Saturday, December 30, 2017

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Land: How Much Reform Is Enough Reform?

The High Level Commission for Land Reform, chaired by Ghanendra Basnet has submitted its report to the Prime Minister. It recommends measures that are inadequate, and in fact regressive compared to the failed land reform that was attempted during Sher Bahadur Deuba's first tenure as Prime Minister around the year 2000.

The only "revolutionary" suggestion here is that the government shouldn't provide compensation to landowners for land exceeding the old limit [70 ropanis in the mid-hills] while implementing the new ceiling on the amount of land allowed per household. This reduces the budget required to implement the recommendations--this is obvious. More importantly, it helps in reducing the gap between the rich and the poor. It takes away significant amount of wealth from the already rich, and injects the poor with a significant amount of new wealth.

If a farmer [most likely, though, an absentee landlord] who had 70 ropanis of land will lose 15 ropanis without compensation. That is approximately 21.5% of land value gone without compensation. But this calculation means nothing: the old reform wasn't really implemented at all.

The report says that 125,000 new hectares of land will be freed through the proposed reforms. The amount of land required for the estimated 1,407,100 families of squatters [sukumbasi], marginal farmers [owning parcels too small for meaningful farming] and non-landowning [bhumiheen] farmers is at 421, 770 hectares.

Even after the reform, three-quarters of the farmers/squatters who need land will be left without land.

What sort of a reform seeks to leave 3 out of 4 citizens, for whose sake the reform is being implemented, without any reward?

Instead of aiming for a more or less equitable distribution of land, it recommends giving non-landowning farmers a minimum of 10 ropanis in the mid-hills and 5 Kattha in the Terai. Somebody who has been working the land of absentee landowners will likely see the parcels they have been working reduce [to 55 ropanis] with an addition of 10 ropanis to their own land.

Let us assume Annapurna Nepali worked on a 70 ropani parcel for an absentee landowner. She would have been entitled to the produce of 35 of those ropanis. After the reform, her share reduces to 27.5 ropanis, but, with new land she owns now, it goes up to 37.5 ropanis. That is a 7% increase in her income. Good for her. Also, she gains this from a *reduced* amount of effort spent: from 70 ropanis, she is working only 65. That is a reduction of approximately 7% of labor, assuming the size of a land parcel corresponds to effort required. I know this is not scientific at all, and it doesn't hold true for other figures.

If she were working 45 ropanis previously, and got 22.5 ropanis worth of produce, she could work 55 ropanis now, and get 32.5 ropanis worth of produce. That is a 44% gain in income from a 22% *increase* in labor.

If she were working 20 ropanis of land and previously recieved 10 ropanis worth of produce, she could now work 30 ropanis and get 20 ropanis worth. That is a 50% increase in labor that returns a 100% increase in income.

Let us assume Annapurna Nepali worked a 10 ropani parcel of land--much closer to the average size of land owned by mid-hill farmers. She would be entitled to the produce from 5 ropanis, but with the new gains, she will have the produce from 15 ropanis, after working 20 ropanis. Her labor doubles, her gains become three-folds.
Although, if her new possessions approach that of her old landowner, she might no longer want to work the absentee landowner's parcel. Why would she?

Assuming that land costs Rs 30,000/- per ropani in a village in the mid-hills, the absentee landlord stands to lose, in one go,Rs 30,000/- per ropani over the 70 ropani limit, while Annapurna stands to gain Rs 300,000/- worth of new property.

This is no mean gesture. It will empower the poorest, while impressing into the landowning class that the state is capable of enforcing measures aimed at equality.

This can then translate to other spheres of culture: more empowered women means less tolerance of discrimination based on gender. More empowered dalits means less tolerance of discrimination based on castes.
More empowered indigenous farmer in the Terai means less tolerance towards ethnic discrimination by Pahadi zamindars, etcetera.

According to the report, a very large fraction of agricultural land in Nepal is owned by absentee landowners, while a very large fraction of agricultural workers are non-landowning or squatters, or own insignificant parcels of land.

This dissonance between ownership and labor leads to inefficiency of production. Available capital is not put to work at its prime capacity.

Where is the most obvious flaw in this report?

In its apparent lack of assessment of land by its quality.

A family of 5--close to the national average--would need at least 5 ropanis of very good, spring-fed paddy [abbal] to grow enough rice to feed it through the year. If it is non-irrigated land that relies upon rain alone, the family needs more than 10 ropanis for rice alone. Forget about how much land is needed if the family is to survive on maize corn, or millet, or wheat, etc. Each is a different scenario.

I can think of at least one reason this reform might fail: sale of newly acquired land by rural families who see it as an opportunity to move to urban centres. Often times, the single largest purse of money sought by small rural farmers is not to add capital to their farming operations, but to leave the country to go work in the UAE or similar labor purgatory. Out of ambition and necessity, the next generation of children from these families tend to grow up in small urban centres, gaining formal education while losing out on traditional training in farming [almanac] knowledge. If this happens, the parcels of land owned by small farmers might change rapidly, and agricultural land newly begotten might soon change into residential land once remittance money starts flowing in.

The report has recommendations for zoning laws to regulate and enforce optimal utilization of various grades of land. But that is yet another set of laws to create and enforce.

Ithari bazaarai ma...

Oh timro hamro maya basyo
Itahari bazaarai ma...

I passed out while writing the previous post, two nights ago. Much has happened since--mostly, the filling of a vast and empty vessel--my ignorance about this area. I can't get into the specifics, for lack of time, what what, but, here are a few points:

There is a real and intense friction between groups, ethnic and political, of which the poorest are the perpetual victims;

There is a really good chance that the best beef/veal to be got for good money in Kolkata actually comes from the Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve.

I am not kidding. One half of my mind thought: WTF? How can that be allowed?
The other half thought: sweeet... grass-fed, wild beeves, fit for the gods...

There is no real consensus among responsible scientists about how many species of birds there are in Nepal, of how many of each. Those who flaunt numbers around are usually not scientifically trained, and don't have any stake in serious scholarship.

The Warden is the King.

The King has courtiers. Some of these courtiers keep herds of cattle inside the reserve, thus depleting grass and grazing/roaming area. This forces wildlife towards artificially created and managed grasslands where improved varieties are available: farms, with wheat and rice. This leads to a direct confrontation between the small farmer and the smaller animal: Arna, deers, boars. This leads to the punitive trapping of wild animals.

In one method, farmers put small hooks in the ears of corns: wheat, for instance. Fishing hooks, with barbs. Cheap, but efficient. Deer strays away from the reserve, discovers rewarding pastures in a wheat field, nibbles on some fresh wheat grass and corn, bites into a barb. Deer panics, moves the barb around in its tongue, throat--but the barb doesn't give. It digs in deeper, or moves from

Khagendra Lamichhane

The Right to Action
-Prawin Adhikari
In a generation there is a handful of artists that shapes a community's experiences of the arts. Rarely is there a figure who spans across genres and disciplines and, quietly, patiently, over a significant span of their own youth, create a body of work that immediately becomes treasured. If one is to take the past fifteen years of the theater in Nepal, one name shines bright: Khagendra Lamichhane.
As disclosure, I must boast here that I call him a friend. I have known him for about five years now, in different capacities. We have collaborated, sometimes successfully and sometimes with nothing to show for it - but always amicably, and with each hour spent in his company, my esteem for his humility, his talent and his ambition has grown. A goat-farm obligation drew him away from Kathmandu when our interview was scheduled, so I am relying upon myself to report on him, drawing on the many conversations we've had over the years, over heaps of boiled mutton and a bottle of whiskey, or riding on his scooter to reach a studio in time to finish something, or when we spent days and nights frenetically working through a screenplay.
Lamichhane was born in Syangja to a family of farmers. He grew up in the village, with the usual village boyhood experience of playing truant occasionally and falling in love secretly, reading whatever he could get his hands on, and fancying himself a poet and a writer. His parents are hardworking farmers, and had raised him within the vicissitudes of a hill farmer's life in a village where all forms of inequalities existed. Flavors of that childhood are recorded in quite a few memoirs published in Kantipur weekend supplement Koseli and its Nagarik equivalent, Akshar. One, available at , speaks about his first novel, published and perished in short order, and gives a good insight into the man himself.
Khagendra Lamichhane moved to Pokhara after passing the SLC exams and enrolled at the I. Ed. course at Prithwi Narayan Campus, only to fail both Compulsory Nepali and Compulsory English. It was then that he realized he wasn't the studying kind at all - he had read enough novels to write one for himself. Lamichhane set out to do just that - write a novel so beautiful it would win the Madan Puraskar. Had it typed out at a Cybercafe, sold a gold chain to get it printed. Burned it when the cattle at home needed kudo. The final two sentences of the memoir read - 'There was no smoke at all. But the corners of my eyes were wet.' (Translation mine)
In this story is the seed of - or, a mirror to - most of the characters Lamichhane has created for the stage and the screen: a character with a tender worldview and an endearing naïveté, but also someone given to the extremes of desperate romanticism. In his stories characters the least and the most awesome conflate in the smallest moment: think of Tulke in Talakjung vs Tulke, blowing on hot potatoes picked out of the hearth while bragging about his revolutionary credentials. Or, in Peeda Geet, his one-man play, going from the helpless plea of, 'Include me in your team, young men, so that I can get work and feed myself,' to shouting at the young and strong for making fun of him, to accepting a doughnut and hot tea and eating with gusto. His characters for the stage, especially the men, seem to swing between tenderness and egotism, between bracing themselves to the enormity of the universe's inherent cruelty and complaining with a childish insistence upon being heard.
In Pokhara, Lamichhane met two people who would shape his future: the actor and director Anup Baral - who is, in his own right, a fine painter of water colors; and with the poet, novelist and playwright Sarubhakta, who now heads the Academy. Lamichhane moved to Kathmandu to begin his career as a writer and actor, and immediately sank into the despairing life of a young man displaced in the city, living in want, but pursuing his heart's desire.
He started writing plays for the stage while he was training under Anup Baral to be an actor. Not many people know, but, apart from the first novel that went up in smoke, Khagendra Lamichhane has written enough plays to be published under two titles by Gurukul: Pani Photo and Katha Natak. He has been among the most prolific writers of original plays in the past decade - his contribution not limited to the stage alone. But, plays like Jaar (adapted from IB Rai's short story by the same name), Talakjung vs Tulke (adapted from Lu Xun’s story The true story of Ah Q ), Paani Photo, Peeda Geet, Khuma (adapted from Mahesh Bikram Shah's short story), and Atal Bahadur ko Aatanka are familiar names to lovers of the Nepali theater scene. He has taken his plays to numerous festivals around the world, including the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Festival and festivals across India, and to Japan and Thailand. Remember - these plays didn't travel as most Nepali artists travel, to cater to a Nepali diaspora desperate to dance to a few songs after drowning themselves in the liquor of nostalgia, or as a billionaire poet's readings of his own poems. They traveled on their artistic merit alone.
He is also an award winning producer of radio plays. Lamichhane was an integral member of the team behind BBC Media Action's series Katha Mitho Sarangi Ko, for which he wrote a number of radio plays and also directed them, although he was also involved as a producer of the series. Katha Mitho Sarangi Ko was at one time the most popular radio play series in Nepal. A wandering minstrel singer - played by the very talented Dilu Gandarbha, who was also the musician for the series - traveled through Nepal, finding stories about our society, the good and the bad, and narrating them to a wider audience. One story could stretch to four or five episodes, each 'shot' in location: the actors and locally cast non-actors went through lengthy rehearsals to get everything right and, tracked by a group of sound engineers, performed until every nuance of sound was captured. The series was so successful that it became emulated by the BBC in other parts of the world. It succeeded in capturing the vast diversity of languages and dialects that is the essential characteristic of a nation like ours. More than that, it brought together a scattered network of actors from across the country. Go to any theater performance in the city and talk to the people behind the production, and you'll likely hear that they have each worked with Lamichhane's BBC Media Action production, and enjoyed the experience, too.
After a long absence from the traditional stage and  a successful stint as a writer, producer and director of radio plays, Lamichhane was approached to act on the silver screen. In Badhshala, he plays a captured Maoist, tortured and blindfolded through the length of the movie, except at the very end where the audience briefly sees his bearded face. I happened to meet him and the actor Dayahang Rai a few days after that, and saw the camaraderie that had developed from their days of acting at the Gurukul stage. After a brief agreement to dedicate themselves to making the acting appear as realistic as possible, Lamichhane realized that he had got the short end of the stick: Rai was playing an Royal Nepal Army man, in charge of beating the shit out of Lamichhane's character, and he didn't hold back his kicks and punches. Lamichhane had bruises all over his body from that experience.
Soon after that, Bhaskar Dhungana approached Lamichhane for a role in Suntali. Concurrently, Lamichhane was also working on polishing up the screenplay draft for a third-degree adaptation of Talakjung vs Tulke. I had the honor, along with Lamichhane's longtime friend and colleague Shivani Singh Tharu, of going on a three-day retreat to Nagarkot. There, we dedicated ourselves to the task of polishing the draft, starting around noon and finishing late into the morning, warming ourselves with an excellent home-brew at a tea shop down the road, cordially arguing, conceding, accepting, challenging, correcting, until, exhausted, we couldn't think anymore. I saw his dedication to the craft and purity of intention, and he won my respect.
Therefore, when Suntali was about to go on the floor, we asked him to help polish the dialogues. I had written it for the region, but the patina of lived, lively sounds that Lamichhane brings to his dialogues, and the subtle inflection that adds to his characters was far superior to anything I could write. When Suntali came out, and people liked or hated it, uniformly the dialogues resonated with the people. But a lot of that effect was created by Lamichhane, again over a few nights at his place, with platters of fruit (he was trying to lose weight for the role in Suntali, and also for Talakjung vs Tulke, which was slated to commence within days after the Suntali schedule), and of course, that bottle of whiskey - which we barely touched out of excitement for what was happening on the page. Suntali had already been acted out, for every role and every line, by Bhaskar Dhungana. Now, Lamichhane and I acted out each line, weighing it, testing it for the tongue. So much of the comedy was in the sounds.
Talakjung vs Tulke finally brought him to the larger Nepali audience. (My mother hasn't seen the movie, but she saw and recognized him in a television promo. His line 'manmaa lageko kura bhanna ni ke ko sharam laaunchha ni!' bowled her over. She is a fan.) After a very long time - and quite generously, I believe not since Madan Krishna and Hari Bansha's earlier works - had a comedy been so full of such rounded, complicated characters. To the thoughtful viewer, Tulke's place in the world was a metaphor for a lot of the change that our nation has seen in the recent decades. 'Karantikari bhaye ni munchhe marna chahin nahuni,' Tulke says at one point. That is the ethos of the common Nepali person: even the most oppressed in our society - the women, dalits in the hills and the Terai, the landless tillers - they seem too reluctant to be brought over to the side of total violence required for a total revolution. It is not that Nepalis are given to quietly enduring, although fatalism does inculcate that habit in most: it is that the lull of the land, the neighborly empathy makes people averse to quick and cathartic violence. Talakjung vs Tulke fully captures this disrupt, through diction and humor of a sort that is becoming more and more familiar as it hews closer to our soil (and farther from external influences), and by bringing back the empathy and pathos characteristic of our societies.
I envy this man. Apart from running a fully organic orange orchard and vegetable farm in Syangja, he is toiling away on his novel. The last time we talked, we was well past the half-way mark, while I have been deleting the first few pages of mine. His production company is preparing for the second venture - Pashupati Prasad - which promises a radical new story set in an unusual and challenging setting. He recently staged Peeda Geet, his one-man play, and filmed it in its entirety, so that he can slowly, over the years, make all of his work available online for free. Talakjung vs Tulke will soon come out on DVD, with English subtitles - and this will only help bring his talent and dedication to a greater audience. And, as a farmer and the son of farmers, he knows intimately that efforts take a long time to take root, longer to gain the nutrient of experience and hardship, and even longer to day take to enrich themselves with the light that comes from practiced patience before they can bear fruits.

And he lives without the burden of anxiety or regret: he will readily commit to the fire of a new beginning anything perceived failure from the past, and barely flinch. Nepal needs a few more of Khagedra Lamichhanes - for its arts to attain greater refinement; for the voice of a region to be represented before the entire nation, for the slow labor of love to bear bright fruits. Until we have more, we will have to be content with just the one Khagendra Lamichhane among us, and take pride in him.  

Menuka Pradhan

Confounding Expectations

Her mother tongue is Manipuri. Her father was in the Indian Army's Manipur Rifles, and while stationed in Manipur, he met and married a local woman and started a family. She was born in Manipur, and spent her childhood there, before returning to her father's village in Nawalparasi of the Nepali Madhesh. She learned to speak Nepali, and bloomed into her extrovert self. Perhaps the need to express herself to her peers in an entirely new language forced her into a habit of performance, of representing and reserving different aspects of herself. When she was in the 7th grade, a local television channel cast her in a television series. After all, she was a well known face: even as a child she had enjoyed performing at cultural shows, dancing with precocious talent. Like most people who go on to become performers, she had been performing at home - her parents loved Bollywood, and nearly everyday the family sat down to watch the latest Bollywood movie. After finishing her high school education, everything pointed towards Kathmandu: there was the bigger stage, there was the seat of glamour and the possibility of stardom. The television screen is too small for a grand ambition; and to be confined to a local television channel in Chitwan was unacceptable to her. Eight movies later, we know her as Menuka Pradhan. And, today her star is rising bright. Today, there is no looking back: the world of Nepali cinema is for her to conquer.
I had forgotten that I had seen her first in a thriller called Ek Din Ek Raat, directed by Dev Kumar Shrestha. Like most movies in that genre, it assembles a dysfunctional group of friends who then are murdered, one by one. Her latest outing on the silver screen, Zhigrana, directed by Pasang Lama, enjoyed a successful release recently, and also featured Pradhan as a member of a group of friends who go on a journey into unknown territory, and where the attractive young people are killed, one by one. Vigilante, directed by Dipendra K. Khanal, also had her run terrified in full 3D, before being killed off. Perhaps Menuka Pradhan  gets cast in such soles because she possesses the perfect blend of histrionics and vulnerability - the cockiness that makes a character perform the sort of indiscretion that upsets the balance in an unknown place and invites reprisal, and the vulnerability and beauty that makes the audience root for the character, for them to escape their forewarned grisly fate at the last minute. Or, perhaps she is just a good performer, with the grace and subtlety required to play a diverse range of emotions and characters.
Because, she has also shown us another side of her capabilities as an actor. In director Prachanda Man Shrestha's Visa Girl,
a work admired by industry insiders for its balanced handling of the myriad characters and for a lush visual aesthetic, Pradhan plays an inner-city Newar girl, secretly in love with the boy next door. He dabbles at being a musician; she is a talented songwriter. Pradhan plays this character with the restraint and charm of a girl on the cusp of realizing her womanhood; of insisting to be seen and noticed by the boy she loves and whom she waits patiently for as he grows out of his extended adolescence into becoming a man. There is a moment in the movie when, out of frustration, Pradhan's character draws a veil over her face, refusing to let her paramour see her face full of frustration. Perhaps another moment of perfect vulnerability and perfect strength hasn't been created in Nepali cinema, with just that simple gesture.
A director essentially shapes an actor's performance on the screen. The actor must meet and surpass the director's vision for the character, in service of the wider narrative. "The way he explained small details about the character was the best thing about working with Prachanda," Pradhan says. "Whatever performance you can see on the screen in Visa Girl owes to him." It is sweet of her to credit her director fully with her breakthrough role, but those who saw Visa Girl in the theater did take immediate notice of her potential. This was followed by a series of other roles that didn't require her to be killed - the tomboy in director Kumar Bhattarai's Utsav, a blink-and-miss appearance in Subarna Thapa's same-sex love story Sungava, and now, the most widely anticipated movie in recent Nepali cinema history - as a village belle in Pranab Joshi's already a viral hit movie, Resham Fililli.
There is a division of sorts in our industry between what is deemed the rural world and the urban - in terms of production, and in term of consumption. Since director Alok Nembang's Sano Sansar, movies have either been produced with a decidedly urban aesthetic, geared towards the 16 to 24 year old market of young men and women, or they have been decidedly of the rural stamp. This division isn't present just between the aesthetics for the movies - this division also exists among the pool of actors available to populate either kind of movies. Karma and Vinay Shrestha, who started with Sano Sansaar, perhaps used to most vividly typify the urban. Menuka Pradhan has been in at least two movies with Vinay Shrestha and Karma by now, and in three with Shrestha alone. Yet, she has also acted in the decidedly art-house Sungava, and will soon be seen in Rato Ghar, a movie by the decidedly mainstream writer-director Suraj Subba Nyalbo. In this way, like Reecha Sharma before her, Pradhan is bridging the gap between the extremities of the industry, while also creating her own presence.
Menuka Pradhan's journey to this space wasn't straightforward. She did arrive in Kathmandu nearly like a cliché - she moved from her hometown Nawalparasi to pursue a career in acting, with no more than a few contacts in the acting circles. Right away, she acted in a music video for an Anju Panta song. But, after that, despite showing up at numerous auditions, she wasn't being cast in anything worthwhile. While auditioning for the movie Baghchal, the director Jagadish Thapa asked Pradhan had come to Kathmandu to become a heroine - Heroni banna aayeko?  No, Pradhan replied - I have come to become an actor. This tenacity and self-confidence endeared her to people in the industry. While auditioning for Ek Din Ek Raat, her co-star and also the casting director for the movie, Anup Baral, encouraged her to train for the theater.
Pradhan went on to act in a number of stage productions after joining the Actors' Studio in 2011. She appeared in Studio 7's production of Conference of Gods; Angels in America directed by Deborah Merula; the Actors' Studio production of Kafka, presented at Moksh; and as Rhea, the protagonist in A View from the Bridge; in Chekhov's Seagulls. The knowledge she gained from those busy years on the stage has helped her a lot now - to every character she brings the same meticulous preparation and imagination that made her time on the state so memorable. 
Menuka Pradhan then began her stint in the theater, staying away from the movies for a good few years. She trained at Baral's Actors' Studio, and appeared in many productions. She played a village dog in the Actors' Studio production of the poet and playwright Sarubhakta's Malami. Pradhan still thinks of this as her fondest role on the stage. As an actor learns to embody a character, to interpret the world through the movement of the body alone, the experience can be very liberating for the actor. Pradhan described the experience just so - that, to play the village dog lolling about while catastrophic events unfold int he background, was very liberating. This ability to fully commit to the character must have come handy for Pradhan when she played a pretty young thing unable to keep her hands off her boyfriend, in Zhingrana. In the uncensored version was perhaps the most frenetic sex scene. Was it difficult to shoot that?
    'No,' says Pradhan. Nikun Shrestha, who shares the scene with her, was apparently nervous before the shot. But, Pradhan asked that he adopt a 'take no prisoner' approach to the scene. Director Pasang Sherpa guided the duo through, but it was really the presence of the director of photography Shailendra Karki that assured Pradhan that all would be well. Remember the time when Nepali cinema had come under the thrall of the brief success of Chapali Height, and a slew of movies like ATM were set to assault us with their tacky aesthetics? Pradhan was worried that without the careful and graceful work of a director of photography like Karki, the work would come out vulgar. But she was happy with how the scene came out.
'I need to know all the details about the character and her back story. It helps me, but it can be irritating to others,' Pradhan says. She repeatedly quizzed Lama, the director of Zhigrana, about her character, her motivations, the choices she makes at any given time. At times, the director and others in the production team were annoyed at her insistence, but it helped her, it helped the movie. That is the sort of person Pradhan comes across as - exhaustively inquisitive, explosively full of energy, insisting upon a disarming sincerity towards her work. When she committed to the stage, she did it with a single-minded devotion, playing in as many stage productions as she could get her hands on, honing her craft so late in her performing career - but so early in her life. Everybody speaks well of her, everybody appreciates her work. That is no mean achievement in an industry where nobody is a permanent friend or a permanent foe.
Her affability has created some interesting opportunities for her. After he finished shooting Talakjung vs Tulke, director Nischal Basnet wanted to inject additional magic into his movie, repeating a formula that had worked well for him in Loot - an item song with a pretty ditty and a beautiful woman. Menuka Pradhan had hesitation first: she wasn't sure if she had it in her to do an item dance. But she auditioned anyway, dancing to a song from the movie Dhoom 3. When Basnet assured her that the song would be a tribute to the history of Nepali cinema, full of praise for the giants who have passed before. The song became a viral hit, and Pradhan danced beautifully in it.   
Menuka Pradhan has high hopes from Resham Fililli - produced by a long time co-actor Vinay Shrestha, and written and directed by the talented Pranab Joshi, who has proved himelf over and over again in the music video scene. Pradhan plays Sunita, a peripheral character, if the narrative thrust of the movie revolves around Shrestha and Kameshwor Chaurasiya. But, the trend will change, she says. 'Earlier, only men had access to the wider world, to the experiences that come out of living in the world outside the home. But now more and more women are seeing the world outside their homes. They have more and more interesting experiences - and stories need interesting characters with interesting experiences,' she says. As more young women have a wider range of worldly experiences, more such voices will find a place in literature and in cinema. Of course, until then, young women will have to keep confounding the expectations of the men who form the establishment everywhere - including the world of Nepali cinema.

Menuka Pradhan, whose maternal grandfather was a Hindu priest, and whose mother eloped to marry a Nepali Newar in the Indian Army, was born in her great aunt's home. In the days after her birth, the infant threw her feet and arms around a lot, prompting her great aunt to remark that she would grow up to become a dancer. Thence the name - Menuka, a celestial nymph, whose beauty would derail many a great fate across many a myth from South Asia of the Puranic times. It is no surprise then that the slow gyration of destiny has brought Menuka Pradhan to our hearts, to remain there and intrigue us with her talented performances. This is but the beginning of a shining and accomplished career, one hopes.   
Here's some 50k words of my writing on Nepali and Bollywood movies and on the Nepali film industry. These essays appeared in Fr!day, a lifestyle magazine here in KTM. I doubt if anyone read the magazine for anything else than the advertisement for motorbikes.

