry. The current pop culture powerhouse of Asia,
, began its film revolution in 1987 at the end of military rule. Yet the two industries’ couldn’t have charted a more different path: last year Korean movies raked in $860 million just in ticket sales. Nepal’s filmmakers, on the other hand, are caught in a time warp of the 80s and 90s.
Directors and producers here say clichés of Bollywood-style movies – four songs, four fight sequences, boy-meets-girl love story, family drama – still work very well because the audience’s ‘taste’ hasn’t changed much in the past five decades. “We are giving viewers what they want,” admits director Chhavi Ojha.
Critic Prakash Sayami, however disagrees and points to how even the Hindi cinema industry is undergoing a tectonic shift where filmmakers are experimenting with difficult, non-mainstream subjects like communal violence, revolutions, and politics.
“Nepali viewers are more sophisticated now and their preference has evolved, it’s the makers who have fallen behind,” laments Yadav Kharel, director of the seminal movie Prem Pinda. “We are still trapped in Bollywood’s grip and as we scamper to break production records, we have sacrificed quality.”
While the influence of Indian films is felt elsewhere in the subcontinent as well, Nepal has unfortunately never been able to break free from its neighbour’s shadow. Bollywood has undoubtedly played a huge role in building our tinsel town from scratch: it was in Mumbai where the first Nepali-language film, Satya Harishchandra, was produced in 1951. Even today, our actors, directors, producers, technicians all look up to their counterparts in India for inspiration and direction.
Says Veteran actor Rajesh Hamal: “Our industry is lost, we don’t know where we are headed.”
It’s a big travesty that our films fail to reflect the ethnic, lingual, and cultural diversity of Nepal and neglect the stories of millions of ordinary Nepalis who lived through a decade long war. And whatever technological progress we have made, we have squandered it by serving formulaic films that rely solely on sleaze and violence to sell tickets with little work put into script, acting, or direction.
“Nepal is a treasure trove of wonderful stories and yet we have a chronic shortage of innovative ideas,” admits comedian Hari Bansha Acharya, who in his four decade long career has always provided social messages through his films, TV serials, and plays.
Movies are not just products to be sold in theatres. They form an integral part of our culture and literature and provide a window into our country. As we get ready to mark 50 years of Nepali cinema, both the state and filmmakers need to step up their efforts. Lifting restrictions placed on foreign investments in Nepali movies, improving our presence at international film festivals, introducing filmmaking classes in universities and colleges, and building a national archive are good places to start.
Directors and producers, on their part, have to show more honesty towards their art and not underestimate the intelligence of their viewers.
The Queens of drama
Lights, camera, censor
Nearly 50 years ago, Bhuwan Chand made her silver screen debut as the lead heroine in Ama, the first film produced in Nepal. Although her family was supportive of her from the beginning, Bhuwan says it was difficult facing harsh criticism from society. “After every performance, we used to sneak back into our homes like thieves to avoid the neighbours’ taunts,” recalls Chand of her early days in theatre. The 66-year-old, who still follows Nepali cinema, is appalled by the vulgarity and nudity that have crept into the industry. Says Bhuwan : “No matter how modern we become, we still need to maintain our Nepalipan in our movies.”
More than two decades after the release of her debut movie Santan , Karishma Manandhar’s effervescent beauty and compelling performances on screen continue to leave her admirers in awe. However, she is disappointed by the quality of work in Nepali movies. “The script these days aren’t appealing enough for actors to bring them to life,” she says. “It is unfortunate that the level of filmmaking has stagnated.”
The Nepali film industry may still be waiting for its watershed moment to step out of Bollywood’s influence, but Nepali heroines are already taking a step away from being mere arm candies. Leading this movement is Rekha Thapa, the local beauty pageant runner up from Morang, who came to Kathmandu with big dreams. With over a 100 films to her name, Rekha is defying stereotypes and changing how actresses are perceived in Nepali cinema. From fighting the bad guys to taking the bullet, Thapa is not afraid to take on traditionally masculine roles. As a producer, she has given numerous budding actors their first break and is creating her own women-centric brand of movies.
“Today’s heroines are perfectly capable of carrying movies on their shoulders, it’s just a matter of giving them more opportunities,” says Rekha.
Watch the trailer of Kaali