What a Way to go the Wrong Way
"Pālai pālo moj garnu parchha!"
After spending nearly two hours trying to parse the mysteries of human suffering as portrayed in director Dipak Shrestha's Wrong Way, the illumination came at the very climax: two men roll around on a bed, mounting and dismounting, grunting and pushing and punching, while a dolled-up woman watches. Wrong Way isn't a rape-revenge-flick as much as it is a projection of the homoerotic fantasies of the men behind the camera – the producers, the screenplay writer, the director, the actors – and they needed a woman, her encouraging sister, and a poster of the goddess Kali to ejaculate their fantasies into cinemas like the strongly urine-scented Bishwojyoti Cinema in Jamal.
If a movie is composed entirely of clichés, what is the point of discussing the plot? So, let us congratulate Subhash Singh Basnyat for his screenplay and dialogues and move on. In a movie where the rapists keep taking off their shirts before commencing to 'bat', but the gang-raped woman's shirt keeps its integrity through an 'innings' of a 'test-match', let us forgive the director's absence from the filmmaking process, and move on.
Let us forgive Jiya KC's character Meenu, the wronged-woman protagonist, for boldly declaring that she will extract revenge in her own way, and then going to a beauty salon for highlights and curls, a facial and a manicure with which to kill the men who drugged and raped her. Let us forgive the gang of five man-boys who talk obsessively of getting laid – but use cricketing terms, thus flinging their brand of filth at a national psyche still euphoric from the heroics of men better than these filmi heroes – and move on, please!  
Let us, then, search for the jot of something – anything – cinematic in Wrong Way that will forgive me, the reviewer, for wasting the reader's time. In my search for an idea or an instance that is unattainable anywhere else but in cinema, I found one image: that of Meenu's first peck on Rohit's cheek. Jiya KC's open mouth seemed rapaciously hungry, nearly cannibalistic, eager to swallow whole the man before it.
Apart from the desire of a certain kind of a male viewer to encounter a woman docile enough to be raped repeatedly and still willingly return to seduce him with tantalizing sadomasochistic flair, I think Jiya KC's open mouth also pointed to the idea of the primal seductress, the lusty woman who openly invites male attention, and thereby – strictly in the patriarchal mold – engages with the equally primal male urge to rape and ravage. In this formulation, it is erroneous to call Meenu's character a woman – she is strictly female, just as the numerous bottles of beer that the men in the film suck on are strictly male, strictly phallic.
I had wanted to bring analysis and ambition to the act of writing about Nepali cinema, but Wrong Way has proved too formidable a challenge to my limited capabilities as a reviewer. In subsequent columns on this page, I will attempt to find more engaging movies to reflect on. I hope you – the reader – will forgive this indulgence on my part and come along on this journey of discovery.

Not a State of Engagement
2 States
Directed by:
Arjun Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Rewathy, Ronit Roy, Amrita Singh  
Produced by:

Just like the groom featured in a raucous Punjabi wedding in 2 States, India is a corpulent nation, but not necessarily a mature one. It is still insecure about its women, and has an uneasy relationship with its father figures. It is deeply racist and casteist, is hypocritical about its sexual morality, and is utterly blind to anything that registers outside of a middle-class worldview. That – and not the colorful romance in it – sums up 2 States, a competent but mediocre adaptation of yet another Chetan Bhagat bestseller.
Released in the middle of national elections across India, 2 States is a fantasy about the power of love to bring together people of very different backgrounds – Alia Bhatt's Tamilian Ananya and Arjun Kapoor's Punjabi Krish. The mothers are difficult and the fathers aloof – the task of the protagonists is to win the hearts of either set of parents, and show them that a Tamilian girl and a Punjabi guy can make a marriage work. Towards that end, the Punjabi must travel to Chennai, and the Tamilian must travel to Delhi. Heartbreak will mildly threaten the feel-good falsehood of love. That is about all there is to the plot. In that, it is tempting to praise 2 States for its restrain towards intellectual rigor and ambition. Why ask popular Bollywood to be thoughtful and provocative?
(But, watch Queen, released a few weeks ago, and you'll find yourself marveling at the deep thoughtfulness brought to something so lighthearted. What does it mean when a protected, naive girl from a city notorious for its attitude towards women travels to Paris and Amsterdam, shares a hostel room and makes fast friends with a black man, a Japanese man and an Eastern European man, and shares her first kiss with an older Italian man? And, all of this after being abandoned at the mandap by a man who never lets her make decisions! What does that say about the emasculation of Indian men?)  
Bhatt is incapable of smiling without hinting at a certain mischief under those sparkling dark eyes, or casting an askance glance without seeming mysterious. The masking of deep misogyny masquerading as women's empowerment or humor in 2 States wouldn't succeed without the vitality she brings to the screen. She gets to lecture the audience about dowry and the role of the woman in and out of the kitchen, and about a man's self-worth. But, when a man allows a woman to stand strong and lecture on the worth of a woman, it doesn't, by induction, make the man pro-woman. Therefore, when Bhatt's Ananya comes off as a strong woman onscreen, it feels merely like the cowardice of the men behind the movie being provided with validation.
As competently as 2 States is produced, it fails to engage with larger ideas about the Indian nation – how is it possible to talk about a polity without being political? Is India really just the North and the South? What of the North East – now under rape and repression by the center for decades? What of other, more problematic parts of India? Or, are we going to say that it isn't the business of cinema to answer these questions? Sure, stereotyping is a mainstay of comedies arising from differences. But, is it okay to treat as a joke ideas that are deeply racist?
It was frustrating to watch something so obviously crafted and curated lack any substance. Sometimes, while watching a Nepali movie that is rife with technical shortcomings, it is still possible to see the engagement it attempts with ideas larger than can be held in the circumference of its narrative. 2 States attracted viewers in droves for the Saturday matinee. Will the same people return to watch – say – Kabaddi, when it releases the next week? Will they demand of Nepali filmmakers a more thoughtful cinema, as the audience deserves? Or, will we exclusively patronize loud, thoughtless mediocrity?

Tussle between the Unequal

The line that divides the two sides in a game of kabaddi also separates the ultimately weak from the strong. Ram Babu Gurung's charmingly signaled Kabaddi, currently well-poised to be a box-office triumph of exaggerated proportions, is a film similarly divided by the midpoint – between a strong half and a weak one. The first half is relentlessly charming. The second half is troublingly clichéd and puzzling: why did the movie take this baffling turn? Is this the denouement promised by the initial setup in the picturesque Mustang village of Naurikot?
Dayahang Rai's loutish Kaji wants to marry his cousin Maiya, played with delicate defiance by Rishma Gurung. But, a seducer arrives from the big bad city, in the shape of Nischal Basnet's Visitor. Kaji has a posse of hangers-on: one who will gamble away his chicken and goats the first thing in the morning, and another who just wants the Kaji to get married, so that he'll be granted a loan out of Kaji's magnanimity, to fund his aspirations to fly abroad. The tradition of kidnapping a betrothed if she defies the cultural contract forms the backdrop.
But, you really have to watch Kabaddi to experience the unique tone, language, humor and beauty of the movie. Be prepared to miss a few of the laughs because those around you will be screaming with laughter, even before the movie starts: the notice about the movie being a work of fiction sets off the laughs, which continue well after the end-credits have rolled. Although we are reminded repeatedly that the story takes place a mere 400 kilometers away from Kathmandu, it feels like we are getting to witness events in a faraway world. The landscape is as hauntingly beautiful as the inhabitants are quirky. There is a certain lyricism brought to the story by the setting that resonates with Kaji's one-line quips: the setting is the moral and aesthetic core, the characters are outward manifestations of it. If any of the characters is removed from that setting, or if an outsider tries to inject himself into the setting, the rough-and-tumble but balanced mores and codes will become upset.
Nepali cinema has used exotic locales as its settings for a long time now. But, dressing up Rajesh Hamal in artfully patched daura never made him an authentic gaunle: to do that, actors have to change their faces, their voices. Reach back to the notion of personae. The first half of Kabaddi is a delight for what it achieves: the setting, the characters, the notions and nuances all come together better than we've had the privilege to witness onscreen so far.
Kabaddi, without doubt, is an important event in Nepali cinema this year. Ram Babu Gurung's voice, as evident in the first half, deserves being celebrated for painting with such ease a distinct culture and a unique yearning in its midst. However, the second half is a complete betrayal of the viewer's trust. It seems that the team delighted in taking up a challenge, faced it with full heart and humor, but couldn't carry itself past the midpoint. Then, the inevitable quarry of clichés is dug with mirthless energy. I kept trying to imagine what Kabaddi would have been like without the second half, with the story propelled by the premise set in the first half. But, that shouldn't be the viewer's job – that responsibility is very squarely the filmmakers'. Kabaddi, because of its initial bounty of laughter and because of its promise of ambition, is also a disappointment. But, at least, the original risk was taken – and for that we ought to celebrate the team behind Kabaddi.

pull-out quotes:
Ram Babu Gurung's voice deserves being celebrated for painting with such ease a distinct culture and a unique yearning in its midst.
 There is a certain lyricism brought to the story by the setting that resonates with Kaji's one-line quips: the setting is the moral and aesthetic core, the characters are outward manifestations of it.
The Rise of the Antihero
There was a time when the hero sufficed. The hero answered to the calls of prevalent morality: this is how the hero ought to act; this is how the hero ought to elevate each of us to a point where we can question our ability and presence. And it conformed to the expectation of how a hero ought to behave. As a collective, we expected the hero to represent the best part of us.
The antihero is the worst of each of us manifested. Within each of us is the germ for rebellion and perversity, for abandon and ambition not tied to the drudgery of the station into which we are born. Each of us harbors a notion of the exceptional. While being subservient to the mores of our age, each of us also harbors the ambition to rise above it all. And each of us also knows of our worthlessness – each of us is aware of the performative aspect of our lives, of the hypocrisy and deceit, of the masks that we wear through the quotidian routines that make up our lives.
In Basudev, a movie made during the Panchayat era, the protagonist is a lecturer who is forced to watch as his friends amass wealth through corruption while he struggles daily with his poverty. Then arrive cads and muscle men like Bhuvan KC and Shiva Shrestha: this is the phase when Nepali cinema slowly but surely shed all pretense to originality and adopted the formula from across the southern plains. When Tulasi Ghimire came into the picture, his heroes took to the mountains to talk about the lahure heritage or to fall in love, generally, with the ukali-orali of the Nepali vicissitude. Then, without informing filmdom, Nepali society changed so drastically that the medium staggered far behind, kept limping in the distance as it tried to catch up.    
To create a context for the rise of the antihero in Nepali cinema, we must to look to the political changes that took place in the last fifteen years. During the chaos of the conflict years, there was no pulse in Nepali cinema: the terror visited upon the cinema going public equally by the rebels and the state forces sapped the film industry of any creative energy at all. During this time, the leading actors of Nepali cinema migrated to Bhojpuri films, or languished in inconsequential roles. There was no freedom to engage with ideas from the left or from the right, so the show business did what it always does in times of crisis: it put on even gaudier make up and made a buffoon of itself, just so that people would come to the theaters and buy enough tickets for the industry to survive. It didn't attempt to engage with the messages being disseminated by the rebels or by the establishment.
Then came the cease-fire, the first elections, and the brief elation of the Maoists, who found themselves suddenly in a position of power, with a pulpit from which to fling propaganda at the movie-going people. The Party invested in a couple of movies, perhaps to mimic the propaganda arms of North Korea and Stalinist Soviet Russia – they produced a few ham-fisted movies where the biggest enemy of the Party seemed to be the specter of nuance and thoughtfulness. Thankfully, the arrogant invasion of the state-fed apparatus of movie production by the political gangs did not last long.
It was in the interim that Murray Kerr's Sick City won the prize at KIMFF and introduced Arpan Thapa as an antihero. In Loot, Saugat Malla's Haku Kale found unprecedented popularity and success as an antihero. Thereafter, a slew of characters in the movies have been in the antihero mold. Take Chhadke, or the recent success Kabaddi – it appears as if the Nepali male has forsaken virtue in favor of the opportunity to carpe diem his way to success. He is no longer a source for moralization and patriotic preaching like in the long Rajesh Hamal era. Instead, he is rapacious, has a large appetite that cannot be satisfied with the traditional ways to success. He is frequently dismayed by the politics of the country, and seeks refuge in crime. Sometimes he is successful – in buying a house in Kathmandu or reclaiming the money lost to extortionist manpower agent. Frequently he gets his comeuppance towards the climax of the movie. But, he goes through the movie unapologetically stealing and lying and flexing his muscles, and is loved for it.
Why has the audience not rejected this breed of characters? The answer is as obvious as it is dismaying: the antihero is a reflection of the aspirations of the young males in Nepal, a group that has watched an older generation lose its way through hypocrisy and criminality. We lack a leader of substance who can inspire the next generation towards honesty and traditional virtues. We have seen the rise of antiheroes in our politics: revolutionaries who have sold off the gains made through the sacrifice of thousands; public officials who are corrupt; businessmen who have amassed enormous wealth while also stealing from the state; politicians who plot the assassination of their rivals and in the process kill innocents; politicians who keep a stable of goons to step on towards the ministerial seat.
Arpan Thapa has played the antihero more than once. He seems particularly attracted towards torture and disfigurement, wearing stitches across his face, eyes bloodied, limping towards revenge. Search for the poster for Dhanda, another of Thapa's movie, and you'll see echoes of the character Thapa is playing in his forthcoming Mukhauta. As an actor, he seems to want to bleed, figuratively and liberally, all over the screen. Is he a representative for the catharsis that the Nepali youth has been awaiting?
So long as the innocence of the audience lays shattered by the cruel realities of life, and so long as rosy fantasies of escape seem inadequate, antiheroes will rise. If art is a barometer for the political and the social, the rise of the antiheroes suggests that our nation is in a deep moral crisis: it is searching for a reason to remain virtuous, to uphold traditional values, or to negotiate a new set of values. This negotiation seems to be pushing our arts in a direction diagonally divergent from the rhetoric of the shapers of the political life.  
In the meantime, we will delight in these cinematic versions of ourselves, desperate to seek revenge or wealth, to wrest away power from those who pretend to be the keeps of moral values.

The Literal and the Literary

Eelum Dixit's debut directorial vehicle Red Monsoon explores abuse, and refuses respite. It looks at the spatial character of relationships. It traces a line between rebellion and its genesis in abuse: in a very literal manner between one pair of characters, and with much more subtlety between other pairs. It peels back the layers that obscure our chaotic metropolis by looking at different homes – made of the frail web of the bondage between persons, and of the physical stuff. But, mostly, it chronicles abuse. Of many kinds. Well, the one kind – from the strong, unto the weak. But, in many shades. Or, something like that. The work seems at once assured and fortified, and at the same time a bit limp, bit of a noodle.
Sarita Giri – for whom it seems impossible to do any role wrong – plays her Anushka with painted, pouty relish. She is not the lead, but each look she steals on screen steals the scene for her. Anushka is the squalid conscience of those of us stuffed away into a dark chowk, forced to collect baubles and dream of a brighter time. Her evil is reptilian, her slithering tongue poisoning the ears of Karuna – played with halting vulnerability by Shristi Ghimire. Anushka  wistfully stares out of the window at young children playing, but, with anyone grown up enough to have fallen into the natural sins of men and women, she wants only to corrupt: through insinuation and invitation, through the pointed goading that seems to indicate strength, and not a fatal weakness as the moral world would perhaps like to suggest.
Ghimire, playing it plain and unadorned, manages to parry Giri's thrust: Karuna will absentmindedly push prayer wheels before she can do anything that a perfect heroine won't or can't. Of course, she also comes from abuse, the conclusion of which makes for one strand of the wispy ending. But, for most of the time, she asks the same question: Is this the life I chose? When she makes a choice for the second time in the movie, it just doesn't feel like Karuna has gotten very far from where she started. She is still in abuse, still alone.
Her husband Krishna, played by Sandip Chhetri – whose impressive work I first saw in a yet-unreleased feature (then) called Signature – is the spine of the movie: he holds it together by allowing all the other characters to interact through his presence. He is lost between making something of himself and becoming someone for those who love him and those who love him. Of course, he comes from abuse. His inability to move towards honesty is the clasp that opens to allow everybody around him to unravel and descend into their personal hells. He is the heat that precedes the vitalizing rains of monsoon. Krishna shows us how abuse begins: when we try to hide our flaws in order to impress our strength upon those who demand a different kind of strength from us: something moral, something essential.
At the center of it all is Himali Dixit's Chetana – she with a wandering consciousness. Chetana is a newly minted widow, and therefore, of course, subject to abuse by her in-laws. Dixit, leading bravely with a not-insubstantial chin, jumps headlong into a role whose challenges a more seasoned actor would have relished. Dixit plays it between maniacal abandon and melancholia: her Chetana is always at the center of coincidences and chaos, and thus the force that nudges the plot along.
There is a neat line drawn between Anushka and Chetana: somehow, when women take on desire, they wear gaudy eye-shadows. Karuna – for whom desire is a distant concern now that she is worried about a 'secure future' – floats through the movie unadorned, yet daring to ask, beseech, beg for attention. The camera gives her plenty of attention: when she asks accusatory questions in a subdued voice, her face is a delight to watch for the subtle inflections in emotion it goes through. But, the plot of the movie leaves her languishing.  
What do these characters want for themselves? Is it in the nature of a flashback to always fall down a well of clichés? Were the dialogues written in English and then translated into Nepali? Are some of the abusive characters a metaphor about or commentary on the larger political picture? Does Lochan Rijal – who wrote the music and sings throughout the film – imagine that a disregard for grammar gives the lyrics profundity? The context comes through wonderfully – but what of being contextual? Being grounded? Do certain actors seem miscast because they seem not to belong to the context? What is the director's mother doing in the film, as if her presence is required at all for the story to propel forth? These questions come to mind while waiting for the movie to finally come out of its shell and speak to the note-taker in the audience. But, these are mere questions.
Red Monsoon could have shed itself of the numerous time-lapse Kathmandu clichés, and it could have perhaps thought its tone better. But, it is an attempt at being literary that we rarely get to see in Nepali cinema. If Nabin Subba's by-now-forgotten Good Bye Kathmandu had made it to the theaters a couple of years ago, we'd perhaps not need Red Monsoon. But, since we don't have that movie to show us our city in a certain light, this latter effort is important.
We aren't yet a confident industry in terms of how we make the movies, or how we watch them. The audience kept laughing at what seemed the most inappropriate times – but how can you blame that on the audience? While Kabaddi, in its third week, had nearly half a dozen shows on a Monday, Red Monsoon, on its fourth day, had two shows at QFX theaters. That should shame us as viewers, as people who want better cinema to emerge from the nation.
Just before I went to watch the movie, I called a friend from the industry to ask why there were only two shows for Red Monsoon. He answered with a question - “Aren't there ten thousand people like you and me in this city?” People who would go and support a work as ambitious and original? I switched to Hindi to answer, because the melodrama was called for: “Hum toh lakhon mein ek hain – hamare jaise hazaron kahan?”  That was an attempt to hide the disappointment at my fellow movie-goers. Damn your lot! Go watch a movie when something original is being attempted! Don't wallow in the literal – challenge yourself with the literary, once in a while!

Rudely Shoved up Against Reality

 Amole Gupte's Hawaa Hawaai is keenly aware of the bed of troubles from which it arises, like a lotus in a muddy pond. Therefore, it achieves an unexpected lightness that allows it to float above the gutted cars of a scrapheap and the endless expanse of landfill sites and the oppression of dim embroidery workshops.
Gupte is known for his work as the creative director for Amir Khan's Tare Zamen Par, and his gluttonously delightful Stanley ka Dabba. In the latter, he also plays the antagonist – the teacher always on the prowl to sample from the lunchboxes of terrified students. His bullying falls especially harshly on the eponymous Stanley, who fails consistently to bring a dabba to the school to share with his friends. Stanley ka Dabba came out of an after-school theater and film program that Gupte created for the students of a particular school: the movie was shot during lunch hours and in afterschool schedules. The performances in it are remarkably devoid of the leaden earnestness that mediocre but professional actors can bring to a movie. Watching it then becomes a conflict between the lightest of mirth and the heaviest of sympathetic sorrow: we laugh at the misery and our own helplessness; and we cry at the innocent triumphs of children.
Hawaa Hawaaii is similarly a tearjerker: the story of an underdog who – with the help of a few other underdogs, and heaps of grit and elbow-grease – crosses the finishing line in a race. The story is of the poor and the disenfranchised. What they have is what Gupte's gaze can give them. Whereas the moralizing and agonizing by the better-off characters come off as affectation, the quiet dignity of the poor feels genuine, uplifting and proud. The ethos of the movie is sung by the cotton farmer Harischandra Waghmare – played in cameo by Markand Deshpande – to his young son Arjun Waghmare –played by Partho Gupte: It is right to toil, therefore toil on. Soon thereafter, Arjun, barely stepping into adolescence, is thrown into the melee of Mumbai's workforce, suddenly forced to become a man. He takes the train from Virar to a tea-stall on the parking lot of an office-tower. But, work doesn't end when the parking lot empties at the end of the day. In fact, that is when the world comes alive.
In dozens upon dozens, with their mothers or nannies or drivers in tow, children come to use to the parking lot for rollerblading lessons. Their coach calls them his champs: each perhaps believes that by working hard they can distinguish themselves from the rest, that they'll earn a name. But, the very first act of loyalty asked of Arjun by his tea-seller employer is to shed his name in favor of being called Raju: the metropolis must necessarily swallow the identities of those at the bottom of the rung, so that, with the light stolen away from the numerous nameless and faceless souls, the bright stars of business and cinema and politics may fuel their own illumination. This light, reflecting off the expensive cars and incredibly priced rollerblades, is hypnotic to Arjun. He watches them fly on wheels while he delivers tea and, at the end of the day, makes a whooping forty-two rupees. He also learns that a good pair of rollerblades costs a lakh.
Arriving home after his first day at work, Arjun washes himself carefully before picking up his baby sister. There are many moments like this, where Gupte captures with the smallest gesture an entire idea: the threshold between innocence and knowledge, a child becoming a man. Hawaa Hawaai movie begins with an animated sequence of a father-son pair on a bicycle, climbing up a winding hill, trudging past a milestone that says: "Pather Panchali, Santa Tukaram – 1,000 miles ahead." Amole Gupte is exaggerating the distance between Hawaa Hawaai and the movies he names. Gupte brings a timeless sensitivity to people living in Marathi villages where each morning smoke still rises in the fog and in the compartmented living of Mumbai. Except that both innocence and corruption are colored by the times in which we live, and not a nostalgic past.
When Arjun shared his discovery with other boys from the village who also pursue a handful of coins in the city, they laugh at him. The rag-picker says he didn't give eight rupees for a pair of rollerblades when somebody tried to sell them to him. The motley crew decides to test the verity of Arjun's tale, and is immediately mesmerized: much more so by what they see on his face – ambition, desire. A mechanic's assistant, a flower-seller, an embroiderer and a rag-picker band together to put together thirty rupees to buy Arjun a pair of rollerblades. Of course, they are shown their place – rudely shoved up against reality, as Orwell once wrote. So, the boys do what only characters in a classless fantasy can do: they build a pair of rollerblades, each bringing a bit of his flair to it, and name it – Hawaa Hawaai! With their flair for daydreaming and decoration, they rudely shove aside the reality that seeks to cage them into a station in life that they find insufferable.
Then follows the typical ups and downs of a sports movie – the training montage, the one setback, the hesitation in the final moments, the deep courage and hunger, the many who cheer from the sidelines, etc. But that is the plot, the text. Amole Gupte's magic is in how he brings forth the text from the murky bed underneath: when the rag-picker wants to help his friends scavenge for scrap-metal with which to fashion together a pair of rollerblades, he begs his mother to let him go for an hour. (The mechanic's assistant has been going around telling employers that his friends' parents have died.) His mother sits with two other friends, chatting atop a colorful hill of plastic bags of refuge, looking over a sea of shopping bags tied in neat parcels of the detritus of the life of a metropolis. The women look something mythical, something magnified – something Olympian. When the mother consents, the boy tumbles down the hill, rolls all the way down to his friends. It was in instances like this that I felt deeply discomfited by the friction between the entirely childlike joy of tumbling down a small hill, and the fact that that glee was made possible only by the boy's comfort in living in the shadow of waste and refuge coming from the lives of others. And these others aren't absent from the movie: they will come, in the evening, after their extra lessons and before birthday parties, to rollerblade in Arjun's parking lot.
There are laughs that come from the disjoint between the text and the context: these are children forced to live difficult lives, and in it they have found ways to make us laugh. We laugh, but we also worry. Had Gupte not been sensitive to this characteristic of his work, Hawaa Hawaai would have been far less important or interesting. But, because he reminds us repeatedly that he is aware of the murky pool underfoot, we look at where he points us to – the lotus floating above it: three women comfortably perched atop their empire; garage mechanics who abandon their tasks to build a pair of rollerblades for Arjun, because grownups must be complicit in nourishing the dreams of children; the father who loses his land to a moneylender and then loses life because the imported, improved seeds don't take. There is much misery and violence around these children, and victory in a local rollerblading contest can barely brighten the shadows around the homes of billionaires. But, because we know this is a grounded fantasy, we still cheer for Arjun as he crosses the finish line. We cheer for ourselves, I think – for letting the conflict between reality and fantasy to settle in our hearts for just long enough to believe in innocence and courage all over again.  

"Janne lai shreekhanda, najanne lai khurpa ko bid"
—Old Nepali adage

Writer-director Milan Chams' Hasiya, starring Hema Shrestha and Rajesh Hamal, begins with a badly worded rant about the state of affairs in our ailing nation, and doesn't get any better in the subsequent two hours. Without the athleticism shown by Hema Shrestha as CIB officer Avantika Thapa, there is really nothing to Hasiya.
A digression: Steven Soderberg's Haywire used the ex-MMA fighter Gina Carano in a role that required her to jump, punch, kick her way through a slew of baddies. Carano is built like a predator, with powerful shoulders and legs, and a feline stealth. She drops from roofs like would a cat: light on her feet, wound tight for the next spring forth.  Soderberg mostly choreographs the fights from a distance, cutting close occasionally, but staying far enough to watch what is brutal yet balletic. Soderberg shows us long takes where a woman fights off mean men and kicks some serious ass. He creates the right distance for beauty to blossom without the gaze interfering too much.
 Another digression: After watching Kabaddi, a few women pointed out, and very convincingly, that the movie was violent towards the woman at the center of it: Reshma Gurung's Maiya. She is merely a pawn in the game being played by the men. Even the pseudo-anthropological scene where the community pretends to discuss the demands of tradition is meant simply to put the woman in her place, decide her fate for her. The larger point being made was that, just like the culture that informs it, Nepali cinema is inherently misogynistic; that, despite best intentions, our filmmakers end up treating their female leads as mere props against which masculine fantasies of domination are thrown.
Returning to Hasiya: It doesn't take very long into the movie to see that the director isn't interested in Avantika Thapa as a character with skill and strength in the face of adversity, or in Hema Shrestha as an actor capable of pulling off some of the most fluid action moves seen in Nepali movies. Hasiya isn't interested in exploring the possibilities presented by the actor, or by the character: it is more interested in situating the camera in awkward up-skirt angles, and focusing on the torso when the protagonist is running in slow-motion. I wonder if the director thought he was giving the audience what it wanted, or if he thought he was doing what the movie required to complete its articulation. If he thought the audience only wanted to see the actor as a pastiche of disembodied parts, he missed the opportunity of putting an athletic instrument to its best use. If he thought the movie required that his actor be treated as merely as assemblage of body parts, he never indicated why that was the case, or what point he'd make by such an exercise. Chams fails as a director because he can't create the distance from which the audience could witness the balletic abilities of Hema Shrestha as a fighter, and because he is incapable of treating her as a person, but sees her through the camera only as a collage of pouts, thighs, buttocks.
A corrupt pair of policemen comes across a large cache of drugs and money. One of them whispers to the other, and any pretense of moral uprightness is thrown out. In order to secure the loot for themselves, they must eliminate a low-ranked member of their team. His murder is witnessed by a woman, who calls her husband. She gets shot, he gets his throat cut with the same sickle his mother used to cut his umbilical cord, while their child watches from a cupboard. The killer takes the sickle with him: this is the eponymous weapon which will litter the rest of the movie with corpses. Of course, the child grows up to avenge her father's death. Since she didn't witness her mother's murder, the loss of a mother doesn't seem consequential to the story of an orphaned child: no memory of the mother features in the flashbacks. At the very last frame of the movie, she throws the sickle at the audience, as if recognizing that, under the pretext of watching a revenge-story, the men have only been ogling at her body. She wants to slap them into noticing her as a character and actor.
The actual plot meanders a lot more, and isn't at all consequential. Rajesh Hamal, who has perhaps delivered a bigger volume of terribly-written clichés as dialogue in his career than most of us will manage in a lifetime, dutifully does his bit, and puts up a fight before biting the dust, as would suit a generic Rajesh Hamal. His erstwhile partner in crime and the antagonist, played by a sneering Anoop Bikram Shahi, goes through most of the movie without revealing his face: a smart choice on the part of the director, since Shahi can't really act, other than attempt to laugh maniacally. A villain who laughs manically and sneers every time he has to say a line: How refreshing! How original!
There is also an item dance—guest starring Priyanka Karki, and billed as the most expensive song ever shot for a Nepali movie, and the only thought it inspires is: What a magnificent waste! An accomplished CIB officer who can match the razor-sharp kicks and flips of a dozen stuntmen suddenly finds it necessary to wear hot-pants and shake her hips and thrust her crotch at the camera in order to catch a nerdy hacker. She can outrun and outfight any man, but god forbid if she has a headache induced by flashbacks of childhood trauma: then, even the daalmoth munching idiot of an assistant will be a stronger support to Avantika Thapa. The men behind the camera want to be kicked in the face by a strong woman, but also want to reassure their own masculinity by pretending that they can catch her when she falls.
Hasiya is yet another example of how our film industry is unnaturally dominated by men and masculine fantasies. What could have been a shreekhanda is reduced to a hasiya ko bid because the men writing the story and directing it and editing it fail to see the lead actor and the protagonist as complete, worthwhile individuals, rather than just a pretty face and a pert tail. Hasiya doesn't recommend itself as an action movie – it was never interested in being one, if you watch how the camera watches Hema Shrestha. It fails in every other possible way, too – beginning with the absurd superfluity of wide-angle shots, and ending with an absurd superfluity of Hema Shrestha running in slow motion. The only possible good to come out of it is if somebody creates an action vehicle worthy of the athletic abilities of Hema Shrestha – because that lady kicks some serious ass!

Morass and Miracles

Pigeons – the winged infestation of city life – circle the sky a few times, flit together in the air, bank and return to their old perches. At the least, they have that security – of returning to their perches after the brief flight. And what a privilege that can be! To forage and seek betterment of one sort or another, and return to the safety of the familiar four-walls where one has built a life! Nothing pushes individuals to the brink of dissolution by snatching away that security and privilege as does the faceless, merciless vastness of a metropolis.
Hansal Mehta's City Lights – an authorized remake of Metro Manila – is less about Mumbai the physical being than it is about Bombay, the glittering lure shining ever brighter since its conception and growth as the gateway to Company India. Rajkumar Rao's Deepak Singh is an ex-army family man from a small town in Rajasthan. He has never known anything but hierarchy: when the moneylenders come to evict him from his shop, he falls to their feet and begs – 'Hukum!' Thus uprooted from everything he knows, he is forced to bundle up his family and travel to Mumbai, the bright jewel on the Arabian Sea. When his wife Rakhi – played by Patralekha – voices her doubts, Deepak says tenderly – Mumbai mein toh samandar bhi hai! Mumbai has a sea! Abundance is by itself a signal of limitless opportunities. Never mind the improbability of success choosing you its champion.
Homelessness in a big city immediately affects the sense of self-worth. First, one must find a source of water to which one can return, and from where one can take water away. Second, one must find a place to relieve oneself. Third: a dependable source of food. Then, a place quiet and covered to try and sleep off the fatigue that comes from foraging for water and food, and from the constant worry that what little you have – by the way of good health, the knickknack you can't abandon, the peace of mind that walks the tightrope between clarity and delusion – will not be yours tomorrow. A big city drives forward not on the reflected starlight of the few who attain success, but the fire that consumes the millions who toil to keep the city inching forward.
So it is for Deepak Singh's little family: promptly upon arrival, Mumbai teaches them a lesson, and grinds them to the nethermost rung: as close to Hell as a father can bear to bring his family. They turn to strangers. Deepak Singh seeks gainful employment: He goes to the BR Ambedkar vāchanālaya – a reading library – to study the classifieds. That seems a touching, telling detail: the most downtrodden in the moment grasp at each other for support. City Lights is full of such details where, with a miniscule gesture, the story gains depth. This should be a mainstay characteristic of narrative filmmaking; after all, cinema is nothing if not value-addition through gainful employment of details from disparate art forms coming together in a scene. But it is still a rare enough quality in Nepali and Hindi movies that what should be commonplace becomes something celebrated.
 Mumbai is full of contradictions – this very sentiment is a cliché about Mumbai, and is often shown by contrasting the skyward mansions of billionaires, often stealing directly above the sun and air of their neighbors, with the thousands of slum-dwellers surviving in the ramshackle sprawl of their shadows. City Lights doesn't dwell too much on such easy clichés. Instead, it rushes to throw the characters into the cauldron: to watch them writhe in agony, to hear their desperate cries.
When a city is as vast and indifferent as Mumbai, it seems less discriminating when it metes out humiliation: when a woman decides to work as a dance-girl, she is appraised by making her remove her shawl and turn around. She is entering a market where only her body is of value, and the cost of entry is the humiliation of being stripped naked by the male employer's gaze. Later, when a couple of men ask a gangster for a favor – in a city like Mumbai, every asks for favors unashamedly, and also does favors, with the understanding that it will be repaid – they are made to undress, literally, and turn around. In both scenes, the hands of the men in the position of power are illuminated by smart-phone screens. These screens allow men to ignore those weaker than themselves. Smart phones can play the music to whose tune the poor must dance. They can make the right phone calls and make all troubles disappear. They aren't just accessories: they are badges of power and class. Even a pimp can get his way with a police inspector if he is carrying an expensive phone: the police inspector will play a video game on his phone while a helpless man seeks justice at his feet. Repeatedly, at crucial moments in the movie, the rich and the powerful play with their smart phones: yet another barrier that gives them the sanctuary through separation from the toiling masses.
I have not seen Metro Manila – written by Sean Ellis – but the adaptation by Ritesh Shah, City Lights, feels authentic and rooted in its milieu. The director, the cinematographer, and the protagonist, Rajkumar Rao, must all share the credit for this success. Rao slips into his character sometimes simply by folding the sleeves of his shirt: self-respect and naiveté, the mark of a small-town upright family man. Mumbai doesn't have to be the teeming streets or the chaos of the railway stations. It can be an unfinished apartment high up in a tower – once finished, it will sell for half a million dollars, but for now the Singh family may squat there. There are no walls or panes between the privacy of the family and the city below. But, it makes you wonder – isn't it the same half-million dollar view? Is it really the barrier of a window pane that separates the fortunes of those who reside in the clouds, and those innumerable Atlases who hold aloft the sky from where bright jewels hang?
'Poverty is a disease,' Singh's partner at his new job tells him. If poverty is a disease, City Light shows Mumbai as the ICU in a hospital where a poor man goes to cure one disease and returns with another – deadlier – infection, his lot no more improved than when he arrived. And Deepak proves a formidable foil to the city's cruelty – one never ceases to root for him, even when his mettle begins to dissolve. If the metropolis opens its maws to chew him alive, Deepak Singh is determined to escape it, but not without giving it a worthy fight. By stripping Mumbai of its starlight and glamour – on the side of fantasy or of squalor – City Lights succeeds in illuminating the darkness that necessarily comes with the light. I only hope that it is still in the theaters in the coming weekend – this movie recommends itself at many different levels, each very satisfying and rewarding.  

Give this a Miss

Surendra Tuladhar's Miss Nepal seems to have corrected its perversity just in time to get preachy – but that doesn't rescue it from being absolutely incompetent. Anybody who decides to watch the film will regret it. The elderly gentleman sitting next to me fidgeted for nearly an hour, repeatedly turned to his companion who was waiting to see himself onscreen, and finally fell asleep. There weren't enough people in the theater for Bishwojyoti Cinema management to have an intermission in which to sell concessions. After ninety minutes in the theater, there was only regret.
Miss Nepal is a social drama about Sushila, a young girl, who wants to become a star – not in the sense more prevalent in the glamour world, but something closer to the celestial – and goes around asking different adults about the shortest cut to being a star. Sushila's father had always wanted a son, so he throws out his wife and daughter. Before leaving home, the mother challenges the father: 'I will make her a star someday!' That is the impetus for the narrative. The young child is confused by the different answers she receives along the way regarding the shortest way to the top. Somebody tells her she has to become a star to become a Tara. It is all very confusing.
At one point in the movie, it feels as if it is a commentary on the exploitative nature of high-fashion. But, it isn't – it shies away from that at which it shows a mirror. The sleaze that it wants to talk about is embodied by a bald ad agency executive with an atypically bare desk. He menacingly asks if Sheela – Sushila after dropping her identity – will do the kinds of ads he will bring to her. Of course, she says. Then she goes for a long walk, presumably to introspect, especially poignantly done before the half-shut eyes of the Buddha at Swyambhu, and again before the pyres at Pashupati. She asks a priest: What must I do to become a star? The answer is deep and philosophical: You have to reach the sky! That is how you become a star!
That's the most annoying thing about Miss Nepal – it tries to preach and moralize with cheap sentiments, but it never dares actually examine its own assertions. Twice, the director gives us easy formulas to remember: 'Career is for life, life is for others,' and 'There is no end because life is still active.' One part of me wants to be dismissive, but another part wonders if there isn't some wisdom to these circular formulas. Perhaps there is some part eastern mysticism in this which cannot be parsed through logic or direct reasoning. Or, perhaps, it is all tosh and piffle.
Sheela goes through the different stages of a beauty pageant, although we only see the choreography for the finale. There must have been other grooming sessions, too, and a lot more intrigue and politics, but the director, in his mercy, spares us these uninteresting bits. The girls continuously catwalk and strut and pout and flip their hair: in some ways, this reduces beauty pageants to what they really are: walks and struts and pouts, and the giant funnel of cosmetic products pushing their faces. If a young girl watched Miss Nepal and took away from it the hollowness of pageants, I wouldn't mind it. But the story, written by Nawal Nepal, is such a pretzel of pointlessness that it continuously baffles the viewer.
For instance, take Sheela's friend Pasha: a Newar who is in love with Sheela, but has been pushed into the friend-zone. He quietly suffers there, watching a rich man's son steal her away to auditions and photo sessions. When – after being crowned the first runner-up at Star Cosmetics Miss Nepal 2014 – eight years into the future Sushila has started and is operating a successful orphanage, Pasha comes to congratulate her: in a wheelchair! Why? Oh, because he saw Sheela – before she reverted to being Sushila to rescue children from jails – crossing the street, and in his excitement allowed a microbus to come between the object of his affection and his youthful body. That's just how shy romantics roll, I guess.
There is a polemic in the movie about what is the right set of dreams for a young girl to harbor, and what aren't, but it is also trite and moralistic and tiresome. The dichotomy is between girls who will uphold middleclass values of charity and industry without asserting themselves as sexual or dominant individuals. The movie seems to want to say that it is acceptable to emulate Anuradha Koirala, but not – say – Jharana Bajracharya. Presumably because in an industry where image is bought and sold, there are opportunities for exploitation. Yeah, sure. But, the charity industry is just as insidious, and charity and glamour industry are usually in a tight embrace: this point is illustrated neatly by the scene in which beauty queens go to the Briddhashram at Pashupati. And so on.
Miss Nepal isn't worth the onionskin paper on which Bishwojyoti still prints its tickets.  


False Mask of Competence
The actor Arpan Thapa has created a niche for himself by playing rather intense characters in a variety of Nepali movies: from Murray Kerr's jittery Sick City to the unreleased features Tandav and Suntali, he has proved himself capable of handling brooding, troubled souls. His directorial debut Mukhauta – for which he also wrote the screenplay along with Pratik Gurung – continues in the same vein. It is no exaggeration to say that it is a pastiche of his past roles, and also the best example of his preoccupation with a particular sort of a man: nursed on urban seediness, full of loud grimaces and bloody spittle, a man continuously at odds with the world around him, an undercurrent of violence behind an intense but unmoving mask.
The Nepali Brihat Shabdakosh doesn't list this variation of the word – the entry there is for mukhauto, for a mask, a false visage that allows for obfuscation of intentions. (This is ostensibly the theme for the movie: the idea is repeated in numerous scenes where characters deliver lines built around the word, either beseeching or threatening another character to remove their mukhauta.) But the movie seems more of a masque – a dumb show where characters wear grotesque faces that allow them to be compressed into clichés usually seen only in the movies, with motives and expressions seen only in the movies, employed here to achieve an end feasible only in the movies. Which is to say – despite its protestations to otherwise, Mukhauta has no basis in reality, and therefore comes off as an exercise in fantasy alone, and therefore lacking the spine of reality which would have allowed the work to stand up to more meaningful scrutiny.
Saugat Malla and Dayahang Rai are perhaps the most reliable men acting in Nepali movies these days. And they have been wasted here: Malla by being given meaty scenes which require him to play a single tone of hysterics, and Rai, inexplicable, by being reduced to a voice. It is no secret that Malla can deliver caricatures very well – Haku Kale was but a caricature, and is now a part of Nepali cinema lore. But he is also capable of nuance and pathos, something we have witnessed on stage before. Here, he screams his way through. Even in the one scene that humanizes his Ravi to an extent, when he beseeches his father Mr. D for fatherly love, Malla is still screaming, still only an inch away from falling into B-movie villainy.
Rai has the most capable body among men acting today: the lightness with which he uses his somewhat portly frame, the unassuming fluidity of his movement – these allow him to inject menace or pathos into a scene with equal ease. In Mukhauta, however, he is limited in some scenes to acting from the dubbing-booth, and that is the audience's loss. I am sure there are designs to use him in the sequel.
Rajesh Hamal, Robin Tamang and Sunil Thapa do nothing to help the movie along: their characters are cardboard cutouts without any trace of originality. Hamal indulges in what has become my pet peeve: the villain who laughs maniacally when he gets his evil ways. What is especially annoying is his habit of breaking the fourth wall when he laughs like that. Is that meant to implicate the audience complicit in his murderous designs toward conquering the Thamel underworld?
The most disturbing scene is perhaps the one where Saugat Malla attempts the pendulum between manic and pathetic: but his method for that actorly display includes punching the daylights out of a coked-out girlfriend/kept-woman played by Harshita Shrestha. As the woman got punched around and threatened with the loss of her life, the audience cheered. Perhaps they only saw Malla's acting, and forgot that there was something truly horrific happening on screen, something that required the audience to accept that abuse and abasement of women is routine enough to not require a second glance. It is not enough to have her character gain access to the gangster's ring (of power) at the end, and set her up for a meatier role in the sequel, to justify the narrative choices in this movie. Misogyny for the sake of it is no more a part of the narrative that it is an expression of the individuals behind the work. Same goes for racist remarks: It is disturbing that the narrator introduces Tamang's character as Chepang, whereas it would have been a forgivable prejudice if another character in the story had used the word to introduce the old gangster's character. Sure, a filmmaker can say that he made a movie entirely for entertainment, and that the thick presence of viewers at the ticket counter justifies thoughtlessness. But, that makes it impossible to take the movie or the people behind it very seriously. And when the entertainment derives from acts of unspeakable cruelty – which is not the same as stylized violence – it implicates not the characters perpetrating the action onscreen, but the people behind the camera, who could have paused to examine the values espoused by their cinematic choices, but didn't.
Mukhauta has no commentary to make about anything. It could've been placed anywhere else in the world, and it wouldn't suffer or improve as a work: such is its disconnection from its space. The timeline is so muddled that it takes a learned understanding of different tones and hues to know what is going on where and when. Nisha Adhikari's character is a prop so carelessly sketched that: a) upon retching in the morning, she knows with certainty that she is pregnant; b) within a few more scenes, the baby is kicking in the womb; c) upon being captured, is discarded. Her lover goes into laborious slow-motion to kill everybody before cutting away to another unceremonious killing of an important character before returning to stare down at her. Adhikari's bar-dancer character first dances, abruptly, then disappears for a few scenes until she reappears to be introduced properly – as a bar dancer. The chronological shifts are either very ambitious, or utterly, utterly confused, and therefore a strain on the mind. Narendra Mainali's cinematography seems to have been ruined by the muddled timeline that required sequences to be rendered in black and white and through various other filters. After the gritty, mysterious frames of The Contagious Apparitions of Dambarey Dendrite, his work in Mukhauta seems a total waste of his talent.
After Tulasi Ghimire, perhaps Arpan Thapa is the next interesting writer-director-actor to have come along. But, there is little evidence in Mukhauta of his capabilities as a director, and as a writer. However, after sitting through two viewings of Mukhauta, I felt desperate to yell at the actresses in the movie and tell them – Stop settling for such demeaning roles that add nothing to your work as actors, or to your growth as individuals! Maybe it is people like Nisha Adhikari and Harshita Shrestha who should be writing roles for themselves, instead of playing punching-bags and rape-dolls for men who want only to scream, smoke, and spill fake blood all over themselves. Mukhauta most audaciously sets itself up for a sequel – if one is to be inflicted upon us, let it be the opposite of this iteration; let me one that takes the failures of Mukhauta and brings us less slow-motion butchery, and more nuance and grounded emotions.
Humshakl features a scene in which a set of protagonists are being tortured, in a badly drawn version of the very famous scene of behavioral correction from Kubrick's Clockwork Orange. They are threatened with a forced viewing of Sajid Khan's Himmatwala. Sajid Khan also directed Humshakl. Perhaps his next feature will include references to Humshakl as an illegal torture-aid. I doubt if Khan was trying to come off as self-deprecatory with this self-reference. But, even if inadvertently, his attempt to laugh at his own work points to an essential truth about the movie: it must keep laughing at itself in order to make the audience laugh along with it.
Saif Ali Khan, Nitish Deshmukh and Ram Kapoor each play three different characters – humshakls, or doppelgangers. Since it is a mad caper, a good part of it is situated in the Lord Cray G. Asylum for the mental, which is divided into three sections. One section is run by a good-natured old psychiatrist with an unbelievably attractive doctor to assist him. Another section is run by a man who wears a black uniform modeled after the SS uniform, and repeatedly calls Hitler his uncle, and in more than one occasion, throws the Nazi salute. The third section is a secret.
 Since the movie is called Humshakls, of course there are a lot of jokes and shticks around the idea of mistaken identity. There are cocaine and vodka paranthas, a set of 'small-people' named Thapa and his Papa, dancing in drag, a gay couple, a dance thrown in simply to have the lead actresses dance around in their pajamas, pheromones and chloroform, a father who awakes from a coma, a villainous uncle named Kans, a drug that makes people think they are dogs, a person suffering from 'third degree OCD', which makes him throttle anyone who sneezes in his vicinity, a potential murderer who can be pacified with lollipops, a ticking bomb, a large fortune, a mansion with a drunk butler who never again surfaces after his brief joke is done, and His Majesty Prince Charles, who speaks more Hindi than he speaks English, and calls the whole damn kerfuffle more confusing than his first marriage.
Long ago, I watched a Sanjeev Kumar movie – Nai Din Nai Raat, if I am not mistaken – which featured Sanjeev Kumar in nine different roles. That seemed like genius: he had, with each character, disappeared and invented. He was one actor, but he had brought nine different people to the viewer. In Sajid Khan's Humshakl, although at one time the screen is crowded with three iterations each of characters played by Saif Ali Khan, Deshmukh and Kapoor, the effort seems to be to make each of them as close to the other as possible, so that the actorly craft seems no longer useful – so that the actors no longer seem useful, but only the shtick remains. Sajid Khan's intention must have been to deny the actors any opportunity for dignity and invention, but force them to carry lame jokes and dead laughs. However, he must have guessed that the audience would side with him. He has successfully shown again that thoughtfulness and empathy are not the requirements of a large part of the audience for whom those in the entertainment industry create new works. What is required is an ability to be utterly oblivious to the world outside the limits of filtered-down pop-cultural references, a hair-trigger reaction to any mention of anything from the world of Bollywood hits or of perennial targets for sexist and racist attacks.
There is no doubt that Bollywood movies now earn enough money to make London or New York their backdrop and employ dozens of white people as extras. But all that money doesn't seem to have bought for them – or for their audience in Kathmandu, at least – the awareness that when money is spent and a couple of hours of one's breathing sacrificed to a work like this, to be asked to leave the brain at home is an insult to the viewer. In Sholay, when Asrani claimed that he was a jailer from the times of the Brits, there were perhaps still enough people in the audience to whom the colonial times were a vivid memory, and to be able to laugh at the masters must have been a liberating experience. But, why has Sajid Khan put someone in an SS uniform and made him someone with whom the audience laughs? Am I suppose to laugh along with the others in the audience when they laugh at characters because of their race – when a line goes 'daal mein kuch kaala hai yaa kaale mein huch daal hai', the rare black faces in the movie appear in the form of two men of African origin – or of their sexuality – Saif Ali Khan's Deshmukh's queer iterations pretend to blush when the risen-from-coma father calls them his 'new daughters'.
What is humor there? If one were to stack all the wit and 'humor' in Humshakl on one side and put the iconic, naive question, 'Tumhara naam kya hai, Basanti?' on the other side, I would still find Amitabh's line funnier. If you like loud, utterly mindless movies, go and watch Humshakl. I have a feeling it will play endlessly on TV for a few years to come, anyway. But, don't fall into the trap talentless filmmakers lay for you when they ask you to leave your intelligence at home. Take it with you, and try to see the movie for what it actually is. Refuse to laugh at jokes that lack, in their core, some bit of illumination about us, about you. Sure – give Sajid Khan your money for letting you forget everything sensible and beautiful and important for a little while, and for feeding you this heaping portion of malnourishment.
But, don't give him your dignity.  

The Villainy in Us

'Tum sab ke dard se mujhe khushi nahin milta – shukoon milta hai.'

Mohit Suri's Ek Villain – allegedly plagiarized from the Korean film I Saw the Devil (2010) – surprises with its deft navigation of spaces and emotions uniquely Bollywood and broadly Indian. It starts as a well-done thriller, progresses to the mushy, touchy-feely surfeit of cute that is a mainstay of Bollywood films, and boldly makes a few claims about the Indian middleclass and masculinity that ring chillingly true. What stays is not the clockwork behind the manufactured cute, but the statements on class and gender, and in a roundabout way, about Bollywood aesthetics. Its deliberate ignorance is a lot more interesting than its attempts to impress.
Shraddha Kapoor's chirpy Aisha is suffering from a mysterious disease that will finish her off soon. Therefore, Aisha must keep an awkwardly large scrapbook of a bucket list of sorts. She goes around taking pictures with a Polaroid camera, and she arranges group weddings for inmates of various old age homes and sanitariums. Soon, Bollywood enters the scene in a grating exchange – when Aisha's father talks of how his daughter will arrange for the kanyadan of all the elderly brides in the church. Or when a character says – 'Rakshyas toh jehennum mein milte hain,' making a mélange of the religions that drive Bollywood and its internal moral compass: Ganesh and farishtey, votive offerings to Jesus – who gets called bhagvan, although the word is very closely related to bhag, and therefore an abomination to Christ's non-vaginal origins. Here, like shoes are left outside a temple, real world differences that drive communities apart are left outside, in service of the saccharine and affected.
There is no eponymous villain here, but rather a whole bunch of characters have a villainous aspect to them – except, of course, Aisha, who is annoyingly mirthful and oozing with good intentions. Siddarth Malhotra's Guru is the protégé of a gangster named Caesar – played by Remo Fernandez. He kills indiscriminately if his boss demands it of him. He throws a kerosene-doused man into fire. He is a villain. But, he is also a tortured soul, with a back story that seeks to forgive his violent ways. After the mother of his victim refuses to identify him in court, Aisha adopts him as her ultimate bucket list project – he is to be the man she will save. Indeed, apart from the meek father, there is no male figure in Ek Villain who isn't in need of saving, one way or another, from himself. The villainy is internal, Suri seems to be hinting for a while. Then he comes right out and puts it in the mouth of a minor character – Kamal R Khan's Brijesh Yadav – who explains to his meek mouse of a friend – Riteish Deshmukh's Rakesh – the mystery of the Indian middleclass male psyche.
'We are sandwiched between the upper class and the lower class,' he explains. The upper class and the lower class put constant pressure on the middleclass. The dominant narrative requires them to try and gain entry into the former class while staving off the peril of falling into the latter. Bureaucracy and the market put their weight the most on the middleclass. Their women want a degree more of liberty with each successive generation, so the emasculation is gradual, but persistent. The women can either be subjugated through repeated beatings, or their affection can be bought with gifts. Procuring these gifts is a problem for the middleclass male: he has no honorable recourse to the resources he needs. Sometimes, in order to bring home a necklace for his wife, a lowly employee of a telephone company must kill another woman.
That killer is played by Deshmukh. Humshakl, reviewed here last week, saw him play three different characters in a most trite film. In Ek Villain, he plays a serial killer who is henpecked, and deeply in love with his wife who berates him for his lack of charisma and inability to provide for the family. His reaction is to go out and kill women who, in his estimation, have slighted him with harsh words, who have made him seem petty, and who have emasculated him, sometimes, by simply being his superior. Even a woman as chirpy and full of lively zest as Aisha manages to accuse him of being apathetic – to which he answers with his signature phrase: 'I won't give you any more reason for complaint,' meaning, he will kill her.
There is, at the heart of the movie, an affirmation of middleclass aspirations, alongside an aversion to it. This is the quintessential struggle that bifurcates the middleclass mind, in turn putting it in awe of itself, and driving it to self-loathing . Aisha's bucket list is driven not so much by the yearning of the spirit as it is by catalogues for glamorous but affordable vacations: to beaches and reefs and waterfalls not too far away. Her desire to serve and salvage seems to extend only to people of her own class. Her biggest dream – which, of course, we can't allow to come to fruition – is a falsity, like the Valentine's Day and full moon and whistling stranger hogwash in Dil toh Pahal Hai. Her desire to start a family with an ex-murderer is also a similarly fantastical idea that can infect only the minds of the overtly moral: it believes in God's forgiveness of any sin, although it'll quickly condemn tight jeans and girls with multiple mobile phones.
On the other hand is Rakesh's nightmare that is his middleclass existence. His wife exists solely to scream at him and humiliate him before their son. She has money stashed away and which she claims as her property, beyond his reach in the times of direst need. He is jostled, jolted, jam-packed, jeered through his everyday life. He has no great aspiration: the middleclass, after all, is also a class in morass, so congealed in the stew of its prejudices that it cannot move forward or backward; so lost in the pettiness of everyday needs and desires that it can't conceive of revolting against itself.
Ek Villain is doing superb business in the theaters. It is, in parts, a gripping thriller. But what is much more attractive about it is its commentary about its audience. It may not be signaled with eerie music and flashy edits, but it is there, the comment as sinister as Deshmukh's serial killer, and anticipating the audience's ambivalence, just as their response to the villainy or heroism in Malhotra's character. It makes for a fascinating watch.            

Pull quote: At the heart of the movie is an affirmation of middleclass aspirations, alongside an aversion to it. This is the struggle that bifurcates the middleclass mind, in turn putting it in awe of itself, and driving it to self-loathing .

Love, Doubt and Death
Aba tyo hatyara psycho bhaisakeko chha – usle jasko pani hatya garna sakchha!

Chihan, by writer-director Badri Krishna Shrestha 'Agni', defies the convention of genres and meanders through many a question, never settling quite enough to answer any, and ends just as enigmatically as it begins. It contains moments of familiar domesticity and also moments utterly unfamiliar: it concludes with a lecture on love, doubt and death—their inter-relations, their specific positions in our lives. Along the way, it inquires about the progression from doubt to crime, to guilt and blame, and then, memory and its relationship with sanity.
The tropes of coincidence and misidentification are as old as the very human need to tell stories. The fact that we routinely misidentify or misinterpret or misconstrue – or misplace a specific memory – is essential towards shaping the miseries, small or large, that we must experience daily. It is not a stretch to say that this misalignment of purpose – of things to be remembered and understood and experienced – is the only reason we need the arts, the religions and philosophies, so that we may experience relief or rescue from the oppression of symbols misunderstood, gestures misconstrued, memories misremembered. Chihan digs for a knowledge of such ideas as this, in the guise of a social and domestic drama, which turns into a thriller, which turns into a study of a guilt-riddled mind.
Rohan, played by Niraj Baral, is happily married to Neha, played by Pujana Stri. He is gainfully employed as an engineer (he delivers a floor-plan and receives a cheque), and she is the perfect wife of the Swosthani reciting, vrata keeping variety. Neha's sister Naina also lives with them, and when she is home alone, she likes to invite her fiancé over for a little dance-number under a rotating chandelier. Theirs is a picture of familial bliss. Their neighbors are a different story: the husband is a drunk and a gambler; the wife dances until late to save money for her 'apaahij' daughter, and quite regularly gets beaten into a pulp by her husband who very much disapproves of her vocation. Every night is spent in berating and threatening each other. The wife's savings sits in a clay khutruke, by the only bed in the house, so easily the target of a career drunk. But, the little girl knows very well how bad her father is, and how nice her mother is. Theirs is a picture of bleak sentimentality and sorrow.
When coincidence alone can't hold up its end of the bargain to supply with intrigues, character-flaws come to the fore to drive a narrative. In Chihan, many of the events that transpire could have had very different outcomes if only somebody in Rohan and Neha's home had been careful about locking the front door. It is only Rohan and the neighbor woman who knock to be let in: whenever a strange pair of shoes goes about its strange business of suddenly materializing behind unsuspecting women, the door seems to pose no challenge. Without its capacity for that challenge, the threshold of a home is nothing; only that challenge can separate our homes from the houses of others, or buildings with entirely different functionality than that of essential shelter. A hotel room is where one stays – but only in one's home does one fully live.
Chihan, which begins as a domestic and social drama – about the benefits of keeping Swasthani vratas and about the perils of drinking and gambling even while one's daughter withers away in bed as she waits for her no-good father to wise up – soon becomes a romantic caper, when Naina's boyfriend steals into Rohan's house to surprise her and 'quench the thirst of our love of many years.' His shoes are truly admirable: they are very bright white and very pointy, and very stealthy, right up to the point where he surprises his paramour and throws her to the bed. After allowing us to admire a flower vase for a few seconds, the lovers dance under the aforementioned revolving chandelier: he in a silk shirt, with barely a hint of the paunch underneath, and her in a diaphanous blue sari. Very romance!
Change of gears: a quick succession of murders, the murderer hunted down and identified, interrogated and convicted. All of this by a little past the half-time, when a film is supposed to set up an uphill task for the protagonist. All secrets have been revealed. The director, who ought to keep the cards close to his vest and maintain certain mysteries, has thrown himself at the mercy of the viewer, at the mercy of the great beast called the story. What can possibly happen next, when all secrets have been revealed?
This is how it goes: Each secret is a specific kind of memory. If nobody remembers it, a secret ceases to exist. When a secret is revealed, it is no longer the purchase of one or two or a select few: the memory now belongs to anybody and everybody. While it was a secret, only a few of us could inhabit or elasticize the memory and its associate experience. Once it becomes mere memory, it becomes brittle: how somebody remembers his beloved – even if he happens to be the one who brutally murdered her – is confronted by others who remember her differently, who remember his actions towards her differently, and challenge his authority over the memory of her, murky his memory of her.
When how we remember our past is challenged by alternative versions propped up by others, we feel oppressed. Then, we may well lose our marbles. Chihan, too, makes its resting place in an asylum for those who have lost their marbles. It is not desirable to lose one's marbles: the conviction that the self-proclaimed 'sane' faction of the society has, that it is capable of ascertaining who among it no longer belongs with it, allows it to turn those it deems 'insane' into beings that deserve to be watched constantly. Indeed – insanity wouldn't exist without the constant observation of it by those claiming to be sane. Here, too, Rohan is reduced to live under constant scrutiny, and by extension, under constant judgment by others. For, the very act of surveillance is a judgment, a punishment that seeks its crime. One doesn't watch a madman because he is capable of flinging his shit at us: he flings his shit at us because we've already punished him with our surveillance.
That goes also for the movies we watch.  

Pull Quote:
Each secret is a specific kind of memory. If nobody remembers it, a secret ceases to exist. When a secret is revealed, it is no longer the purchase of one or two or a select few: the memory now belongs to anybody and everybody, and thus becomes brittle, at once hard and liable to shatter.
Writer-director Nigam Shrestha's Chhadke was, at its time, the most anticipated event in Nepali cinema. There had been a resurgence of sorts in the industry, with Nepali movies making their presence felt quite strongly at multiplexes in the Valley and competing alongside Indian and American products. Well before the movie was released, the song Ek ekān..., composed by Jason Kunwar and featuring Namrata Shrestha and Nikun Shrestha, had become quite the YouTube sensation. The cast of supporting characters – Dayahang Rai, Arpan Thapa and Robin Tamang – added excitement and promise. The industry was as excited for Chhadke as was the theater-going audience: the movie was seen as another necessary punctuation in the line of exciting cinema events in Nepal.
But something very strange happened when Chhadke was released: it divided the audience very sharply, and seemed to evaporate at the box-office after a record-breaking collection during the opening weekend. Apart from Robin Tamang's unexpected turn as a smuggler and leader of a gang, the audience didn't warm up to the performances by other actors. In the industry it became an example of how everything could go wrong for a movie: after stellar earning over the first few days, word-of-mouth publicity seemed to hurt the movie more than help it, resulting in it being limited to being shown at fewer than ten theaters for the second weekend, down from the initial twenty-eight. Within ten days of its release a soft-copy of Chhadke was leaked to the illegal market. The possibility of collecting a heftier part of the production budget by selling the movie abroad – in Hong Kong, Australia, the USA, etc. – disappeared after an online portal broke news about the online piracy and encouraged people to download it ASAP before the file was removed. A promise, it seemed, had been squandered.
I received a copy of the movie before it was released – the producers wanted me to write the subtitles for it. Accompanying the soft-copy of it was a music CD with Jason Kunwar's music and lyrics – the song Ma ta khelchhu... should become the children's song of our times, I thought. (Look it up on YouTube. It is still a really beautiful song.) Chhadke was very different from anything I had seen in Nepali cinema until then, and very intriguing at many levels. The character played by Saugat Malla, for instance, was far removed from anything attempted in Nepali cinema until then. Here was a genuine commentary, in the form of a character, and embodied in full strength by Malla.
Yet, despite its strengths point-to-point in the movie, as a whole it refused to stand. Namrata Shrestha – the darling china-doll of glamour hitherto – played against type, constantly lighting joints and going about murdering men, until she meets her gruesome end. But, as brave as that decision might have been on her part, something about the performance made it impossible to sympathize with her character. Debutant Nikun Shrestha played his laconic America-returned young man who gets pulled into the big game by circumstance without any spark of vitality, letting his dark glasses and perpetually lit cigarette fill in for him. There ought to have been believable chemistry between Nikun and Namrata Shrestha's characters, but there was none. Arpan Thapa was impressive when he had to chase and kill, but impossible to understand when he spoke in Tharu – and disadvantaged by a back-story like the one Dayahang Rai's character had, impossible to have any feelings for. Despite the parts being impressive, the whole didn't make One. Something vital fell through the cracks and was lost. Even today, people have very mixed reactions to Chhadke: for some, it was bold and important; for others, it was self-indulgent to the point of excess.  
A couple of years past the release of Chhadke, its writer-director Nigam Shrestha is still living the consequences of it. 'There were small flaws in each department as we went about making the movie, but the small flaws each multiplied with time and became large holes by the end,' he says. I wanted to interrogate Nigam on those flaws: what does he perceive as the inadequacies of the movie? What could have been done better? How much was luck, and how much a lack of preparation? What was he thinking, putting Nikun and Saugat Malla's characters in the same film? Where did the idea for the movie come from?
Nigam Shrestha is from Chitawan, where a majority of the action takes place. The background for it – frustrated youth leaving to work abroad, and those remaining behind collapsing into a life if crime – is drawn from reality. These are the political realities of the writer-director's own milieu. After 2006, when the state apparatus effectively collapsed, and when political parties wove a tight knit with the criminal element in every region, it became more lucrative for a young man to go work for a political big-man than to secure the loans and wherewithal to go abroad for employment. Unprecedented levels of violence in the civil society now focused on tenders called by the government for supplies and construction. The privilege of killing rhinos and tigers shifted from those under royal patronage to those under the patronage of the political parties – the very same people who were voted to the CA to write a constitution for the nation.
Nigam wanted to examine and expose this scenario in Chitawan where his friends were also getting caught in the new web of violence. But this new scenario existed alongside another, more primal violence that has been going on for far longer: the violent confrontation between mankind and its environs. 'I wanted to show the parallel stories – the violence in the society, and the violence against nature – as a part of the same narrative,' he says. In his articulation, nature is the beloved of the character played by Saugat Malla. When his botanist character gallops through the forest imitating deer, he is entering the embrace of his beloved. The gangs involved in cutting trees and harvesting rhino-horns or tiger-pelts are, in this articulation, violating his beloved, attacking her vitality. Through the act of empathy, he achieves the right to respond with equal violence. This requires him to shed off his connection to the world of men: clothes, language, the privilege given to fellow humans at the cost of other sentient beings.
Divergent from him is the fate of the character played by Nikun Shrestha. At the very beginning of the movie, Saugat Malla's character meets Nikun's on the bus en route to Chitawan. When they meet again, the story has finished its course, and the meeting is fatal. Nikun's characters shows very little resistance when circumstances require him to wear the mantle of crime to continue belonging to the world of men – to avenge his brother, to provide for his bereaved family, and thereafter, to retain the smidgen of power he has wrested for himself. This means more violence, more encroachment of the jungle, more alienation from nature. This means falling into the embrace of quite another sort of a beloved: the heady rush of coveting the unattainable, the thrill of chasing and purchasing power for its own sake.
How much of this vision resonated with the audience? That is a difficult question to answer, not the least because the different interpretations of Chhadke have been equally vocal and numerous. One side of the aisle rooted for the gangster story – with the advent of the 'real' in Nepali cinema, a new generation had just been whetting up their appetite for something just like that: peppered with local idioms, recognizable archetypes that were nonetheless lurking just around the corner, the talk of rhino horns and brown sugar and timber smuggling. For this group, what was there of the gangster story was inadequate – there should have been more of it, more intrigue, more gangster games, etc. Bollywood has been supplying a steady supply of stories about local gangsters, and undoubtedly that has prompted the creation of an urban crime genre in Nepali cinema, too. But this half of the audience complained even more loudly about the ecological allegory thrown in: Saugat Malla's character didn't belong to the movie, people mostly said.
Another part of the audience thought the ecological allegory was the best thing about the movie – I think the rest of the movie doesn't belong with Saugat Malla's part. Here is a story that starts as a research trip for a postgraduate student, and ends with the total sublimation of the human impulse into the verdure and violence of the jungle. Malla's character reminds me of the fool in a Calvino novella – he is so void of a self that any entity that he observes fills that void and makes him into something else: the fool becomes the soup pot set before him or the ripe peach he sees on laden branches. He is so completely capable of empathy that he ceases to exist. Malla's character thus becomes whatever he encounters and experiences in the forest: and Malla has the ability to take from the mind an idea and then sculpt it to be expressed through the body, until physique itself transforms into allegory. There hasn't been another work that has achieved the same in Nepali cinema.
So, what is Nigam up to these days, with the expectations accumulating from his debut movie prodding him forward? Along with his partners at the production company Ras Tandav, he has set his sights on an even more ambitious project: a period movie based on an iconic Nepali short story. (He doesn't want to disclose the name of the short story or of the writer.) It will be very challenging: there is no doubt about that. There were many obstacles before Chhadke, but Nigam isn't worried. 'There were mistakes in Chhadke. But we can only learn and improve on them in our next movie,' he says.
But a lot of good also came out of the Chhadke experience: although people think Chhadke didn't make money, that isn't entirely true. In fact, in certain terms, it did exceptionally well – especially in showing the strength of the foreign-market revenue stream. It sold rights in Australia, Hong Kong and the US well before its release. If online piracy hadn't hampered its opportunities, it would have gone on to do even better business. It had one of the best opening-weekend collections to date for a Nepali movie. Again, if pirated soft-copy of the movie hadn't been so widely sold at Tribhuwan University and elsewhere, among the youth that would have made the biggest part of its viewership, perhaps it would have gone on to earn a lot more at the box office. As it is, for the high budget it reached during shooting, the money it recovered was impressive. Typically, a Nepali movie costs half of what Chhadke cost to produce, and rarely earns as much as Chhadke earned.
When I asked Nigam what he thought of the future of Nepali cinema, he seemed excited about it, but also had some reservations. Reality is finally making an inroad into Nepali cinemas, he said, and that will help establish a tone unique to the variety of Nepali contexts. There are those Nepali movies that take place in an imprecise pastiche of Nepalipan: most tropes borrowed from Bollywood, a non-existent reality that seems lifted from Mahendra Mala idea of nationhood. Then there are movies rooted in a space and time unique to Nepali realities: Loot, Chhadke, Dhuwani, Tandav, Kabaddi, Talakjung vs. Tulke, Suntali, etc., that are each informed by the specific locales and cultures that form an integral part of the story itself. These movies span the rural and the urban, Himal and Terai, various inflections of the language and culture and ethnic mix. A Nepali idiom is slowly but surely arising.
The future looks promising. Nigam is especially confident that his peers like Min Bham and Safal KC, and more seasoned directors like Prashant Rasaily will take Nepali cinema to greater heights. In the meanwhile, for his part of the contribution to the industry, Nigam Shrestha wants to continue making movies that defy expectations and also allow him to exercise his creativity. In the meanwhile, we can only wish him the best of luck with his forthcoming project and wait.

A tired old bride

Writer-director Shashank Khaitan's Humpty Sharma ki Dulhaniya is a thorough tribute to Bollywood love stories, with nothing that is threateningly original, and yet it has moments of invention that come quietly and disappear before fully signaling their presence. It is a pleasant watch, even emotional sometimes, in the same vein as the Shahrukh Khan – Kajol by-now classics it parodies. It should appeal to viewers born after 1990, whose idea of the Bollywood romance isn't colored by the gaudy headiness of the early '90s but with the rosy, Swiss-vista filled lens of the latter half of the decade.
Humpty... is anchored more by the performances of Varun Dhawan, playing the eponymous Humpty Sharma and Alia Bhatt, playing opposite him as Kavya Sharma, a small town girl who comes to the big city for a silly enough reason. The story moves forward without much pause, there is an interesting interlude, and the crisis picks up again after the intermission. Dhawan and Bhatt share an electric chemistry that brightens up the screen, and brings to the fore issues hidden in the narrative.
The aspiration of the middleclass is at the center, and in some ways, is the texture and character of the movie itself. Humpty, who helps out at his father's on-campus stationery and book shop, knows he is a charming dolt, terrible at studies, but a loyal son and friend. Kavya is a small-town girl, from the semi-urban mess of Ambala, who has her eyes fixed on a designer gown for her wedding to an NRI hunk of a doctor settled in the US. Her father wants a wedding where nothing goes wrong, and Humpty's father wants a car. This about sums up the different goals the characters have set themselves: now, each of them must face an obstacle in their progress towards their goals – that is standard fare for any feel-good movie. But, can the writer-director fold into the mix the necessary ingredients of romance and its accompaniment of minor problems?
In the long tradition of the girl's father being the chief obstacle – here reinforced through a reference to Simran's father in DDLJ – is Kavya's father, quick to slap people around while still looking supremely inconvenienced at having to stoop to such a low. His problems are entirely patriarchal: he experimented by allowing a daughter to choose her own match, and he turned out to be a douche. In the imagination of Indian masculinity the possible of second opportunities doesn't seem to exist. Neither is there the possibility that a woman's life can be her own – separate from filial or familial ties, or her place in the community, pinned there by the notion of honor and 'face' – main kyā mūh dikhāūngā? Therefore, he wants to control every aspect of his younger daughter's matchmaking, despite the repeated insistence of other women in the family that it is possible to control someone's life, but it is impossible to decide whether or not they will find happiness in their lives. The only concession that the father is willing to allow his daughter is that she may travel to Delhi in search of a designer lehengā – one that costs just as much as a family car does.
That is the fatal error on the father's part – although from a strict family in a small town, Kavya is hardly the timid, cowering embodiment of innocence. After Mahi Gill dragged a mattress to the fields in Dev D, at least in smaller, more independent-spirited movies from India, it is the woman who is eager to carpe the diem and straddle each opportunity of hedonistic pleasure, taking away from the men the power to withhold or grant pleasure to women. Kavya out-drinks and out-smarts and out-flirts the boys – which could be part of a project on the part of a new class of Indian men to situate themselves as the opposite of prevalent stereotype of eve-teasing, molesting, abusing men, and instead portraying themselves as soft-hearted, sensitive men who need to be nurtured on heard-earned affections of smart women. Who knows!
Kavya is a street-smart girl – at least in her native town – but what she seems to be searching for is mismatched to her capabilities. She wants an expensive lehengā, as if that alone defines her. But, as naive as that device might seem on the surface, it evolves as the characters change and their inner desires surface: what Kavya really wants is to control her own fate, even if that appears as an immediate search for love, it is really the need to wrest away from her father – and then from the eminently eligible man he has chosen for her – the freedom to be herself. Humpty becomes her sidekick in this quest, first being besotted by her, then doing her bidding, and then falling into her arms just when she ought to be heading back to the order and blandness of a headstrong woman entering an arranged marriage with an absolute stranger.
Perhaps there is wisdom in the way the movie has been named – the movie is really about the Dulhaniya rather than Humpty, although it is the boy who gets beaten up and threatened with murder. Dhawan, along with his gang of friends, walks the line between being a 'nice boy' and also meeting the expectations of masculinity of typical Indian manufacturing: beating up men who tease his woman, making exorbitant promises to provide for someone who is merely a 'friend'. But, this iteration of masculinity also comes with a lot of doubt, a willingness to be emasculated in order to win the affection of admired, adored women, and ultimately, to publicly participate in the reversal of traditional sexual roles or domination: In the inevitable happy ending, it is Humpty who runs weeping into the arms of a very filmi Kavya waiting atop a decorated truck.
 Humpty Sharma ki Dulhaniya is a pleasant, if not entirely original, iteration of the age old Bollywood masala romance. The substance there is in the movie is not on the surface: it isn't as loud and frenetic as some of the other recent movies have been, but when it does reveal its inner thoughts and longings, it is surprisingly arresting, surprisingly moving. And it also shows how Alia Bhatt might well teach a whole new generation how to fall in love – with equal measures of sass and tenderness, equally full of abandon and of the greed to possess.

The substance there is in the movie is not on the surface: it isn't as loud and frenetic as some of the other recent movies have been, but when it does reveal its inner thoughts and longings, it is surprisingly arresting, surprisingly moving. And it also shows how Alia Bhatt might well teach a whole new generation how to fall in love – with equal measures of sass and tenderness, equally full of abandon and of the greed to possess.

Hatred Without Nuance
"Ajeeb baat hai, hum auraton ko sab kuch karna padta hai – jaise hamari kohi marji hi na ho"
In Of Human Bondage (1934), Bette Davis plays Mildred, the waitress whom Philip, the club-footed protagonist of Maugham's novel, loves. Mildred allows Philip to court her, but there is contempt under the surface. Eventually, when she does break his heart, she tells him that every time he kissed her, she wiped her mouth afterward – wiped her mouth. Davis delivers the phrase with a furious distortion of her face and with so much hateful passion. To this day, I haven't seen another moment of hate as potently and affectingly portrayed on screen. Of the many iterations of hate, it seems, the ones arising from the corruption of the primeval game of putting the pee-pee in the hoo-haa is still the most interesting to us. There are worse forms of hatred out there: racism rooted in revenge fantasies, for instance, or revenge fantasies rooted in racism. There are subtler forms of hatred: persistent denial of an individual or group's equal stature by subsuming all logic into the broth of religion or politics, for instance. Yet, when it comes to watching a story unfold, we seem to still prefer hatred born out of mismatch or miscarriage of desire.
 Hate Story 2 – a new episode, rather than a sequel – is an ultimately weak telling of a story that has been told many times before in Bollywood and Hollywood movies. Hate Story, its predecessor, at least had a woman scorned at its center – and the hell hath no fury component appropriately fitted its story. Hate Story 2 has a woman wronged. And how bland a story becomes when a woman is wronged, and kept and raped and beaten and chased and beaten and forced to witness her lover killed. What choice does there remain but for the woman to return, a la Rekha in a late 80's revenge fantasy, and kill every one of her tormentors?
Iago, in Othello, is one of the most hateful characters in the Shakespearean plays – perhaps even the most hateful, and perhaps so because his hatred arises from within, as a response to perceived slights and injustices rather than outright attack and abuse. It is difficult to remain interested with the ultimate goals that Sonika, played by Surveen Chawla, sets for herself because they seem too logically worked out, too much of a cliché of revenge. But, Hate Story 2 does ask a few interesting questions. For instance – Is there justice without there being proportionality between offense and punishment? And, why is vengeance so attractive to us?
  Sonika is a kept-woman – rakhail – to Mandar, played by Sushant Singh and a handlebar moustache, a powerful politician who controls Mumbai. He allows her to join a photography course, where she meets Akshay, a charmer and naïf played by Jay Bhanushali in flesh and seemingly as Modi-inspired hologram. The kept woman and the naïf fall in love, run away to their own paradise with a swimming pool in the garden. The big bad politician hunts them down, tears them asunder in high-Bollywood melodrama. All of this happens before the intermission.
After the intermission, Sonika, while being chased by a sexually non-threatening police inspector from Goa, plots her revenge and dispatches her abusers one by one. There is no genius behind director Vishal Pandya's crafting of the revenge sequences: nothing clever in the execution of the plans, nothing interesting in how the set pieces are filmed or edited, nothing arresting about the performances of the actors in them. Yeah, sure – if a man broke your lover's legs before murdering the said lover, he ought to suffer a little before meeting his own end. But bashing in someone's kneecap is no longer interesting to a world that daily shares Facebook posts about all the gruesome crimes that happen in a given day, right across the world. In a world where everything has become a spectacle, violence done in the open is no longer interesting: it is the violence we can imagine happening within people that we find interesting. Take, for instance, the most-discussed "viewing experience" these days – ruddy farmers and sun-burned civilians arranged over a hillside, safely tucked away from rocket-range, cheering and clapping at the awesome brilliance of fireworks descending from the skies and ka-boom! shaking the grounds, sending molten metal into the skies, blazes of fiery smoke tracing distant filigrees of the sharpest light. The fact that with each explosion innocent Palestinians die is no longer interesting. What is far more interesting is the hatred and revenge-fantasy inside the Israeli viewer on the hillside overlooking the rubble of a ghettoed-in population, given the Israeli's historicity and heritage. If the slights weren't also imaginary, the Israeli viewer would perhaps still demand proportionality from those acting on his behalf and bombing Gaza: tit for tat, blood for equal measure of blood, and as salve for the conscience, punishment to the guilty and no more. If hatred hadn't multiplied over time, it would make no sense to demand ten of theirs dead on the battlefield for every one of ours dead. This is hatred so fermented and hardened that it corrupts from the inside. Barely three generations after the Holocaust, the grandchildren of the survivors can laugh at the death of innocents and break open cold beers to celebrate – perhaps that is the sort of miracle Yaweh still works for his chosen people.
The few interesting moments in movie use interactions between women to complicate the gendered idea of abuse. Policewomen literally and liberally rub salt into the wounds of a very defeated Sonika as they try to get a confession from her for the spate of murders she has left in her wake ever since vengeance awoke inside her, and assistance comes from an unexpected direction when she sets out to finish off her tormentor. But, overall, it seems to do disservice to its title: sure, there is a revenge fantasy here, and men love to watch busty women try to kill muscular men (provided that the urge to abase the female has been satisfied through prolonged sequences of physical and sexual abuse), but there is no sophistication here, no true hatred that comes from failures within individuals rather than from abuse sustained.  

Pull Quote: Bashing in someone's kneecap is no longer interesting to a world that daily shares Facebook posts about all the gruesome crimes that happen in a given day, right across the world. In a world where everything has become a spectacle, violence done in the open is no longer interesting: it is the violence we can imagine happening within people that we find interesting.

Suntali in Bandipur
Bandipur and I go back a long way: the slate on the roof of the house I was born in had come from the quarry in Bandipur; my father had studied there as a child, and returned after his matriculation to teach there and politically organize his students. Every Tihar, my grandfather's elder sister – whom everybody called Didi, and who still walks the cobbled chowk in Bandipur, leaning on her cane and grinning ear to ear – brought as koseli sacks of orange and peanuts from her fields in Bandipur. But, before 2010, I had only been there once, while I was still in high school, and I had misremembered the village – for the better, since I remembered it being more spacious, more bridal in its riot of bougainvillea, with more children playing about and a cooler breeze than that I encountered in 2010. In my first visit, I had been dragged along as my father made a stop there with a politician, a few weeks before election. I was my father's son, and the only people I met belonged to the same political party, making the same sort of bland remarks that local politicians make.
But, in 2010, I had gone there to reconnoiter the village for a screenplay adapted from a novella I'd written sometime in the summer of 2003. The novella, based on true events, had been set in Khaireni, where I was born and raised, while the screenplay had been shifted to Bandipur. This was reactionary instinct on my part: Khaireni had urbanized in a way that rendered it unrecognizable to someone looking at it through a lens of nostalgia. The direction of progress chosen by my villagers didn't suit my plans for a story based there. Bandipur, on the other hand, had acquired a quaint charm and monetized it: there were potted bougainvilleas, but only around tourist lodges and boutique hotels. The children played with the noisiest zeal when blonde volunteers with diverse European accents taught them nursery rhymes. But, Bandipur still retained a certain charm that had gone from the decrepit to the cured. It would do handsomely for the setting of the dark thriller that I had written. Over five days March of 2010, I paced up and down the central chowk and imagined where a particular scene would be set.
That movie was never made. But, from that dark tale came just the frothy cream of it: a minor character that seemed light enough to make anybody smile. Bhaskar Dhungana, who wrote and produced Kagbeni, and produced Sano Sansar, wanted to make a light comedy rooted in Nepaliness. He and I had been toying with script ideas since 2008, and we had had our share of failures and success: the first project that we actually shot no longer exists, but a few other shorts that we worked on, with Bhaskar dai directing and he and I writing, are now on YouTube. The more accomplished of them – Falesne Jaro – even went to a few film festivals around the world. Even though it was shot over just a couple of days as a student film in Prague, it is photographed beautifully, and the minimalistic music heightens the sadness in the story. We wanted something just like that: shot beautifully, set to beautiful music, a story entirely Nepali.
How does one situate a story? As a writer of fiction and screenplays, I have struggled the most with setting. A story can be rendered entirely credible or otherwise just by its setting. By that we could be talking of set decoration, but also of the inflections and dialects the characters use. It could be about the skies and the mountains that form the backdrop for romance or strife – but it could also be the sole reason the morality implied in the story works or fails.
Setting is paramount. And our new story – Suntali – sought a setting halfway between essential hill-Nepal and Anywhere; halfway between fairytale and coarse reality. The behavior we wanted to bring to the characters needed to be universal in their zaniness, but their speech had to ring true in a local dialect. For this, the setting had to be at once of this world, and with the slightest switch in perspective, otherworldly. Bandipur seemed the obvious choice: although Jiri was mentioned a few times as an alternative, nobody from the team ever made it there to consider it as the setting. Plus, the story had raced ahead to include specific temples and trees and hills around Bandipur. It was simply too perfect a fit to pass on.  
Ondra Belica, who had shot Falesne Jaro, came early to look at the location. Bhaskar dai and Ondra, along with other members of the production team, traveled to Bandipur to identify suitable locations. The screenplay had many unique locations, and save for a couple of locations, even scenes set in the same setting  -say, a major character's house – moved constantly within that setting. We had written scenes for which a window needed to align perfectly with the view of a shop, for instance, or a character's room in a specific kind of a house had to look down a particular alley. These kinds of spatial unities make sense in a fiction-writer's head, because he can always make things up without being restricted by reality. Film producers, on the other hand, prefer location descriptions to match pre-existing structures.
But, Bhaskar dai, Ondra and the team returned from Bandipur with meticulous photographs and floor plans for each available space, and with notes for edits. In an earlier version of the script, I had written a scene in an orange grove: imagine a pretty girl named Suntali, standing cross in an orange grove, pelting her lover with ripe oranges while accusing him of being a mindless dolt! And fighting and crying and hugging and making up and making out. With the golden glow of a sunset in the Himalayas lighting her hair afire as she tries to wipe her tears, half-laughing and half-crying, mad in love. Imagine that!
Yarp. You'll have to imagine all of that, because, unbeknownst to me – rather, because I didn't do a thorough enough job of researching the setting – a viral epidemic had decimated Bandipur's famous orange groves a few years before we went there to shoot our movie. There was no orange grove in which Suntali would cavort. We'd be shooting just before monsoon – yarp, no mountains for mood-lighting either. Some other locations key to making the story work didn't exist as I'd imagined them. We'd have to make do with what did exist, in what shape they existed, and yet transform them to serve our vision of the space.
A thorough rewriting of the script followed the final reconnoitering of the locations. Bhaskar dai had brought back information about every wall, every door and window, and which way they faced – now, sitting in Kathmandu, we could imagine how the light would play at what time of the day, and what shot would work and what wouldn't. Even now, when I think of the line-by-line revision of every scene to conform with the floor-plans from the locations, I feel the burden of all the labor we put in.
After thoroughly combing through the screenplay (for our draft version 5.2), we picked a few scenes with which we would conduct the auditions. There was a set of logic behind these choices: in terms of how we wanted to use the space, which scenes gave the actors the most range to perform the nuances of their characters, etc. Sticking to the floor plan – or roughly sticking to it, as the rehearsal space allowed – we rehearsed scenes with the actors, especially the scenes that seemed most space-bound, most dependent upon the resources we had, and ones least adaptable on the fly.
Yet, the best laid schemes of mice and men, as the poet said.
When Suntali finally went to Bandipur to commence shooting, monsoon came early. Spaces that had seemed charming now proved crammed, the heat of lights stifling the cast and crew. A wall had to be moved by a few feet. How does one ask permission from the landlady to move a wall by a few feet? With the promise that it would back in its original position within a few days! A newly interested politician – in fact, one of the old politicians whom I had visited with my father during my first visit to Bandipur, and called Uncle – threatened to stop production if he wasn't paid off. A village drunk objected to being denied free passage – especially when the camera was rolling – and threatened to pick a fight at every available opportunity. A third grader with her milk-teeth entirely dissolved by tooth-rot refused to quiet her fidgeting and insisted upon singing when silence-on-the-set was called. Villagers so eager to work as extras suddenly froze when 'Action!' was called. Teenagers cramming for end-of-term exams hid away from the windows and yelled whenever silence-on-the-set was called. Old ladies spent entire days diligently watching the actors, and only when evening came asked about when the dancing would take place. 'No dancing in this film, Aama!' They'd become crestfallen. 'No dancing. And the hero sews dresses. What kind of a film is this?'
Despite the many problems the unit faced during the shoot, Bandipur has come alive beautifully onscreen. The colorful and intricate details of the Bindhyabasini temple at the eastern end of the chowk, the airy interior of the old library, the triangular wooden stairs in a Rana-era building that is now a college, the mud-plastered kitchens and wooden window-seats: Bandipur's exteriors and interiors have been lit and photographed beautifully by Ondra. What I like best is the fact that the spaces come alive without the slightest exaggeration of trick of lighting – it is a reminder that the spaces we occupy, in all their ordinariness, are in fact magical and attractive, if one simply switches one's perspective by a couple of degrees. The wooden posts in the middle of the room, the evening light filtering through wooden windows, the moss on stones and the dog curled in the middle of the street: these are at once uniquely ours, and universally recognizable. That syrupy quality of time that is an essence of Bandipur's character is also captured in the languid movements of the villagers or of the children jumping and playing. But the quickness of gossip and intrigue – without which it is impossible to imagine village life in Nepal – is also present.
   I dread to imagine what Suntali would look like without its setting of Bandipur. I am sure Jiri or any other of the many picturesque settings possible for it would have brought another set of beauty and charm to the finished work. But I still believe that this particular story belongs in that particular village – without its cars and motorbikes, without the accompanying noise, with its uniformly recessed shops and pine-crowned seat of the patron goddess. I am very aware of the work the production team – Jaya Shah, Prachanda M. Shrestha, with Sudipta Karki and Firoj Khadka – put in to ensure an uneventful shooting schedule. That required numerous negotiations and contracts, re-negotiations to manage the new-fangled greed of some individuals, making overtures of generosity to secure the cooperation of others. It was easy for me and Bhaskar dai to choose Bandipur as our setting for its charm and quirk and beauty. It wasn't as easy for the producers to make it available for photography, for two schedules over separated by a few months.
And it was easy for us to march into Bandipur, some forty of us at any time, to shoot a movie we wanted. But the people of Bandipur had to tolerate us with our bright HMI lights, with the constant bustle well into the night, with the disruption of foot-traffic and ratyauli-song playing through the night. Their hospitality and generosity, even when they didn't realize that being an extra requires repeating the same boring action over and over for an entire night – or even a couple of days – made the experience a lighter burden. Many of us made friends with the children and the lady who sold chow mien and sukuti.
I look forward to going back to Bandipur once the movie is released. So many villagers will be eager to see themselves in Suntali, most of them women who can't travel to another town just to watch a movie. I hope to be present when they get to see themselves on a big screen, projected to be larger than life and filled with the color and vigor of twenty-four frames per second. I hope to be there when Bandipur rings with their applause and cheer for themselves and their chowk and lane and shrines and fields. I hope to be there when their faces will glow with a newfound awe for the space in which they have made their homes.    

A Kick in the Head


Sajid Nadiadwala's Kick is a surprisingly entertaining, expectedly mindless caper – much like its star, Salman Khan, whose life the movie closely resembles and, indeed, feels like an advert for. It is preachy enough to satisfy the requirements of an Eid release. It has a competent sidekick and a cartoonish villain, both of whom serve Nadiadwala's vision of selling the familiar and peculiar product called Salman Khan, without threatening the brand of machismo that he has forged in the Hindi film industry. Above all, it is the story of a man who refuses to truly mature.
Khan plays Devi Lal Singh. And he also plays Devil – a masked robber who relieves famous men of mind-boggling amounts of 1000-rupee banknotes. Jacqueline Fernandez plays his muse, Shania – whom Devi keeps calling Dr. Psycho, because she is a psychiatrist. That is supposedly a joke. Randeep Hooda plays Himanshu, a very capable policeman, who seems to specialize in extra-judicial elimination of the "criminal element". Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays a shady kingmaker who imports sub-standard medical equipment and vaccines into India and makes millions and millions of dollars in the process – and miffs Devi over a small matter of helping a little girl.
Devi Singh gets into all kinds of trouble because he wants a "kick" out of life. The word is mentioned so often that you'll feel kicked in the head repeatedly, but like all experiences that lead to sensory fatigue, you stop registering it about halfway through the movie. His thrill-seeking involves a lot of very risky behavior, although nothing like shooting endangered animals or drunk driving over homeless people sleeping on pavements. The thrust of the argument being made by Nadiadwala is – one ought to seek thrill in life. One ought not to give in to the complacency of a routine-driven and regimented life. Rather, one should carpe the diem with steroid-enhanced arms. Devi takes the credo seriously: he stages an escape for a girl marrying against her mother's wish; he picks a fight in a cafe by first slapping into shame the men who do nothing when a group of goons tease a couple of girls, and then summarily beating up the goons while talking to the audience about how typical Bollywood fight sequences work. And, so on.
Kick is really only about Salman Khan. He is packaged to be devoured in the entirety by an audience famished after a long fast. There is an open admonition to those who try to parse the text behind the movie: one is supposed to understand it with the heart, not the head, apparently. Without such indulgence, Kick would come apart at its seams: there is but one character the story cares about: Devi. The rest are all props. Siddiqui perhaps understands his function the best, so he plays a villain that is poised between the extravagances of a Bond-villain and the flimsy exaggeration of a children's movie villain.
But this insistence that Kick in particular, and Salman Khan's trope in general, is meant to be understood by the heart and not the head is a problematic invitation. It implies a hedonism and insistence upon avoiding true maturity of thought and action that ought to come with age and living. Maturity would require confronting difficult questions, and undergoing a transformation not just for oneself, but also for the sake of others, acknowledging one's banal but consequential presence in the life of others. In Kick, when Shania asks Devi to change his ways so that they can settle down and get married, he refuses to change, but he will change what sort of kick he seeks: he will now pursue money, if that is what Shania requires of him, but he will break up with her, because she has asked him to change. So, he will change, and change to achieve what Shania wants from him, but he won't stay with her because she has dared ask him to change.
Now that the perfunctoriness of the plot and the leading character has been established, it becomes compelling to ask why the minor characters exist at all: Salman Khan could have cavorted before a mirror, flashing his smile, doing his hip thrusts and flexing his muscles at the audience, and perhaps given them just as many opportunities to squeal is mesmerized delight. At Jai Nepal, on Monday, that's exactly what was happening – grown men giggling like little girls whenever Khan made a joke or a silly face. What is the nature of the machismo or masculinity that Khan represents? There is no angry young man in Hindi movies anymore. There is no defender of the poor, or a soulful poet who would, through his suffering and sensitivity, nurture the emotional life of the audience. What exist now are self-indulgent, quirky characters that put prioritizes physical beauty and a fiercely contested, individualistic version of hedonism: looking and feeling good comes first, before anything else. Salman Khan, more than the other Khans or Kapoors in the scene today, embodies this phenomenon. Perhaps he is the Bollywood-male equivalent of the Hollywood specialty, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
Because of how Salman Khan plays his character, and how the producer-director has packaged him as a commodity to be consumed without adulteration, the other actors have little to do. Siddiqui is a cartoon villain, as mentioned before. Fernandez – physically a perfect beauty, but with little appeal to the mind as an actor – does her bit by looking pert and pretty and disappearing from the screen when the men need time. Hooda's Himanshu becomes so smitten by Khan's Devi Singh that by the end his homoerotic attraction to the criminal he has been chasing is embarrassingly obvious. He, too, like Siddiqui, is not allowed to stand in the way of the product called Salman Khan. It is a pity these actors are mere adornments on the strategically torn shirt on Khan.  
If you remember yourself at the most illogical and stubborn of your adolescent idiocy, Devi Singh ought to appear very familiar to you. Momentary thrills and a hoard of errors that would lead to remorse if even the slightest bit of maturity existed is all that has accumulated in Devi Singh's wake. References to Khan's charity Being Human notwithstanding, and as mindlessly entertaining as Kick can be sometimes, it is still fluff.

What is the nature of the machismo or masculinity that Khan represents? There is no angry young man in Hindi movies anymore. There is no defender of the poor, or a soulful poet who would, through his suffering and sensitivity, nurture the emotional life of the audience. What exist now are self-indulgent, quirky characters that put prioritizes physical beauty and a fiercely contested, individualistic version of hedonism: looking and feeling good comes first, before anything else.

Too Many Twists

There are always two way in life one is good way and another is bad way and we have to choose the good way which is the main education from the movie called 'Nagbeli'.

Gobind Rai's Nagbeli fails because of an inability to negotiate between genres and an insistence upon putting too neat a bow on every minor affair. What starts off with a promise of originality soon degenerates into clichés. It squanders the formidable talents of Dayahang Rai in favor of lesser talents and lesser concerns, and in the process, ends up insipid and uninspired.
Even the taxi driver laughed at the notion that I was going to Guna Cinema to watch Nagbeli – he was friends with one of the minor characters, but even so, he wasn't willing to watch a movie at Guna: the seats are broken and smell of sweat and urine, he said. He wasn't wrong. The apathy that theater operators show can't possibly help the movies being shown. The experience, on screen and in the seats, was somewhat disappointing.  
The first half of Nagbeli purports to speak to the predicament of the Nepali youth: four different men struggle to achieve their dreams in the city. There is a girl thrown in the mix – Harshika Shrestha – but she is there for purely ornamental reasons, so the less we speak of her, the better. Dayahang Rai's character Phurba is a struggling singer. Bikki Malla has just finished his high school, and wants desperately to get into the army – that is the only way he sees himself getting his girlfriend's hand in marriage. Two roommates, played by S Raj Garach and Sambhav Shrestha, want to go abroad and win a taekwondo medal, respectively. There is a restaurant somewhere in the city, with an obese proprietor, and there the fates of the four men collide and entangle. That, in brief, is Nagbeli.
In true Nepali fashion, the director explains as the end credits roll that life is full of twists and turns – the nagbeli of the title, no doubt – and that perseverance through the twists and turns leads to eventual success. But the movie doesn't follow its own advice: it doesn't persevere through the twists and turns it creates. Instead, running out of steam soon after the first half, it devolves into a torture film, thrilling in the grinding of cleavers and knife-point thrust at the neck of a terrified, gagged Harshika Shrestha. Then, in an attempt to neatly conclude each separate strand of stories, it drags on, and on, and on.
Like most movies with multiple narratives, Nagbeli also tries to create focal points where fates intersect. There are three such loci: the work place, the political space, and the private space where criminal acts happen. At the restaurant where Phurba sings, Sambhav works as the bouncer, and Bicky and Harshika go to dance and get into a fight. (Most of the actors seem to have retained their legal names for the characters they portray.) When Sambhav and his friend and Bicky want different things – jobs, entry, exit – they go to a politician to buy influence. When the deal goes sour because a minister, played by Nir Shah, is unceremoniously ousted from power, the men threaten revenge. They get bundled up and are kept in an apartment above Phurba's. It is thus that their fates collide. Nothing about the manner in which this happens seems inevitable.
Coincidences must have a propulsive force behind them to be given a role in a story. A banana peel seen across the street isn't a joke: slipping on the peel and flailing as one falls is a joke. That is entirely missing from Nagbeli. Gobind Rai, as the director, seems to fail to imagine his own work: the joining of plot-points is mechanical and predictable. At one moment Nagbeli seems like a romantic movie. At another moment it seems like one of the many "urban youth" movies that seem to have deluged the market recently. At another moment it seems like a thriller. It recalls to the mind Visa Girl and the latter half of Kabaddi and even Karna Shakya's Pal, but it doesn't seem to recommend itself to the viewer's mind. The promise on the onset that this might become a competent commentary on the nexus of the political and the criminal, and the struggles of young people caught in that web, doesn't find satisfactory resolution. Instead, having exhausted its resources, it tries to be what it isn't: a thriller, a whodunit, a watchable work.
Gobind Rai is also a choreographer. No doubt, he has been around movie sets aplenty to know how the business works. In Mumbai, Farah Khan has made a successful switch from being a choreographer to a writer-director of serious commercial worth. But, I fear Gobind Rai doesn't know how to tell a story, especially one for the screen, where the limits of time and themes can be rigid. Take, for instance, the arc for Phurba – he is a struggling singer; he gets a gig singing at a restaurant where a lyricist spots him; the lyricist gets him a paying job singing in the chorus; the lyricist gets him a paying job at the restaurant; the lyricist gets him an album deal; Phurba gets the lyricist, who also happens to be a pretty woman. How boring this story is! To say that Phurba is a struggling singer is not to show that he is a struggling singer! And, if every step of the way the right pieces fall into place for Phurba, where is his struggle? Who is Phurba as a person? We know nothing of that. Imagine how much an actor like Dayahang Rai could have done with a role that required even the slightest complexity from him. What Gobind Rai has done should be considered a crime against thespians.
Perhaps Gobind Rai believes it is his time to direct feature films. Good for him – one should have faith in oneself. But the problem with faith is that it is no substitute for studied craft and innate talent for telling stories. The moving camera is the closest we have ever come to placing the viewer inside a story: in the dark room where threat looms or in the airy garden carpeted with peach blossoms. It requires the ability to imagine exactly how a viewer will inhabit the inner world of a character in any given moment in the narrative – that, more than anything else, drives the camera. Not blind faith. Blind faith drives projects with promise right into the ground.

Pull quote:
To say that Phurba is a struggling singer is not to show that he is a struggling singer! And, if every step of the way the right pieces fall into place for Phurba, where is his struggle? Who is Phurba as a person? We know nothing of that.

The Show Must Go On!
"Insaaniyat kya hoti hai aaj ek jaanvar mujhe sikhaakar chalaa gaya!"

Writer-Director duo Farhad-Sajid's Entertainment doesn't pretend otherwise: it entertains, full-to. It is shockingly repetitive. But, because it is repetitive about making the audience laugh, its repetitiveness only adds to the fun. It has a dog as the lead, its humor is both of the slapstick and screwball variety, it is full of references to Bollywood – paying homage and taking a dig at – and it races ahead with nary a pause.
This week witnessed the passing away of two entertainers – of Shri Krishna Shrestha and Robin Williams. One was once known as the 'dancing hero' while the other was known for his comic genius. (In Williams' case, the word 'genius' has a wide range of meanings.) They were both consummate entertainers, men so married to their art and craft that life was merely the background: everything of significance happened in performance. Despite the difficulties in their lives, they entertained to the end of their days. For that, respect.
To slip into a different character, to pull on the gossamer of imagination and conjure entire worlds of experiences alien to the audience, to put on voices and call attention to the joys and sorrows common to all of us and yet unique to each of us – that is the task a performer takes on and thrives on. The performer requires sustenance very different from that on which the ordinary and mortal mind survives: kudos and praise and awe and adoration and devotion which everyday push the body and the mind further over the brink of what is possible to sustain. Bodies and egos take regular battering. Someday, either the body gives in, or does the mind. But, until then, the show must go on! The show is always bigger than any of us. The idea of performance is always larger than the act of performance itself.
That is perhaps why the clichés in performance arts are more original and accompanied by a deeper ethos than clichés in other fields. Here, the superstitions are stronger because encounters with the supernatural are more profound: to stand at the lip of the stage, blinded by footlights, yet seeing the audience breathe collectively and with their faces and bodies react to each word uttered by you; or to stand behind a camera and realize that one of the actors has strayed from the rehearsed routine and, in doing so, has created a moment in a story in a world that never existed before. To witness and embody a partial comprehension of answer to a question you didn't even know existed until a moment ago. There are the mysteries of the physical world, and there are the mysteries made possible only through the collective experiences of all of Humanity – the entire past, the instantaneous present, the unarrestable furling of the future – that only humans are privileged enough to witness or comprehend. An alien civilization may unravel the mysteries of the universe if we are gone. But humans are required to ask the questions that arise only from the human experience. Actors do this for a living – some better than others, but all pursuing the same goal of inching closer to the Big Answer by asking a whole lot of little questions, with arched eyebrows or by slipping on banana peels or running around like a possessed ape. Those in the inside understand this much better than those on the outside, those who've never practiced the craft.
It seems fitting then, after these tragedies, to recommend a hearty laugh, to be so serious minded that even while you laugh with the rest of the theater you can feel the pull of misery that lurks behind the bright lights. Even if the show must go on, the eyes of those in the brightest limelight are also the blindest, most in pain. Entertainment starts off traditionally enough if it is the plotline you pay attention to: Akshya Khanna's Akhil Lokhandwala is a young man who works multiple entertainment-industry jobs through the day to provide for his father, who is languishing in the hospital. He has a way of unpacking traditional jokes. Any joke taken literally can either fall flat, or become much funnier than expected. The second variety is really challenging to create, and since there is an abundance of it in Entertainment, there are many, many laughs to be had. Because of the repetition, the ante is upped with each new triptych of the threats-answered-with-questions jokes escalates the Laughter Quotient (LQ). The palpable and apparent delight the writer duo has taken in constructing the jokes soon infects the viewer. It is all mindless entertainment, but one crafter very mindfully, with patience and calculation.
A farce laughs at itself. Abjection is an essential ingredient of comedy, especially for the slapstick variety. That must be why Akshay Kumar has teamed up with a big, shaggy dog named Entertainment, played by 'Junior – The Wonder Dog', and treated the canine actor as his equal, being humiliated by his co-star at first, then crying with genuine emotion when his 'brother' threatens to leave him. Johnny Lever is just himself – his brand of comedy is not abrasive to people who have never seen him do anything else. Duleep Tahil appears very briefly, but otherwise is present in allusions throughout. Tamannah, as a chirpy Sakshi who loves to speak like a soap-opera actor when the occasion calls for it, supports Akshya Kumar's mission to wrest away a massive inheritance from the jaws of the dog. There are two villains, and a sidekick who utilizes the names of the entire Bollywood fraternity in saying his lines, and by being less funny than Akshay Kumar, serves his purpose of being the moon that reflects its light back to the sun in the center of the game.
The music isn't memorable, the plotline isn't original or particularly memorable, most of the set-pieces are derivative. All of this actually works in favor of Entertainment – because, what is left is all gags, verbal, visual, and self-referential. Entertainment succeeds by not leaving any particular impression on the mind, apart from the general and effusive memory of having laughed, not quite sure at what, but having laughed silly and hard through two hours of a movie that never, ever threatened to take itself seriously. That, occasionally, is refreshing.  

Between Sympathy and Frustration
"Tapain chinta nagarnus – tyesko mukh ta ma hamesha ko lagi banda garidinchhu!"

Writer-director Aakash Adhikari's Kohinoor is perhaps better known as the final cinematic vehicle for the much loved actor Shree Krishna Shrestha.  Watching it so close to the unfortunate demise of its lead actor makes for a mixture of a sensation of prescience and frustration at the director. As the narrative moves closer to conclusion, the many melodramatic farewells and talk of death hit home with unexpected force. But, Adhikari's direction is so packed with the unoriginal and the blatant that many occasions will be found for #facepalm.
Aakash Adhikari's forte seems not to be in telling a story, but in yelling it to the face of the viewer, and with such goldfish-like attention span that he'll repeat the exact same line, with the exact same platitude of emotion or curiosity, at the beginning of a scene, at the middle of it, and once more, at the end of it. Such repetitions are a waste of theater air-conditioning, not to mention the time and attention of the viewer. And it does the great disservice of making the performer look inept. Most often, performers work to avoid having an auteur like Adhikari look inept by actually breathing intelligence and purpose into the insipid, hackneyed, derivative lines or scenes given to them. Therefore, when a writer-director betrays the trust of a performer by making them look worse than made possible by the drivel given to them, in my opinion, the writer-director has committed the worst possible crime against his craft.
Kohinoor purports to be about human trafficking – but it really just the idea of what a Nepali movie ought to look like, from the inside, as imagined by a person who has no relationship with reality, but sees everything through the lens of all that has come before in the melodrama-steeped world of Nepali and Hindi movies. Consider this: the villain – whose blood the populace screams for at the end of the movie – portrays a politician, and is referred to as 'Netaji' throughout the story. We rarely ever get to hear his name, except when he confesses his crimes. Adhikari resolutely refuses to give any roundness to any of his characters – forget the fact that oftentimes they appear positively amnesiac, incapable of carrying the ecstasy or hurt from one scene to the subsequent one. This refusal to create characters instead of mere types belittles the audience.
In my opinion, Adhikari's generation of filmmakers in mainstream Nepali cinema has thrust upon the Nepali moviegoers this unfair generalization that the viewer is incapable of understanding or appreciating subtext or complexity. I think that is a lazy attitude, and one designed to hide the incompetence on the director's part. In what real world would a woman ask the man she hates the second-most to now kill her ex-lover whom she hates the most, and then bring a glass of milk to the lover's mother in a subsequent scene? In what kind of a world would a son, slashed into ribbons by goons with swords, cry in his mother's arm and say he is afraid of dying, and then organize a meeting to plan his nemesis' downfall with nary but a kerchief dandifying his thick bicep in the next scene?
As applied on a film set hereabouts, the word 'damage' means the trickle or torrent of blood and the patchwork of bruises and tears and rends on garments, etc. Damage accumulates over a scene as punches are exchanged or a man is riddled with bullets or a woman is tossed about like a ragdoll. Think of Slyvester Stallone and any of the Rocky movies – the boxing bouts that always make up the climax are all about damage accumulating over a scene. But, damage also accumulates over the arc of a movie – and this damage may not be visible as blood or broken bones, but it is of the more important kind, because seeing emotional or internal damage accumulate draws us closer to the point of view of a protagonist or character. It is the accumulated internal damage that makes Oedipus Rex an unforgettable tragedy. It is the internal damage that makes us angry at the perfect man of Hindu myths, Ram, for treating his wife with the cowardice he shows in defending her.
This very idea – that internal damage accumulates or transposes itself across scenes over the arc of the movie is an utterly alien concept to the writer-director of Kohinoor. Because of this, the performers fail to perhaps give their best performances, and the blame for it should be Aakash Adhikari's. Don't be fooled by the commercial success Kohinoor is enjoying – it isn't a deserved success.        
But there is heartrending poignancy in watching Shree Krishna Shrestha romance Shweta Khadka onscreen. Khadka is awkward on her own; there is something ever so slightly off about her as a performer. But with Shrestha she seems to become illuminated from within: the chemistry between them is believable because they seem to move as one, connected across time and space. Just before intermission, when Khadka's character Kohinoor waves goodbye to Shrestha's character Abhishek, the mind can't but race out of the theater into the real world and imbue the gesture with added meaning. The manner in which Kohinoor and Abhishek's characters seem obsessed with death also begins to gain new meaning. When Abhishek comes home injured and cries to his mother, and when Mithila Sharma, playing Abhishek's mother, reminds him that Mother is still there, and that all would be alright, it is impossible not to ask if Shrestha didn't know of his approaching death, if he doesn't mean to wave good bye when he waves in the very ultimate frames of the movie. Thusly informed by reality, the viewer is mesmerized by Shree Krishna Shrestha, seeking clues in the signs and symbols of his gestures and words. Everywhere, in the odd bulge of his neck and arms, or in the strain sometimes seen when he forces an emotion or a line a bit too far, the viewer finds clues pointing to the imminent unraveling.
Kohinoor is a very typical Nepali film – indeed, it is one of a dying breed, attacked on one side by mindless drivel the likes of Miss Nepal, and on the other side by more urbane movies that are either original and inspired or carefully copied from foreign sources. Although all of its ideas about women are flawed – a virgin whore is as entirely a patriarchal construct as a virgin mother is – it seems to attract women to the theater in large numbers. It will perhaps continue to be loved out of affection for the performer we have lost, but it should also be criticized for its bad directing.

Pull quote: Aakash Adhikari's forte seems not to be in telling a story, but in yelling it to the face of the viewer, and with such goldfish-like attention span that he'll repeat the exact same line, with the exact same platitude of emotion or curiosity, at the beginning of a scene, at the middle of it, and once more, at the end of it. Such repetitions are a waste of theater air-conditioning, not to mention the time and attention of the viewer.

Some Things Don't Translate
Murray Kerr's Tandav deserves bigger numbers of viewers than it is currently enjoying. Go, watch it!

Tandav is the story of three friends who came together as street children and, finding common love and strife, reunite for a brief night to fight their way out of the morass into which they have been pushed by a common enemy. It's snappily cut, genuinely funny and moving in turns, and features an engrossing motley of odd characters that lend colour to the proceedings.
The Nepali film-watcher who will buy a terrible print of a Korean thriller on DVD, but will claim to have not seen a Nepali movie in years is, in my opinion, a hypocrite. For such a viewer, any work by a Nepali will seem sub-standard and not worth the effort or the money needed to go to the theater. Such viewers judge Nepali movies by never watching it, or from trailers seen while watching a Hollywood tent-pole pile of dung in full 3-D glory. (Aside: Nepali filmmakers also desperately need to learn how to cut trailers. The Tandav trailer was less successful than the movie itself. Alternately, Kabaddi had a trailer better than the movie.) This situation needs to change. Just as with government, we also get to consume the kind of culture that we deserve, not the kind we desire.
I should mention now that I had the opportunity of reading the screenplay before Tandav was made, and I had thought that the story still lacked something. But I was surprised when I jumped in my seat and said – 'Already?' – when the interval was announced. I had been waiting for a lull in the story to tell me that the movie was going to start in earnest. It had already raced ahead, and only during the interval did I notice that I hadn't been taking notes at all – I had been engrossed, for reasons good and bad, but still engrossed enough that I forgot to take notes.
So, if a Nepali film-watcher who hasn't been to the theaters in a while goes to see Tandav, she will see echoes of familiar Hollywood movies, strangely rendered Nepal-India border, and many strands of topical stories woven through without calling obvious attention to them. Let's take the minor characters: the strange prologue – unsuccessfully recalling the structure of a typical Tarantino prologue – does a spry job of setting up half a dozen characters and gets rid of five of them. Pramod Agrahari, playing a criminal type who is very fond of aphoristic pronouncements and making roti and potato curry, mouths quite a few 'bad words', which seem to have made it past the Censor for the sole reason that the words are spoken in non-Nepali languages.
There is an ex-Maoist combatant trying to find salvation in Christianity, but finds meaning in his own prophetic book, declaring, 'Dead men don't rise!' after the pushy pastor in his entourage becomes the first to fall to a volley of bullets. Kerr is particularly unkind to Christian missionaries, and therefore this anti-Lazarus declaration by the ex-combatant. Bipin Karki, who seems to have very clear ambitions to be the most chameleonic and 'busy' actor on screen, plays a bottle-hugging tout who is a very persuasively crafted character-study. There is a kid who helplessly watches girls from his ethnicity being smuggled across the border but, when the moment comes, rises to the occasion like a rocket, stealing his girl away from the evil that surrounds them. A bearded pseudo-Hippie white man is so obsessed with himself that he imagines all good and all bad emanate from him. Kerr is sympathetic to the woman forced into prostitution and the boy who isn't allowed to study at his workplace, but he seems to hate the misplaced savior instincts of white men and missionaries who go around trying to save souls. Is this Kerr's calculation for how he imagines the audience thinks of missionaries and white men, or is it projection of his own prejudices? There aren't enough clues in the text to parse this question.
The rapper Lahure, Namrata Shrestha and Alan Gurung play Amrit, Maya and Amir, the trio of street-children friends. Lahure plays Amrit – a smuggler slave owned by a vain gangster Ganesh, played by Anup Baral. Ganesh owns the lives of the three young children, but Amrit finds a way to send Amir, the youngest of them, to school, and eventually make him a half-competent policeman. Oppression eventually inspires a greater opposing force: when the Indian police catch Amrit and turn him, he sets off on a mission to rescue the ones he loves, and at the same time, finish off the menace that has haunted him all his life. Baral plays Ganesh with relish – it seems Baral delights in roles that are larger than life, allowing for big theatrics, rather than take on subtler, more nuanced roles. He sings his way through the movie and goes out with a bang just when he hits the right note. Lahure's performance is staccato: the bravado is there but his face rarely ever moves to show any emotion. Shrestha is lovingly filmed by Narendra Mainali, and she seems to relish the opportunity to play a bad girl. Alan Gurung has an ever-present trace of mischief on his face, even as he sits through a scene reminiscent of the strange interlude in PT Anderson's Boogie Nights, when Dirk Diggler goes to visit a cocked-out drug aficionado and zones out while a yellow man throws firecrackers around at random intervals. There are intriguing traces of the sources from which Tandav seems to have been derived, but it has been shot to bring those elements to the border-lands.
Kerr switches without prejudice between Bhojpuri-inflected Hindi, Nepali, English and Tamang, thus showing Nepal as it is: a cultural and linguistic mélange where malice visits everyone equally. I appreciate his skill in weaving through different concerns about the society. But, some things don't translate. This could be a consequence of the fact that the dialogues were first written in English. (Suntali, for which I wrote the screenplay, also suffers from the same problem.) Or, some things don't translate into the Nepali context because of their derivative nature. Sometimes the back stories are too obscurely buried in the subtext. The action should have been done better, especially since Kerr declares self-referentially and in-text that the prologue is merely the trailer; once the story crosses the border into Nepal, it won't be an unsophisticated Bhojpuri movie, but an exciting Nepali action movie. Yet, it must be admitted that Tandav is a fast-paced narrative with strange moments of beauty. With Tandav, I believe the cinematographer Narendra Mainali has reached the half-way mark between his two previous works: Mukhauta as the low mark, and ...Dambarey Dendrite as the high-mark.
So, yeah – go, watch Tandav!

A Festival of the Expected
'Bataos pani kasari – Oo laati jo thiyi... Kahile najadik bhai, thahai bhayena.'
Writer-director Kumar Bhattarai's Utsav is a movie made with the mantra 'this is what the audience wants'. As such, it becomes a parody of its own expectations, and causes several and severe cases of déjà-vu: most of the scenes and conceits feel only a hair's breadth away from being entirely recognizable from scenes and conceits elsewhere. Utsav adds more evidence to the conviction we all have felt that Nepali cinema is, ultimately, a beast that gorges on its own tail, along with simpler fares from across the southern border, and regurgitates in entire chunks works that seem comfortably familiar, with only the slightest varnish of originality brushed on here and there. Simply put: Utsav is like a lot of other Nepali and Hindi films, yo.
(This, when young directors of Bhattarai's generation are unmistakably coining new idioms for Nepali cinema. Also, Bhattarai was one of the writers of Uma, Tsering Rhitar Sherpa's thoughtful work.)
Read the line in italics, quoted above from the movie, for instance. The first sentence gives us clues about convenient coincidences sprinkled throughout, and the second about how, perhaps subconsciously, Bhattarai borrows tropes and language from an insular world walled-in with movie-references, and which isn't interested in interacting with the real world. Otherwise, Bhattarai could have easily said – yeah, even an illiterate laati would be able to use sign language or grunts or gestures to communicate. Or, at least replaced the word najadik with najik. I'm not just being pedantic about logic or a word. I'm pointing to the reason why Ustav becomes so familiar:  it is almost entirely derivative, and the reason behind it, I believe, is the tendency of filmmakers to presume that 'this is what the audience wants,' and thereby forego their duty to actually create, from thin air of thick reality, a work with sufficient originality.
Saugat Malla, as Jimba Singh Thakuri, sings in Thamel bars and picks up white women. He is also still studying, but we don't know what or why. He has three friends – Kaji, played by a sniveling but sometimes funny Gaurav Pahari; Chakku, with Sanjog Koirala marking his debut; and Urvashi, a motor-mouth tomboy played by Menuka Pradhan, possibly so that she could add spunk to counterbalance the unthreatening and damp sparkle of Prakriti Shrestha's Nisha, who joins the 'gang of four' and sets the first half in motion. They cavort, go rafting, sing on motorbikes, flirt. Most of what they do onscreen is inconsequential to the thrust of the narrative, or even interesting.
A fart-joke, for instance, when the boys want their favorite seats in a restaurant. Or how actors onscreen will say – 'hasaayo yaar yesle!', but the audience is either not given a joke to laugh at, or the audience isn't laughing at what the friends are finding funny onscreen. Of course, every writer-director is an especially confident person, and thinks of himself as the funniest person around. But, some actually are funny, and others aren't, and oftentimes, Bhattarai's deliberated comedy fails to find its mark. The more successful comedies don't tell jokes in-scene to make people laugh: the scenes themselves are carefully crafted jokes. The less you tell people to laugh, and instead, give them situations that make people laugh, the more successful the comedy: think of Madan Krishna Shrestha spotting a coconut in Rani Pokhari and losing his cool, imagining his idiot son has drowned there.
Jimba has a dying mother, an abusive, hateful father, and a half-brother begotten from the aforementioned laati, and now hidden away in an orphanage. He also has a fan and nemesis of sorts, who wants to buy his songs and use them to become a rock star. The half-brother – plump little kid – also happens to be terminally ill, and thus Jimbe arrives at a crossroads: he has to choose to continue to cavort senselessly with his friends, or, take the nobler path and take care of his half-brother.
He takes the nobler path, but that only means that he disappears entirely from the story for a long time. If we are to understand that Jimba's predicament is the core around which the frivolities of 'friendship as a festival' are woven, what is the sense in having Jimba disappear? The answer is easy – it is so that the other friends can go in search of him. But, everything that happens until he is rediscovered is a total waste of screen-time. This inability to correctly place the pulse of the narrative is the biggest flaw in Utsav. Again, the mantra that 'this is what the audience wants' forces someone like Bhattarai – who has shown before Utsav that he can write better fare – to include a mud-wrestling scene as a piece of comedy. It is not funny, except for the fact that a humongous man gets punched in the crotch. As a plot point, what happens at the end of the subsequent scene is important. The three or four other scenes leading up to it are utterly inconsequential, and do nothing more than to lengthen the movie and provide more frequent opportunities for the viewer to become disenchanted with Utsav.
Sandip Chhetri, who was restrained in Red Monsoon, seems to be the only actor in Utsav to have actually enjoyed himself as Raunak, a rich man who buys Jimba out in order to become a rock-star. He has a cut-out parody of a role to play, and he does so with relish. He is also fortunate in that his scenes are opposite Saugat Malla and Menuka Pradhan, who can both meet his challenge onscreen. I particularly enjoyed Raunak's address to his fans assembled to watch his concert. After a long, involved and drunk rant while driving – often his hands gesticulating far from the steering wheel – he is in a hospital bed. He addresses his fans and says – I became a rock-star here, now I go on to become a star... up there. I doubt if Bhattarai meant the lines as a joke, and I doubt if Chhetri kept a straight face while delivering them. He explodes then, exuberant, and delivers lines with bombast and nearly-cynical zeal. At least he had fun.
     If Utsav hadn't been made to cater to what the team behind it imagined that the audience wants, and instead taken the risk of actually exploring an original idea, then perhaps it would have given us new insights into what Kathmandu-based, urban, middle-class friendship means in its socio-political, aesthetic or erotic qualities. But, Utsav studiously avoids any commentary on the political or the erotic. If this movie is geared towards young adults and young professionals of the city, imagine what this reluctance on the part of the filmmaker to engage in the erotic or political implies. The viewers are being treated as infants incapable of parsing complex cultural information. Basically, filmmakers who want to 'give the audience what it wants' are treating people who buy movie tickets as morons, simpletons who need to be protected from big words, new worlds, uncomfortable questions. That is the position stooges appointed by the state to oversee a censor board do all over the world: put blinders on the people, so that their gaze doesn't stray unto glimpses of reality. It is lamentable that our entire cinema industry seems to want to be complicit in keeping its audience – and by extension, the citizenry – docile and unthinking.

Pull Quote: The more successful comedies don't tell jokes in-scene to make people laugh: the scenes themselves are carefully crafted jokes. The less you tell people to laugh, and instead, give them situations that make people laugh, the more successful the comedy: think of Madan Krishna Shrestha spotting a coconut in Rani Pokhari and losing his cool, imagining his idiot son has drowned there.

Fuzzy Pink Boxing Gloves

'Jor se maar! Aur jor se maar, Mary!'

In spite of the impressive training montage on the boulders of a river in Manali, Director Omung Kumar's Mary Kom isn't a boxing movie. It is an exercise in normalizing the threat that comes from margins. Priyanka Chopra's Mary Kom isn't as much a champion boxer as she is – daughter, Manipuri, Indian, girlfriend, wife, mother. It is as if to show the real Mary Kom's real chops as an extraordinary athlete would threaten the Grand Indian Project. She has to be brought to her place, repeatedly, and slotted in as: daughter, mother, Indian, woman.
After the theater was cleaned following a houseful-show at Jai Nepal, and as we were entering the foyer, somebody asked the ticket-checker if the show was really for 'Mary Kaun.' Two things from this: a) most of the initial rush to see Mary Kom is because of the audience's desire to see Sunil Thapa, most of whose filmography most people in that audience is unfamiliar with; and b) Mary Kaun is really the answer – because Mary Kom is entirely about the fragmented identities of a woman, who also just happens to be a five-time world champion boxer.
The movie begins with a very pregnant Kom being walked towards the hospital in the middle of a curfew. The fact that curfews are a regular part of life in Manipur is reinforced by a visitor who jokes by telling Kom to have her next child either before or after the curfew. Kom and her husband are attacked by security personnel who brutally beat up the husband before realizing that Kom has gone into labor. The security personnel then escort the couple towards the hospital, only to be attacked by armed militia out to hunt security personnel. But when the leader of the militia discovers who the mother going into labor is, the security personnel are told to rush to the hospital. That scene is the only interruption in the otherwise idyllic depiction of rural Manipur. Omung Kumar and creative director Sanjay Leela Bhansali have managed to merely hint at the decades of violence and oppression of dissenting voices, and, instead, glorified the idyllic and the individual.
Kom's father is himself a retired wrestler. It is a question of perpetual vexation to Manipuri athletes that although they have supplied India with so many top-rate athletes, the larger India, its imagination unable to rise past the chicken-neck in the east, still questions their Indianness. The proto-villain in Mary Kom is a Hindi-speaking, north-Indian upper-caste career bureaucrat who seems never to have engaged in any sport but still controls the fates of the women boxers in the Indian team. The centre does everything in its power to convince the margins that the margins are very much in the center. To do this, it will give large educational quotas to the Sikkimese. And to keep the Manipuris quiet it invests in sports, promoting athletics at the high school level, so that, instead of aiming for greatness through entering the Foreign Ministry or the Indian Administrative Services, the Manipuri youth will strive to earn fame in the athletic or sports arena. Then, they come home to their villages, tend to their cattle, worry about repaying loans. Meanwhile, the countryside burns with state-sponsored violence and the fire of revenge. The wider audience for Hindi movies will not like such ideas, and therefore such ideas don't appear in the movie except when they can be rendered cute, cut into pretty figures useful for emotional manipulation, but never challenging the intellect.
The biggest villain, of course, is Kom's gender. She is a female, with a womb, and breasts full of milk. Even to come into her own as a person, the coach has to change her name into something more manageable. Her father disowns him, until he senses that she is losing her focus during an important match and yells at the TV - 'Jor se maar! Aur jor se maar, Mary!' The coach is so furious about Kom deciding to get married that he disowns her. Her sons make it impossible for her to practice with the punching bag. And yet, the movie insists upon reducing her to the same gendered roles of daughter, wife, mother. There could have been a biopic of a world champion boxer (five times over) who beats all odds to win fantastically contested bouts. There could have been the adrenaline rush of seeing the grace and lightning quickness of a seasoned fighter defending her titles in the ring. Instead, we get long, weepy melodrama that must have come out of Bhansali's notebook on the twee and the tried.
Priyanka Chopra gives the role the best of her physical and actorly abilities. As her coach, Sunil Thapa's Coach Singh does a decent job of providing her with the foil that a boxing coach is supposed to – focus at all times, or you'll shame me, etc. Mary Kom also shows how, with the right opportunity, the grandmaster of Nepali movie badassery can do nuanced drama. At the least, it is far better than the loud, misplaced hyper-theatrics we saw from Thapa in Mukhauta.
Mary Kom will interesting to people who love Bhansali's kind of melodrama, but it is a badly done boxing movie, and a disingenuous biopic. It does token lip-service to the real troubles in places like Assam, Nagaland and Manipur, but injects a title-card asking people to rise for the Indian national anthem. Instead of daring to look directly at the political and personal circumstances around Mary Kom the boxer, we're asked to watch Priyanka Chopra in a Bollywood masala flick.

The centre does everything in its power to convince the margins that the margins are very much in the center:  to keep the Manipuris quiet it invests in sports and athletics, so that, instead of aiming for success in government and administration, the Manipuri youth will strive to earn fame in the sports arena.

Finding Padukone

'It is funny – how you can cry underwater?'

Finding Fanny, a small, comic road-trip movie written by Homi Adjania and Kersi Khambatta, and directed by Adjania, succeeds in finding its aesthetic success almost entirely in the person of Deepika Padukone. It makes poignant observations about the female body – the lust and the vanity it inspires, its ability to find an internal liberation, the unfathomable treasures of beauty it contains. Finding Fanny is both about men looking at women, and about a woman looking inward: the gaze objectifies the female body, but in parallel, it also becomes introspective. It is funny and quietly moving, inspiring sympathy towards the oddest ensemble of characters stuffed into a rusty car in quite some time now.
In a Goan village are two widows, mother and daughter in law, waiting for men who can never return. Rosie, the mother in law, is a formidable village matriarch, taking everybody's matter into her own hands, ruining weddings and funerals. Dimple Kapadia, playing the shallow, vain, but ultimately utterly harmless Rosie, still retains the radiance of youth in a body that has become voluminous: if you have seen the trailer for the movie, you remember the gag with the bend and split and a fan for a cover. When Pankaj Kapoor enters her life in the form of Don Pedro – a brandy appraising pursuer of nudes – an elaborate courtship begins. Pedro is the sort of exaggeration that only an actor like Kapoor can pull off – his split-personality zamindar in Matru ki Bijli ka Mandola is only one stop removed from Don Pedro. Rosie's vanity and overbearing zeal meets its match when Pedro paints a nude of her, seeing right through the layers of Rosie's attire. Of course, the conceit is exploited for comic effect, but it is also very poignant in its reach: worshipped by generations, that particular body has been recorded on celluloid since it was sixteen years old. With age, it has changed, now burying the barb of our gaze deep within its corpulent folds. Nothing is as sad as a body that ages before the eyes of everybody – and nothing becomes a greater accomplishment for an actor but to have the noble instrument, the actor's body, as a performance, over decades inciting the entire range of emotions one is supposed to feel towards the flesh and corpus of another.
Arjun Kapoor is also in the movie. But there is no point in spending ink on him – he sulks blandly, screams a few times, and manages to safely stay in the margins of the viewer's curiosity. More interesting is a boy who scowls when forced to take part in a feast procession as an angel, or made to look after his father's goats, but beams brightly when he gets to dress up to attend a funeral. He repeatedly flips off Arjun Kapoor. Perhaps it was the director giving him the finger for his performance, which had the consistency of cardboard sitting overnight in a shallow puddle.
Naseeruddin Shah – whose quest to find the only woman whom he ever loved is the reason behind the road-trip that goes all the way from the village to the farthest place imaginable: across the state line, into Karnataka, where nothing is legible and where nobody lives – plays Ferdy, a loner and weak-willed slob. His job is to complain and cry and drown in childlike joy at the prospect of meeting the love of his life after forty-six long years. Ferdy is an interesting character study, but nothing more. Ferdy is a post-empire Quixote, who needs not just a Sancho Panza, but an entire retinue of eccentrics to help him along the quest. Just like Don Pedro and Rosie, Ferdy hints at the soul of a forgotten Goa, where time has perhaps stalled since before the invasion by the Indian Army, where houses are still named Lisboa and, if the mood strikes, the elaborate and baroque manners of a forgotten era are brought out. Were Kapadia, Kapoor and Shah actors of lesser caliber and reach, the flatness of their caricatures would have been exaggerated. But, in Finding Fanny, they adequately entertain, and in a few instances, inspire the kind of thoughtfulness that small, lighthearted comic art-house movies aspire to.
The true revelation in Finding Fanny is Deepika Padukone. Not pushed to hysterics or to a plastic mannequin role, Padukone is delightful here. From her very first appearance on the screen, she has been much, much glamorized: her toned limbs and long legs, her large eyes and the dimple that appears when she smiles – too many directors have reduced her to just these attributes. Here, Adjania uses a devilish trick: Padukone's Angie is a virgin widow! Kissed but once, at the wedding altar, in the presence of God! At once unattainable, yet also without the threat of a cad stealing her away from you or me, so that we may quietly admire her – the forlorn walk, the pitiable ennui that traps her. There is no cake of cosmetics between her and the viewer. Angie is capable of great acts of kindness and thoughtfulness – but her greatest ability is to show kindness towards herself. Padukone once leans her head on a car window and cries just a tear, before composing herself. In those few seconds she does more performing than the others do through the movie – Angie cries for the dead husband and the precious years of youth that passed her by and perhaps for a country and a people now declining into oblivion. The beautiful facade remains, but there isn't much left by the way of inheritance, by the way of a concrete past.

Pull Quote: Not pushed to hysterics or to a plastic mannequin role, Padukone is delightful here. From her very first appearance on the screen, she has been much, much glamorized: her toned limbs and long legs, her large eyes and the dimple that appears when she smiles – too many directors have reduced her to just these attributes.


'Net pe sab kuch hai - bachcha banane se bomb banane ki recipiyan.'

Writer-director Habib Faisal's Daawat e Ishq has hit three birds with one stone – a lighthearted commentary on the dowry tradition, a rare Bollywood film about food, and a beautiful update on the tehzeeb tradition of once great cities like Hyderabad and Lakhnow. On the surface it is a love story between the confidence woman and her mark. But it has at its heart the subtler craft of tradition now ignored, of language and food and manners now no longer visible in Hindustan. It harkens back to the time when Islamic values and manners were the basis for Hindi movies.
Now, with the rise of ethno-fascism in Mumbai, tehzeeb and aadab – which once led the gruff-voiced Raj Kumar to plead to Meena Kumari to not set foot on the ground, lest her beautiful feet get dirty – are no longer central to the Hindustani ethos, or even to that of Bollywood. It is heartening then to hear local dialects and witness a city's love for its food and its manners. I hope someday Nepal gets its own food-movie – one where the love and fuss for precision is reflected in the filmmaker's craft also. A cuisine that has demanded and received the attention it deserves, the better for the flavors and aromas and textures to spring forth and embrace the enthusiast. What I am saying is - Daawat e Ishq made me hungry for more.
Parineeti Chopra's Gulrez, a small-town shoe-salesgirl, has become bored of rejecting arranged-marriage suitors because they speak bad English. They want to marry her only for the dowry that her father has set aside for her. The father, played by Anupam Kher, is a clerk at the High Court in Hyderabad, and could easily get richer if he took bribes, but he doesn't take bribes, so he isn't able to meet most demands for dowry (jahej, in Hyderabadi dialect). When Gulrez falls in love with a man with an American accent – learned at a call center, in preparation for a move to the USA – she arranges for the parents to meet to arrange a marriage. The parents of the boy, hypocritical middleclass liberals, refuse money in jahej, but demand help to send the boy to the USA, for four years of studies. This really pisses Gulrez off – at the spinelessness of her suitor, at her father's helplessness, at the fact that traditions are rigged against women. She must have her revenge. Hyderabad chooses Lucknow as its culinary equal, and the father and daughter travel there to participate in the Lucknavi tradition of tehzeeb, and to eat their way through a simple storyline about conning prospective suitors.
In Lucknow she meets her match in Aditya Roy Tapur's Tariq. What follows is standard fare – girl has her eyes on the prize, boy falls for the girl, gets his heart broken, and then repaired through forgiveness and discovery. That is the plot – and it is nothing spectacular. But, Faisal uses food as a way to enter the realm of old-world Islamic values and traditions. There are numerous sequences where people eat, with much relish, and the feast continues. The gustatory becomes essential to the enjoyment of the movie itself: the legendary cuisines of the two cities become the basic characteristic of either city. When a con threatens to bring ruination to a culinary house of great repute, the lawyer pleads to his clients – don't be emotional, be professional, because if you go to jail, who will make the biriyani? On you rests the reputation of the entire city!
Chopra's Gulrez is in the tradition of the small town feisty girl with ambitions of global scale. She wants to study in New York rather than be a wife in purdah for a local bumpkin. Before her, Kangana Ranawat has played in a number of movies the local girl with a global yearning. These women want, above all, to be recognized for who they are – beyond being daughters and wives. There is always the mustachioed villain of Tradition in their way, and the rescue must always come from a man who rejects traditional notions of masculinity (even though he will have gym-toned muscles and easily beat up half-dozen men if the feisty girl gets into trouble).
Kapoor's Tariq doesn't have as much to do as Chopra's Gulrez does: he is merely the foil for Gulrez's ambition. It is entirely irrelevant if Tariq and Gulrez get their happily ever after or not – if she were to have escaped to New York and become a shoe designer there, and Tariq been punished for his parents' greed for jahej, no moral wrong would have been created. Therefore, Tariq becomes reduced to the ornamental, precisely in the way the husband in Mardaani, a female version of Taken, is reduced to being insulted as a way to punish his strong-willed policewoman wife, and to saying over the phone – get your revenge! In that sense, Tariq belongs to the continuing tradition of emasculating the muscular hero – just the same as in Finding Fanny, reviewed here last week.
Actors like Ranawat and Parineeti Chopra require small-town, small-budget movies in order to really come out of the shadow of the franchise-star. These movies contain better commentary and considered reflection on the realities of the Indian society. The door that opened after Mahi Gill dragged a mattress through a field (maize? sugarcane? somehow the latter makes more sense, because the rural illicit would require a ganne ka khet) continues to allow girls from small towns to want better husbands, better access to the world beyond their narrow corridor of home-workplace/college-home, better mirrors in which to search for their reflections.

Pull quote: Tehzeeb and aadab – which once led Raj Kumar to plead to Meena Kumari to not set foot on the ground, lest her beautiful feet get dirty – are no longer central to the Hindustani ethos, or even to that of Bollywood. It is heartening then to hear local dialects and witness a city's love for its food and its manners.

Must Cinema have a Function?

No. Not really. At its best, it doesn't even have to entertain the audience.
The least useful of cinema's functions is the 'social' function, or, essentially, the propagandist function. Usually, the faction of the population most vocally demanding for a socio-political or religio-moral function from cinema is the dominant faction, seeking to put the medium in use to accuse, oppress or in other ways marginalize the identity, aspirations and behaviors of minorities. Think of how little the northeastern states of India are shown in Hindi movies, and you'll begin to understand why most of you don't know about Irom Sharmila, but you know what a sweet old man Gandhi was, for showing Munna Bhai the right way out.
To ask for a nationalist cinema is to agree to belong to a majority that behaves oppressively towards the minorities. Take, for example, movies promoting the idea of a 'Greater Nepal.' These movies aren't concerned with history – stem from a sense of impotence in the presence. If they were concerned with history, they would mention that in the few decades while Gorkha held dominion over the lands lost, people in those lands were not very happy to have become subjects of a faraway kingdom with brutal war tactics. The princes who had lost to the Gorkhalis persistently tried to win the lands back, often allying with whomever the Gorkhalis were fighting. Often times, the jagir or zamindari for land that Gorkhalis lost went to descendents of princes and zamindars from whom the Gorkhalis had conquered land.
Now, ask yourself how smart it is to claim the lost lands back for a people – Nepalis – who aren't all descendents of Gorkhali conquerors, but mostly of people subjugated by the Gorkhalis! Ask yourself if there is honesty in Nepali filmmakers safely ensconced in Kathmandu presuming to speak for two centuries and many generation of people (in 'Greater Nepal') who have grown up not feeling or being forced to feel Nepali.
Nationalism is always thrust upon a people, especially in a fractious country like Nepal. I am from Tanhun, and I remember feeling anger and indignation when I read for the first time about how Prithvi Narayan Shah conquered Tanhun. Not through military might – Gorkha was nowhere as strong as Tanhun in those days, and Prithvi Narayan, having grown up as a child in Tanhun, knew he couldn't do much without conquering Tanhun. Therefore, he and his ministers hid weapons overnight under the sands of a riverbank that was the borders between the two kingdoms, invited Tanhun for a parlay – for which both sides were required by dharma to come unarmed – and surprised Tanhun by digging swords and scimitars from the sand and threatening to kill them. At the very onset of his campaign to create a large jagir for his descendents, and for the descendants of houses of his body-servants, Prithvi Narayan betrayed the very people who had given him his education and ambition. As a boy from Tanhun, I found his behavior coarse and crass, not at all kingly.
But, my ancestors had migrated to Tanhun only four generations before me, from a place in Gorkha called Lapsibot. Why was I sharing indignation with the betrayed king and ministers of Tanhun? How stupid of me to conflate myself with other figures in history! How juvenile of me to take the Marshyangdi River for a border that separated me from the clan-betrayer Prithivi Narayan and his unchivalrous  ministers who broke the dharma of a parlay? In my defence, I was a boy of eleven when I first read about the incident. Most of the men – for they are mostly men – who engage in the most virulent rhetoric of nationalism in cinema are grownups.
If cinema must have a religio-moral or socio-political function, and if the men engaged in creating that propaganda are as (non)smart or (un)thoughtful as I was at eleven, should we even listen to them? If filmmakers create ideas that shape the society – is this not the essence of the argument for having the Censor Board at all? – and if elected leaders are ultimately most responsible for shaping the society that we live in, can't I make the case that the nationalism of filmmakers are political leaders are equally stupid and unthinking?
I think it is dangerous to say that cinema must have a transformative quality on the society as a whole. The only sort of cinema that can claim to do that is Propagandist Cinema. And anyone with even a paau of brains knows that propaganda can't be inclusive of conflicting or contradictory moral viewpoints. Which means, only the majority – with its religion, guns, and money – will force upon the rest a singular idea of nationalism that will not accommodate any other point of view.
What cinema can do is have a transformative quality on an individual. The Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami discusses the difference between a movie that keeps you on the edge of the seat throughout, but you can't recall anything distinctly after reaching home. A lot of noise and loud emotions, a sense of catharsis as you exit the theater, but ultimately empty. And the other kind puts you to sleep, its density becomes oppressive, and you have a vague sense of unease and incompleteness as you exit the theater. But, years later, you suddenly sit up in the night, awoken from your sleep by something from that movie which now you understand. This is change that happens within the individual – far away from thrills and laughs, far away from a 'social' message.

Haider – Not as an Adaptation of Hamlet

—'Kis ka janaja hai?'
—'Kisi murde ka hai!'
Haider, Bhardwaj and Peer

And will he not come again?
   And will he not come again?
     No, no, he is dead,
     Go to thy death-bed,
   He never will come again.
Hamlet, W. Shakespeare

Let us consider, for argument's sake, that Haider isn't an adaptation of Hamlet, but an original work by the director Vishal Bhardwaj, who co-wrote the screenplay along with the journalist Bashrat Peer. This allows us to do away with inconsequential characters, and allows us the freedom from spending time comparing Haider to Hamlet – the latter has been around for long enough that most of us know at least the most famous five syllables of a tortured soliloquy, while some of you lovely folks have yet to go to the theatre to watch Haider.
There is some Gandhigiri in Haider – that revenge only breeds further revenge, or an eye for an eye, et cetera. After watching Haider for the third time, I am convinced that the Gandhigiri is a red-herring, whereas the practice and pointing-out of Chootiyapanthi is not only deliberate, but the very intent of the movie. Bhardwaj has successfully called out the Indian establishment and Army as two-faced chootiyas, and has done that with the verve and grace of an astute storyteller.
The most extant bit of Haider that Shakespeare had nothing to do with makes up the prologue to Haider's story. Hilaal, a surgeon, doesn't refuse his services to anyone – not even a 'militant' that the Army is after. His wife Ghazala, played by the ever-stronger Tabu, has gone world-weary playing just the wife, teaching at a primary school about what love in a family is, but not finding it in her own home. Hilaal follows his professional karma, but neglects his dharma towards his household – with catastrophic results. He also puts his faith in God to look after the family.
In Hilaal, Bhardwaj has identified a generation that refused to believe that the violence was directed at them, that they ought to take responsibility for stopping or removing the cycle of violence. But in the same generation are men – like Kay Kay Menon's Khurram/Claudius, and Parvez/Polonius (but only the scheming half; the wisdom of Polonius is given to Kulbhushan Kharbanda, so that he may spout some Gandhi-ism convincingly) – who understand instinctively that only power matters, nothing more. Khurram must possess his sister-in-law, and for that he will gladly kill his brother. If Tabu is the eternally sad Kashmir, Parvez and Khurram are the invaders who have ravaged Kashmir through the millennia, outsiders desperately holding on to a prized possession until it is smothered into exploding rage.
Bhardwaj asks the viewer to look at the same situation in multiple ways. There is an extraordinarily moving sequence during the prologue that is revisited just before the interval. In the first iteration it is emotionally wrought, and in the second it is presented as a joke. A girl in the row behind me at QFX couldn't help laughing out at the joke, but the word she kept repeating desperately was very telling: she kept gasping, 'Bichara! Bichara!'
That sympathy was the result of the setup for the joke, injected into a tense, frightening scene in the prologue. Hundreds of Kashmiri men come out of their doors, one by one, to form a long line snaking towards the village school. The Army uses the classrooms to torture detainees in situ before trucking them away for more exotic torture routines in more exotic prisons. But, as the men make their way to being cracked-down upon, they all hold their identification papers, clearly visible to Army men standing with guns pointed at the downcast, dejected natives. It is ironic enough that anybody should have to identify themselves to total strangers, merely because of the accident of belonging or being bundled into a Nation. The men step out of their thresholds with the utter knowledge of their solubility – that a force greater than they could at any moment make them disappear into nothing. In that line of men walking you can see the terror that the Nation-State brings to a people in order to subjugate them. There are no citizens at the margin – there are only subjects, be it women denied equal rights, or minorities denied identity or right to self-determination, or even a voice with which to begin a discourse.
Cessation of war is unprofitable to moneylenders and gunrunners: the two men who bring Indian 'nationalism' in Army uniforms are both from South India. (That's Arvind Swami's character from Roja desperately throwing himself on a blazing tiranga to save Kashmir from 'terrorists' who were born there and are angry that a bunch of 'masala-dosas' are asking them to shout 'Jai Hind!') There are no nationalists at the margin, either: they belong neither to the State, nor do they feature in the imagining of the Nation.
Now the joke: after nearly a Pavlovian conditioning, the men of Kashmir circa 1995 – in Bhardwaj's telling, at least – have become so habituated to being humiliated and denied freedom of movement that they become incapable of voluntarily entering their own homes. They understood that they had to produce their identification papers to step outside their homes, but what do they show in order to enter their homes? A man stands outside his house, perplexed and uncomprehending, while his wife cajoles him, pleads to him to walk inside. Only when a stranger feigning authority gives the man a thorough search and takes his identification papers and orders him inside does the man enter his own home. The moment is genuinely funny, but also one that makes you gasp – 'Bichara! Bichara!' In reality, each of us is that man, sold shitbags of lies by the Nation, insulted by the State. But we rarely ever have the insight into our own situations to pity ourselves.
Haider also shows how the Nation-State, with its weapons and need to keep itself relevant, is the biggest terrorist around: never before in a Hindi movie has the controversial AFSPA been ridiculed so much, and for such good reasons. If the biggest group around with the most amount of ammunition also needs special laws to protect itself, it is only proof of its impotence and incompetence. At least, as Nepalis, we can learn from Haider to ensure that the new constitution guarantees a total absence of a law like India's AFSPA, or any other repressive laws that allow for murder and rape by people on salaries provided for by taxpayers.

In that line of men walking you can see the terror that the Nation-State brings to a people in order to subjugate them. There are no citizens at the margin – there are only subjects, be it women denied equal rights, or minorities denied identity or right to self-determination, or even a voice with which to begin a discourse.

Banging Cacophony, or,

"Mere mobile ka tire bhi puncture ho gaya, aur mere battery ka gadi bhi dead ho gayi."

Is you dumb? Dummm? If you is, Bang, Bang!
Two actors who know how bad they are at the acting job, and equally well understand how well their bodies are coveted by consumers of the Bollywood fare, do everything mechanical and gymnastic to sustain the attention of viewers long enough to let the movie end. If you pump enough money in for ridonkulous sequences, you'll get idiots to spend their money watching anything. Kaif and Roshan – yeah, we see you!
Knight and Day – with Tom Cruise and Camron Diaz – was bad enough; now we have its 'official' Bollywood remake. A tradition of filmmaking exists that insults the viewer. It comes from filmmakers believing they know what the audience wants. The audience mostly doesn't know what it wants when it goes to the theater – do you know what you want? Movies like Bang Bang require that we go to the theatre like sheep in a flock, unquestioning, mouths agape at silly stunts, drooling after the hyper-stylized bodies of the actors.
An international terrorist – are there just the 'domestic' variety in this age? – is locked up in London. His friends get him out, but he is an angry old man, so he wants the Koh-i-noor stolen from the Brits: this would insult both India and the UK, and would derail an extradition treaty between the two countries, keeping terrorists of the 'international' variety safe. The Koh-i-noor gets stolen, and the thief travels to Shimla from London, for the simple reason that the story requires him to meet Harleen, a bank receptionist who works in that town. The thief steals away the bored, boring receptionist, and she gets to have the adventure of a lifetime. That's the story.
Apart from a few song-dance routines and another couple of action sequences, there really is nothing in the movie at all. Nothing. For a big Bollywood release, the music is surprisingly disappointing. Not a line of dialogue remains with the viewer after the annoying loudness of the movie ends. Bang Bang goes from one pretty locale to another, from one car chase to another, and fizzles out, a damp squib that never delivers the big bang promised in the title.
Why is it that only women have boring lives, and only a man can come to their rescue? What is it about women in mainstream movies that make them easy to drag along on an international romp of crime and dispose of, if needed, by sending them home? Does she not need to have packed a valid passport on her way to the local restaurant, if she is to end up romping in Mediterranean beaches? Kaif does nothing useful in the movie – she pouts, squeals, shows how weak and stupid the female of the species is, and how she constantly needs to be saved by a hyper-muscular man because other beefed-up men are also after her. She plays the insulting role given to women in most stories since the Iliad or the Ramayana – that of a trophy over whom men fight. Her job is to run, duck, scream for help, act cute.
Roshan, whose physique must have been drafted by a committee of artists who draw comic-book characters, runs, ducks, beats up men and says things only the director must have found funny, and exacts revenge from an old man – the international terrorist played by Danny Denzongpa. It is a pity to see Denzongpa growl and pretend to hand-combat Roshan, at his advanced age, and still play the foreigner baddie. He is the stand-in for the Muslim threat to Indian nationalism. Javed Jaffery, another talented man wasted in the movie, says about a list of his associate terrorists – 'Don't give me the Pakistani batting lineup.' Somehow, that is supposed to be a joke.
Bang Bang runs on the strange fuel of star-power and pointlessness. It is a direct antithesis to Haider – reviewed here last week – in that it actively alienates the viewer from their own political and aesthetic reality. Bang Bang renders Indian locales in such a style as to make them utterly unrecognizable: the roofs of a shanty-town could have been from anywhere in the third-world; the snow-covered terraces of Shimla could have been shot anywhere with a bit of snow. Kaif and Roshan are both manufactured commodities, unlike characters in Haider who brought local flavor and dialects to the screen and kept the story rooted to the soil. That must be the reason Bang Bang goes as far out into the world as it can to tell the story of an Indian couple – so that the story appears alien, impossible to empathize with. Nowhere in it is the pretext of reality or relationship to the concerns of the people who'll come to the theaters to watch it. It is not a work that asks the viewer to think or feel: it asks merely that the viewer allow the movie to bang their heads into oblivion, to a hollow sensation of seeing the world pass by, but without the volition to enter the world being shown, or to pull the make-belief world into their own reality.
The asinine minds behind this cacophonous edifice to mediocrity reveal themselves as the parting joke in the movie. At the very end, when the hero has achieved his aims, and when the heroine has rescued him away from his handlers to a private paradise, the hero says there is just one more thing left to do. 'What?' asks the girl. 'Bang, bang,' says the hero, smirking at the audience. I've heard of the guy getting the girl at the end of a story. But, this was just crass and retch-inducing. Don't watch this movie if you've managed to stay away until now.

Bang Bang runs on the strange fuel of star-power and pointlessness. It is a direct antithesis to Haider – reviewed here last week – in that it actively alienates the viewer from their own political and aesthetic reality.

Narcissistic Gloss
Rekha – Malai thaha chha timi malai sanchchai maya garchhau. Tyesaile ma aru ko haat bata haina, timrai haat bata marna chahanchhu!

 Himmatwali, written and directed by Rekha Thapa, is a heartfelt tribute to Rekha Thapa, the actress. Sudarshan Gautam, starring opposite Rekha Thapa, is an interesting accessory to a somewhat hallucinogenic landscape created by Rekha Thapa the writer-director. Like an origami figure, the persona of Rekha Thapa repeatedly folds in onto itself, with Rekha Thapa the actor as its core, its kernel of truth from which the shape for everything else unfolds. Himmatwali is an exercise in unabashed narcissism: Rekha Thapa the manufactured ideal is its object and its subject – Rekha Thapa the individual is perhaps not even aware of the kaleidoscopic implications of her intense but cross-eyed navel-gazing. It appears at once graspable and eel-like in its electric ability to elude.
In a review elsewhere, an annoyed reviewer had asked: must Rekha Thapa make her character more masculine than feminine in order to show that the character is a strong woman? The de-feminization was problematic, it seemed – for a woman to be strong, she had to be a 'strong woman', rather than a masculine woman. While watching Himmatwali in a theater in the Gopi Krishna complex, I realized that yes, indeed, Rekha Thapa must make her characters more manly to show a strong woman. A woman's strength and her acquiescence to male expectations are antithetical.  
Because, the women in Thapa's movies have to live in two distinct contexts: the imagined world of local cinematic aesthetic – which has a long history, and where every woman is the product of a lineage of womanhood layered one atop another; and in the very real world of the women who come to the theater to watch her. To expect her on-screen personae to remain feminine is to utterly mistake the phenomenon that is Rekha Thapa. She doesn't correspond to the onscreen clichés Nepali womanhood. What Rajesh Hamal is to the male actors of Nepali cinema, Rekha Thapa is to the female actors: a star complete unto herself. In Himmatwali, she manages to make multiple references to her past exploits onscreen – from a line in a song to a tune she hums, to the very name of her character. Other actresses should be put to shame by what she has achieved through her masculine, brash insistence upon owning her own brand, her own strong voice: the is no other actress in Nepal who has created a persona so strong that it can point to itself, and that mere gesture becomes commodity. The bravura and cojones required for that necessitates de-feminization of her characters. She can't continue to play within the boundaries set by male insecurities and expect to find the strength of voice and exploits that she has otherwise brought to the screen.
Consider this – apart from the wife-beaters and gamblers and drunks of a village, minor characters that appear by the way of montage and only as props for the protagonist to show that able-bodied men mired in vices are no better than a disabled man, the only other person who is shown as truly an antagonist is another woman. A butch woman at that, wearing spikes for a bracelet, itching for a fight, and duking it out with Rekha Thapa when the moment calls for it. The only man who is shown as consistent in character without being servile or unthinking is that of Satya – played by the Canadian adventurer Sudarshan Gautam – who doesn't have either of his hands. It is natural then that a man might squirm with uneasiness to see how little men are of use to Rekha Thapa's vision for an entertaining movie. In the closed universe of Himmatwali, there isn't a single man who isn't in thrall of her, and who won't do her bidding. If that is what the entirely narcissistic – yet, oddly justified– vision of Rekha Thapa wants to show us, perhaps we ought to approach the work not with prejudices regarding what we want from her, but welcome what she can bring to us. A version of Nepali womanhood hitherto unseen is what she gives us, and we ought to be grateful for that.
Sudarshan Gautam's absent limbs are the second idea to be fetishized in Himmatwali, leading sometimes to wince-inducing remarks on the very practical act of ass-wiping, etc., and not doing any favors to the points about being differently-abled. But, there is something quite hypnotic about watching the "Smoking is Injurious to Health" sign flash onscreen when Satya, under stress, lights up a cigarette and puffs away. In close-up, the toes of the foot seem like only very slightly awkward fingers. Remarkably, within half an hour into the movie, Satya registers no longer as Gautam the amputee-adventurer-actor, but as a fictional character. The distance between the grotesque and the mundane is gradually bridged, so that it no longer seems strange that Gautam sips tea on a charpoy in a Terai village, the steam from the cup mingling with the morning fog.
Of course, Himmatwali is very self-indulgent on Rekha Thapa's part. The character is named Rekha Thapa, after all! But, I came out of the theater admiring her all the more for the blatant, in-your-face show of confidence. It would be hypocritical to force her to find a new tune to perform to, just in order to please us. At the least, she has the sort of courage that Nepali filmmakers rarely – if ever – show for doing whatever the eff she wants, and in the process, makes a strangely picaresque cinema in the Nepali Terai. For that – respect!


'Blah blah – blah blah, blah blah – blah blah...'

Director Farah Khan's new show of cacophony, Happy New Year, there is a split-second moment after the song 'Mohini,' after the introduction of the object of our collective fetish – the dimpled and Deepika Pakukone – and before her induction into the ranks of thieves bent upon revenge. In that split second, the flame-bursting lights have been extinguished, and the floors of the dance hall cleared of drunken men. Bottles lie scattered under confetti. A few women rush out in modest kurta-salwars. One of them calls out after the rest – 'Wait for me! Drop me home with you!'
These are the dancers in the chorus, matching Padukone's Mohini move for move, hip-thrust for hip-thrust, but now, with the magic hour long past, they have returned to being ordinary women – girls – and are rushing home in their modest dresses, to modest lives where they will cook and clean and perhaps worry through the day in petty jobs that keep them menial, keeps them 'in their place' in a city run by men, before returning in the evening to dance before drunken men shouting at them, because, throwing money at a woman makes her property. In that hurried escape from their place of employment and humiliation is a brief reclamation of normalcy and perhaps a shred of dignity.
That split-second moment was the only thing I found interesting in all of Happy New Year.
Farah Khan's latest is surprisingly bad. In her previous works where she collaborated with Shahrukh Khan and cheekily poked fun at the very fraternity to which they belonged, the gags were fresh, and the skewed insider-look at the industry knowingly winked at the viewer. Now, without the crutch of her primary text – the industry in which she grew up, and outside of which she seems to flounder for the lack of any reference point to grasp at – Khan cannot recreate any of the old magic with her frequent collaborator Shahrukh Khan.
The movie is utterly derivative, has an egomaniac's focus on just the one person's desires and ambitions – every other character is just a pawn, just a prop in the quest for the ostensible protagonist Charlie's revenge. Played by Shahrukh Khan – who, as if to hark back to Om Shanti Om, or to prove that he 'still got it', takes off his shirt for a few seconds to show the tortured ropes of muscles on his torso – Charlie is as one-dimensional as anybody could draw a character. His back-story of abandonment and need for revenge is revealed slowly through the length of the movie, but at no point does a new revelation make the narrative anymore (or, at all) compelling than before.
The problem is perhaps of the director not being able to gradually build up SRK's intensity through the movie, instead of letting him ham it up here and there in isolated blotches. Regardless of narrative diagnosis, unless one has an utterly short attention-span, there isn't anything in this movie that sustains and builds and shapes itself over the course of the narrative. What it has is frequent gags – cheap, vulgar gags. It engages in sexism, then chides a character in the movie for doing so. It says racist things, and then scolds another character in the movie for saying such things, and in that way tries to absolve itself.
Sonu Sood, Boman Irani, Abhishek Bachchan and another kid – playing the nerd – complete the team that will carry out a heist to exact revenge from an hotelier who wronged Charlie's father and led him to shame and suicide. The only way the heist can be carried out is if they get selected for the World Dance Championship finals at the villain's hotel in Dubai. As typical to any heist film, each member of the crew brings a crucial skill to the enterprise: Irani's character was friends and partners with Charlie's father, so he can crack the safe; Sood's character is just really strong, and can open and close valves... Okay – he is useless. Anybody could do that job. The nerd is also a hacker; and Bachchan's Nandu is a look-alike, humshakl, of the only man who controls the biometric access to the vault. Charlie, however, apart from his motivation for revenge, has no unique attribute or skill set. That isn't difficult to understand: Farah Khan needed a movie with Shahrukh Khan, preferably with a young, pretty thing who would dance and show the 'beauty of the booty-movement'. The rest was always going to be ornamental, incidental. Like all the slip-shod sprinkling of snippets of songs throughout – a sensuous glide along the length of a majestically odalisque Padukone, a shot of the pearls and dimples of her face, a blast of air through her silken hair – and, somehow, for this movie, such a sequence counts for logic.
Don't misunderstand me – for a Monday, on Happy New Year's second week in the theaters, the seats were full and people were laughing. The gags were endlessly repetitive: Nandu pukes, the old man has fits, Mohini tries to espeek in eengliss. But people seemed to have been caught in the Snell's Window of the narrow gag, of the immediate moment only. How can people forget so quickly, so readily? It was as if the movie was designed for people whose attention-span had shortened even from that of a short sketch to that of six-second vines. All the epileptic fit-inducing color and light and CGI enhanced festive air of Dubai is as fit for consumption as a bright neon colored fizzy drink with enough sugar to render one comatose.
If you haven't already seen Happy New Year – don't. It won't be a loss of any kind, to you or to cinema. Go and watch Talakjung vs. Tulke instead. (Disclaimer – You'll possibly catch my name during the credit sequence. That is why I couldn't review it for Fr!day Films, although Talakjung vs. Tulke deserves ink and space here many-fold more than Happy New Year.) At least there you'll be invited to think.

Of Lust and LOLs

"Mere status par sirf 11 likes hain, aur uske – 43! How humiliating!"

Written by the talented actor Tigmanshu Dhulia (with co-writer Sai Kabir Srivastava) and directed by Abhishek Sharma, The Shaukeen, an updated remake of the 1982 movie Shaukeen, is surprisingly tolerable, even enjoyable. If you dislike the vapidity of Big Bollywood – if you loathed Happy New Year, for instance – and if you appreciate discernible intelligence in your entertainment, you will enjoy The Shaukeen. You don't have to leave all of your intelligence at home.
Anupam Kher as Lali, Pankaj Mishra (whose song 'Ek Bagal mein Chaand hoga' from Gangs of Wasseypur is enough to attest for his talents) as Pinki, and Annu Kapoor as KD are three lecherous old men haunting the public parks of Delhi. When a society so vigorously polices its youths, it also surrenders its own youthfulness: if, in the name of respectability and culture, the older generation tries to keep the daughters at home and persecutes young men for falling in love outside prescribed limits, the old men also no longer get to behave like youthful creatures, with youthful lusts. The youth then rebel by announcing days dedicated to kissing in public, while the lecherous Uncles who frequent the parks to ogle and otherwise harass the daughters of others become associated with sexual violence characteristic of cities like Delhi.
It seems a universally evoked truism that the male of the species will always be in conflict about which of his two heads should receive his limited supply of blood. Lali, Pinki and KD are men in their early sixties, who would rather be having sex than not. Lali's wife has hit menopause, and with it acquiring fervor for religiosity – thus debasing Lali each time he might approach her for carnal contact. Pinki is a widower, a semi-literate seller of spices, and without any outlet for a long life of sexual frustration. KD is what you'd call a shaukeen – someone in whom desire is still full-blooded, and freedom aplenty in a protracted bachelorhood. He is also the ringleader for the old men – he arranges for escorts to visit his farmhouse to entertain the three friends. But the young women take one look at the men and decide that it isn't worth the medical risk of inducing cardiac arrests mid-coitus. Thus, worked up into a frenzy by all the desirable females around than and having no access to the erotic pleasures of life, they decide to export their lust.
There was a long essay in the Caravan magazine a while back about the robust 'tourism' trade between India and Kazakhstan: every week a few jet planes full of Indian tourists – precisely the sort of men KD, Lali and Pinki are – fly to Kazakhstan, with the explicit understanding that there prostitution is rampant, if still illegal. Of course, there is prostitution in India, too – but these are women sold into sexual slavery, and perhaps that makes them mere meat, less desirable to respectable Indian businessmen and bureaucrats. But, a woman who shows a degree of freedom, someone who could reject them and their money, but doesn't, seems more attractive to men who have made themselves impotent in their own country through moral hypocrisy. In The Shaukeen, there is but one woman, and the country is Mauritius, full of 'Biharis who settled there a hundred and fifty years ago'.
Lisa Haydon, the willowy swimsuit model, plays Ahana Bhasin, the object of the old men's desire. She walks around in diaphanous dresses, or emerges from the ocean with a salty, sultry pout. The men react as if their testicles are being electrocuted. When she lounges around at home – with the old men waiting on her hand and foot – she casually throws out one endlessly long leg while coquettishly complaining about her contest with the ex-boyfriend: Who will get more 'likes' for the announcement that they have just broken up? The men plot around her – when she says 'Whom do I have to please to meet Akshay Kumar?', they thoughtfully edit the word 'please' for what must have been in the script originally – 'fuck'.
And so on. The men plot, preen, lie to their friends about non-existent conquests. Ahana clearly is a manic-depressive, certainly in need to psychiatric counseling, but makes for good eye-candy if she despondently throws her honey-browned limbs over the bald, flaccid old men. But the real fun is happening underneath the layer that's onscreen. When did you last hear a Hindi club-number dedicated entirely to the merits of marijuana? Would you let your children listen to a song that extols the virtues of being an alcoholic? But, that's not the point, see – The Shaukeen laughs the hardest at Bollywood itself. Akshay Kumar, playing a parody version of himself, asks his director who wants to hit the three-hundred crore mark with the new movie – What new thing have you ever made me do? He's tired of jumping off helicopters, running after bikes, cars, trains, item-dancers, jumping off cars, trains. He drinks incessantly, but in a coconut shell, so that the world thinks he is teetotaler. (Kumar is a famously disciplined actor who has almost always appeared in terrible movies that make obscene amounts of money – so when his mother in law, Dimple, makes a cameo to suggest that she is just as raging an alcoholic, you can't help but laugh).
The Shaukeen takes everything that makes a big budget Hindi film click – foreign locations, a parade of women in swimsuits dancing to nonsensical songs, a big name, a couple of pretty girls of obscure but fair-skinned nationality – and laughs really hard at all of it. On the other end of the spectrum, it also laughs at the tortured but decorated 'auteur' who keeps telling Akshay Kumar that 'furniture act better' than he does. So unfold the two: one the story of old-age lust, and the other a knowing takedown of familiar tropes that help sell fluff to an opiated mass. It is a well-written, middle-range comedy which nonetheless surprises with its ability to laugh at itself.  
When a society polices its youths, it also surrenders its own youthfulness: if, in the name of respectability and culture, the older generation persecutes young men and women for falling in love outside prescribed limits, the older generation also no longer gets to behave like youthful creatures, with youthful lusts.

A Million Detractions, the Occasional Triumph

The more sensible people in any society that has recorded its thoughts, anywhere in the world and at any ancient or recent time, have insisted that people who pursue the arts are somewhat unsound of mind, unreliable of character, and outright delusional in the face of overwhelming scope of evidence that they are destined for failure. Abject, disgraceful failure: No good ever comes from pursuing one's dreams, because, as the sensible people know, dreams are made of insubstantial stuff, of phantasms and incongruence and inversions and explosions, flights that lift you to unattainable heights, only to throw you down with the sort of violence only the 'real world' can deliver.
Instead: Get a stable job. Wake up in time to get to your job in time, leave your job in time to get home before darkness eats up the world outside your windows. Try not to dream through the night, lest the dreams tempt you away from the 'real world' and leave you awaking into the realization that this world, with its rigid, chitinous embrace is the real nightmare. Work not for the immediate challenge of heartbreaking failure or staggering, insightful success that comes to those who practice a craft, but to meet quotas, earn bonuses and promotions and favorable transfers and, like one prostrate before a particularly unfeeling and bloodthirsty god, serve the entity called the 'bottom line' that the higher-ups decide for each day, each week, each month, each year. Have faith that you won't be swindled out of your life's savings, and also realize that by the time you get old and retire you'll be sick enough that most of the remainder of your life will be spent gazing up, not at clouds set ablaze by a setting sun or the mysterious invitation of a clear blue sky, but at a series of ceilings in various states of decay: your bedroom, a minor hospital, a nursing home, a neglected room in the house you built for your family, another nursing home, and if you still have your wits about you at the very end, in the bright, beeping glare of an ICU ceiling. Then you will close your eyes, not once knowing what it means to:
Wake up each day to do what you love best, do what you do better than anything else you do, have your heart broken over and over again by self-doubt, by the doubt others place on you, by the biggest heartbreak that comes from missing the mark by your smallest margin. You are stuck with the last extra inch needed to clear the bar and mark your growth, and you've had at it for years now, but you have always found yourself inadequate in your own estimation – always by the tiniest fraction of the immense leap of which you are already capable. This failure – and the success that will surely come when you can make that leap cleanly over and over again, without any conscious effort – will be invisible to others. This will eat you from the inside. But you have awoken to the realization that this world – this, of stuff that dreams are made of – has no rigid exoskeleton. Even in your most abject failure, you have something nobody else has: liberation. You have seen a glimpse of a world that the more sensible people are incapable of seeing. You have seen yourself clothed in the colors of your own dreams – and you look beautiful.

Priyanka Karki knew that she always wanted to be a performer. She wanted to stand before an adoring crowd that acknowledged the clean leap she could make from craft to art. When she was six, she was mesmerized by the otherworldly sight of a breeze teasing Madhuri Dixit's hair on TV. The camera would close in on that face beloved to a billion admirers as Dixit's hair fanned in the air. Priyanka wanted to be the beautiful woman in the television box – the only box she would ever consent to be confined to. She would stand before the mirror with a hair dryer and emulate her idol.
'I was never shy,' she says. 'When I was eight or nine years old, I got casted as a child artist in the movie Mahadevi, with Bhuvan KC and Karishma Manandhar and Sunil Thapa. I instantly fell in love with that world while dubbing for the movie – in that hot, stuffy little box in the studio, I knew that I wanted to belong to that world (of cinema).' She never thought of doing anything else, of pursuing any other career. After becoming Miss Teen Nepal in 2005, she entered the world of modeling and television, working as a VJ.
Back then, in the crisis years of the nation and of the film industry in Nepal, the movies being made weren't of the sort that we see today. The majority of movies were still being shot on film. The cost of raw stock ate up nearly a quarter of a low-budget project, leaving very little to be invested in talented crew members or in production values. Since healthy returns could not be guaranteed, producers relied heavily on proven formulas of four songs, four fights, exploitative aesthetics and stories stolen from foreign sources. Priyanka's father was reluctant to let her enter the film industry – it wasn't yet a profession parents felt comfortable letting their young daughters enter.
Priyanka Karki left Nepal for Florence, Alabama, to join the University of North Alabama. There, she studied Film & Digital Media Production, with a focus on acting and directing for the camera. She also obtained a minor in Theatre. Her first gig in the college theatre program was as a Shark Girl chorus member in the musical West Side Story.   After graduation, she moved to Manhattan to do another eight-month long crash course in acting at the New York Film Academy. While at Florence, Priyanka auditioned for the role of Jasmine in a production of the musical Alladin, being staged at a children's theatre called the Gingerbread Theater. She was cast as the long-haired, dusky princess, singing her heart out to an audience of children who came backstage after the show to get her autograph and take pictures with the tall, pretty woman in harem pants. A run of a glorious fifty days! 'That was the most rewarding theatre experience,' she says. The success she enjoyed then cemented her resolve to remain in show business.
The theatre and the movies are fundamentally different: for actors, writers, directors. Above all, the difference is most starkly experienced by the actor. With each performance the electricity and pulse of the play can change. There is no real failure onstage – there is always the next show to make up for it. But, there is no real control either – your co-performer can absolutely ruin or make a scene for the audience, and the glory and the blame will be shared. That is different in the movies. If an actor doesn't quite hit her mark in a particular take, the take can be repeated, until somebody runs out of patience: the producer, whose money is bleeding away; or a scene-partner who has been up on his feet for fourteen hours; or the director who is utterly dismayed by the gulf between his vision and what the actor is capable of delivering. Once a mistake gets printed, it lives on forever for people to see. Perhaps this is why most actors have a fond place in their hearts for the process of producing a work for the stage, but have their egos attached to the larger-than-life pictures of a movie. How much has a particular movie affected Priyanka Karki? Is there any one movie that has changed her life more than the other?
Her answer is rather diplomatic, in the manner of someone who has had to answer similar questions with some frequency over the years, and keen to avoid possible confrontations with collaborators past and future. 'I don't think I'll ever reach a point where I can say that a particular movie has changed me – every movie is an opportunity to learn and grow up.'
Priyanka Karki has learned and grown up quite a bit, it seems, from her first release, 3 Lovers. Although she had returned to Nepal in November of 2011, with an eye on the movie industry, she wasn't approached for any movie roles. She did some modeling gigs – and she says that as grueling as it is to prepare for and execute a ramp-show or any other fashion gig, a model is essentially doing precisely the same thing over and over again. It is the exact opposite of the vitality that an opportunity to explore a character over months brings to an actor: it is rigid, plastic, and a model looks her best only from so many angles. Priyanka returned to the US for a brief while, and in June of 2012, she arrived in Kathmandu to begin her career in the movies.
3 Lovers is a weird little movie. In it, Priyanka's character is the object of obsession for a gangster who threatens to kill anyone else who dares make a move on the girl. In the typical manner of a movie for men, imagined by men of very limited intelligence or sensitivity, Priyanka's character is merely ornamental, lolling about with her best friend and hugging large stuffed toys, talking to her parents on Skype, etc. Mero Best Friend, which had been shot before 3 Lovers, was stuck in post-production for long enough that it didn't appear in the movies until much later. Priyanka wouldn't admit in the interview that she regrets doing these movies, but, come on! Then came Priyanka's dance in the movie Kollywood, a frenetically colorful affair a la Bhaujiwood – the delirious item-dances of Bhojpuri cinema – and Kathmandu sat up to take notice of this exotic, dusky woman who could really dance.
In a little under three years, Priyanka has established herself as one of the more successful actors. She starred in Vigilante, Nepal's first home-grown 3-D movie, and continued her collaboration with the director Dipendra K. Khanal with Jholey, which did very well. Dayahang Rai, perhaps the most reliable new movie star these days, and Priyanka brought the audiences back to the cinema after a long time. Concurrently, other movies like Chha Ekan Chha and Jhola had also started attracting viewers who hadn't been getting a steady fare at the cinema since the waning of the influence of Loot a few years past. But, for a movie with a shoestring budget and equally barely-there storyline, Priyanka worked as the charm, in her gaudy make-up and deliberately vulgar delivery of the character of a very determined prostitute who demands fair wage for a fair job done.
Director Bikas Acharya's Nai Nabhannu La – 2 continued the spate of commercial successes in her career. Recently, Priyanka traveled to Honk Kong to participate in an awards ceremony where she won two trophies and a lot of admiration from the Nepalis living there. She is now awaiting the release of director Bhaskar Dhungana's Suntali, which had its world premiere at the Busan International Film Festival in October (Disclosure: I share writing credits with Bhaskar Dhungana for Suntali), Avaran, Mala, director Subarna Thapa's Fanko, Sadanga, and the third installment of Bikas Acharya's Nai Nabhannu La – 3. Since June of 2012, she has been involved in 12 movies! And, surely, you haven't been able to escape her face on numerous advertisements and magazine covers and fashion spreads.
How has the experience been, as a woman, in the fashion and film industry? Priyanka's perspective from the inside is optimistic, upbeat even. 'Girls now earn more in the advertisement industry than men do,' she says. 'Apart from people like Rajesh Hamal and the MaHa duo –and now (the winsome captain of the Nepali national cricket team) Paras Khadka, there isn't any other man who can claim to earn a lot from endorsements alone. But there are many women who regularly endorse products, and command a fair wage, too.'
But, is there equality – in terms of pay and dignity of work? 'We're getting there slowly,' Priyanks says. She is emphatic when she makes this point: 'If the biggest thing on a movie poster is a woman's face, the times (must) have changed enough that we should be able to make demands. There is more substance in roles available to women now... The girls can speak up for themselves now.'
But, this is a treacherous industry, too. It can seem like all play and mood-lighting and glitter to an outsider. In reality, both theatre and cinema require extreme endurance of the physical and psychological kind. Oftentimes, as a movie starts hitting the eighty-percent mark on its shooting schedule, people start wondering if they shouldn't be elsewhere, doing something else, earning a salary instead of a fee, eating in the homely security of family, instead of chain-smoking to keep the jitters away and instantly perking up with playacted joy when a tired voice somewhere shouts – Action!
The rewards are there, as are there risks. Many a light-man or spot-boy on a movie set left home years ago to become a hero or a director. Many a woman hasn't made it past being paid 500 rupees for a day's work as an extra – with Olympian discipline standing on the exact spot, repeating the exact movement for long sun-scorched or wind-chilled hours. But, sometimes, you make it, and a stranger walks up to you and thanks you for being their inspiration, for bringing them joy in small measures. 'The biggest thing you can earn in the Nepali film industry is the people. With one good movie you can earn millions of hearts,' Priyanka says, before breaking into that big grin of hers, as if designed for toothpaste-commercials – 'You'll never earn millions of rupees here, after all!'
'This field isn't something you come into just because you failed your SLC exams or because you ran away from your family or because you have five lakhs in the bank. This field is just as tough as it is to become a doctor or an engineer – Unless every inch of your being belongs here, don't think of this as a career option,' Priyanka warns. This is the only advice she would give to any young fan out there who wants to emulate her, who might have seen her in the television box and wants to belong in it alongside her.

And yet, there is a breed of us that flock, like moths to a flame, to the bright HMIs, trying for days to learn the essential trick of not looking straight into the blinding lights. When, shivering in a late monsoon drizzle, we wait for the tray full of plastic cups of warm tea to reach us, we look around and see – a boy barely out of high-school, a businesswoman with an NYU degree now worrying about how the clouds will move, a veteran sound-engineer patiently tweaking the dials on his equipment, a director of photography perplexed by the dappled-shadows he thinks he created but is no longer sure of, an assistant director trying hard to anticipate the needs of a dozen people around her, a man hunched over a pail of embers trying to build smoke, and actor pacing back and forth and murmuring to unseen spirits as he reads various renditions of his lines – we see the exoskeleton of 'real world' drudgery being stripped away by the will and wonder that has brought together this motley crew. Like Priyanka, this is a crowd of people who always knew what they wanted to do, become, achieve, and never doubted that they would be living through this precise moment. Even in that cold drizzle, they are each clothed in the colors of their individual dreams – and they are beautiful.

Syrup that doesn't Nourish

'So – you like adventure and stuff, like, paragliding and all?'

The pathologically well-scrubbed frames of writer-director Hem Raj BC's Jerry will perhaps appeal to teenagers, but how it leaves out any context or intrusion of the real is jarring to any mature viewer. But again, I have my doubts anyone past a certain age will watch Jerry. I am all for keeping one's youthfulness, but it is just plain idiotic to retain a stubborn immaturity.
BC, whose previous feature Hostel also enjoyed success, has been faithful to the familiar, tested formula. A few clean young faces, just the hint of sexual awakening, a lot of dumb, unthreatening lines spoken without conviction. Jokes derived from elsewhere, so that there is no threat of original wit. Every frame lit to excess, lit to its aesthetic decay, so that darkness has nowhere to sit, literally and metaphorically. I waited for there to be a work of some sort – sitting with my little notepad, worried that I had nothing to comment on. By the end, there was one observation that seemed worth thinking about:
In a scene filmed in a meadow somewhere in Mustang, locals gather to drink yak blood. This is a well-known ritual of blood-letting and blood-drinking. (Although the argument is something akin to saying – go, drink a glass of a Pashupati sadhu's blood and you'll get stoned. But, because the Thakalis are a small but vocal minority, their manners get elevated to wisdom, while healers among women get called witches.) In Jerry, the camera favors the bunch of bratty Kathmandu kids: it watches the disgust and horror on the faces of the city kids more than it watches the yaks being punctured or the locals participating in the ritual.
Jerry is blind to what is just outside its frames. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that the writer-director duo – along with four other 'associate directors' who surely had creative input – insist upon an unnatural cleanness of what gets shown onscreen. Three friends – Jerry, Eric and Sunny – go to Pokhara. But we don't see anyone from Pokhara in a meaningful context. Jerry then travels to the Mustang area with a bunch of his friend Poggy's friends – and again, the locals are absent, except to serve a Thakali meal once (platitudes about how Thakali food is the best!), and to strategically leave a motorbike for Jerry to steal when he wants to impress Akansha, the girl given the task of reforming this twat of a teenager. The director(s?) seem to want to produce a work so cut-off from its context that it would be utterly unthreatening to its audience. But, doesn't that also mean it'll be equally difficult for the viewer to relate to it?
These kids are from the upper echelons on Kathmandu society – their parents pepper their lines with stilted, stuffy English. The only times where any other person is shown is in a menial and peripheral capacity – an old maid helping the brat pack his suitcase, a gardener watering flowers in the background. If Jerry is to be taken as representative of how a certain group of Kathmandu natives see the rest of the country or even the rest of the city, it is really a pity. But, I am not worried that such is the case – it is simply that the director is incapable of situating his story, so he doesn't know how to bring meaning to his minor characters. Neither of Jerry's two best friends, or anyone else who forms the group of tourists gallivanting in Mustang has a meaningful presence in the movie. Jerry has a weepy little second half, and Akansha has a pouty little second half accordingly. But the rest of the gamut has no other purpose in that world except to decorate Jerry's forgettable existence.
I believe I have mentioned here before the distinction between top-down intervention – the notion of deus ex machina in theatre known since the time of the Hellenic dramaturges – and the bottom-up intervention or more precisely, construction. If, in Jerry, the eponymous character's asthma gets worse because he goes to a cold place, that can be an example of a conceit being built upwards. But, if he out of the blue gets a cardiac condition not necessarily related to his pulmonary condition, then that is top-down intervention. If a coincidence sets the story in motion at the beginning, that is fine: Jerry running into an old friend, Poggy, for instance, and then playing his tricks to get into bed with one of her friends. But, if the movie ends with a coincidence! That's just lazy. There's an obscure college in Europe that the girl wants to get into, and hasn't been able to, but suddenly, an official from the college happens to be at the gallery opening of the mediocre photographer Akanska, and fulfils her dream. I mean – kill me already! Solving a narrative through a coincidence takes agency away from the character(s). The only reason we build up a character is to watch how they will react in situations where the emotional or moral or intellectual stakes are the highest. To give coincidence primacy where the forward thrust should have come from the strength slowly put into a character is to hack oneself at the knees as a filmmaker.
This movie seems to me a dumbed-down fare for the +2 crowd. If, by the time a teenager is ready to take up nominal responsibilities as an adult, we insist upon treating them as if they are incapable of intelligent or complex conversations, we end up with a bunch of brainless twats – like Jerry and his friends in Jerry. But, who is to blame for this? Parents, of course – if you have a child studying in a college that makes its students wear a uniform, understand this: YOU, as the parent, are the moron. You haven't been able to find the courage to accept that your child has grown up into an adult. That is why you insist upon controlling every aspect of her life, and since you aren't intelligent enough to have a discussion or debate with your child, you push that responsibility to the college principal and his psychopathic bunch of 'discipline in-charge'. Your child goes to college in an atmosphere of terror, and doesn't grow the confidence to question authority – yours, or the college principal's. To escape this frustration, she goes to the theatre to watch an inane, brainless fare like Jerry.
And then the professional bully – the petty police officer around the corner from a theater – arrests her for bunking class and going to the theatre in school uniform.

Disfigured Ambition

"I Titanic you!" "I Titanic, too!" "I Titanic three!"

In last week's Fr!day, Deepa Basnet, director of Shree 5 Ambarey (S5A), mentioned that after the commercial failure of her last feature Antaraal, she wanted to entertain the audience, rather than make somethign close to her heart. She differentiated between formula-driven vehicles and art-cinema. Basnet would have been better-off failing at a work closer to her artistic ambitions and attaining success with a work like S5A. For all the ambition and flashes of insight the movie carries, it is disjointed beyond salvaging. As they left the theater, a group of university students called S5A the worst Nepali movie they had ever seen. I disagree – I have reviewed many a worse Nepali movie for this very magazine. But I sympathize with their disappointment.
I think a comparison between The Contagious Apparitions of Dambarey Dendrite (CADD) and S5A is useful. In precisely the same settings – rag-picking street children dreaming of big things while lost in delirium atop mounds of trash – the former has attained a measure of verity, of an essential truth about a particular condition among a particular tribe of humans, whereas the other has used the exact things for ornamentation. For instance, in S5A, the protagonist Ambarey asks his sweetheart Kali – both pre-pubescent – if she knows how much he loves her. 'Do you see these mountains? I love you more than these mountains,' he answers his own question, pointing at large mounds of garbage behind them. There is no horizon in sight – only the tall apartment buildings along Bagmati. That is the joke in S5A: the 'pahads' are mounds of trash. The viewer is supposed to recognize that bit of effort and wit on the part of the director.
Whereas in CADD, a rag-picking woman defends her mound of trash from other pickers. In that simple act of desperation and strength is more meaning and verity than in the cleverly created situations seen aplenty in S5A. When the children in CADD run helter-skelter through the streets or shit-strewn under-bridge holes, or when Dambarey huffs on his pouch of glue and hallucinates of US dollar bills raining from the sky, it becomes more believable because the camera knows what to look at, the music and the animation supplements the total vision of the actors and the writer-directors.
But, in S5A, the vision is a confused one. The most jarring aspect of the movie by far, in my opinion, is the background score by Binod Kumar Bhujel. It doesn't know what it is supposed to do. Bhujel's background score doesn't understand that a movie isn't just episodic – it is necessarily also a cumulative experience, where sounds and images bleed from one scene into another, where a motif can recall other ideas from other scenes, like spices arranged to stimulate the palate through a long Newar bhoj. Just when a gesture by an actor or a suggestion by the director of photography has begun to register in the viewer's eyes, Bhujel's score interrupts and rudely shoves the viewer away from any immersion into the narrative.
The self-professed desire on Basnet's part to cater to the audience interested in masala and formula has lead to a few very bizarre choices that are at odds with what the rest of the movie seems to want to do. It has lead the story down dead-ends on multiple occasions: Ambarey's few minutes of dhishum-dhishum as an enforcer for a gangster, for instance. Or the grownup Kali's exchange with a Minister who comes to her as a john: she gets a slap for suggesting politicians are worse than prostitutes (we would need a national survey to see if the people agree – but I am with Kali on this one), and that's all there is to it. There are more intelligent and creative ways of talking about religion and politics than by showing the hypocrisy of Ministers and priests who visit prostitutes. And, yes – life in the streets is episodic, punctuated by the highs of attainment and the lows of violence and death. But this has been shown in many movies from around the world. What new thing has S5A added to the mix? What has been gained by the idea that Ambarey wants to become the king – albeit of his limited world among rag-pickers and glue-sniffers? And the bizarre fast-forward of the ending? The less we say about it, the better. That is the worst example among many failures to show that Basnet chose wrongly when she chose to make a movie that she deemed would be entertaining to the masses, that adding a little Priyanka Karki dance here and another Yama Buddha rap there would appeal to a wider audience. Cohesion appeals to audiences. Being able to make some emotional or intellectual sense of the movie as a whole is appealing.
There is a simple test for an entertaining movie: If a ten year old can retell the plot over half an hour or an hour. Such a story requires every scene to lean upon the next and nudge the narrative forward. Ram likes Sita. Therefore, Ram buys a rose and stands under Sita's balcony. But, it is Rita's room, and she is throwing out her ex-boyfriend's stuff, and she hits Ram on the head. Therefore, Ram and Rita shout at each other and hate each other. However, Sita finds out that Ram likes her and agrees to be his girlfriend. However, Ram finds out Sita is a bitch whereas Rita has a heart of gold. And so on. Minimal as it may be, there is causality here, guiding the narrator forward. This is missing in S5A.
I say this with sadness – S5A squanders a great opportunity, and does disservice to the proven talents of Saugat Malla, Deepa Basnet and Keki Adhikari. The actors are necessarily trapped in the fabric of the achievements of everybody else in the team. Adhikari and Malla could have done more, if they had been asked to. When Malla screamed in frustration about losing his lover and the rain-machine came on, I laughed out loud: the actor had been asked to perform the trite melodrama of screaming at the heavens, and every arrangement around the scene had been just as mediocre: the timed rain-machine, the maudlin score, the camera angle that looked down upon Malla, the abandoned streets of the midnight hours. I would have chosen instead to have Malla stand outside his lover's door, listening to the sounds coming from inside, and watched Malla's face for what the actor can do. I wouldn't have constructed the scene around a bad, disjointed background score.      

Transplanted Humor

"Main single screen ka superstar hun. Ab multiplex ko takeover karna chahata hun. Aisi film banana chahata hun jis mein sab ho – romance bhi, comedy bhi. Romedy!"

Happy Ending, the romedy by the cryptically named writer-director duo Raj & DK, is an improbable thing – it is the story of two successful and attractive writers meeting and falling in love. Successful writers are as rare as are attractive writers, and the odds of two such creatures meeting and falling for each other would require the kind of magic only cinema can lend. But, it is also honest to a fault in its mission of marrying the Hollywood romantic-comedy formula to the Bollywood romedy idea.
This is a movie for the generation for which romance in the movies is colored – triggered, even – by Karan Johar's early movies, but which has also stepped into the expansion of cultural engagement made possible by an exposure to Hollywood comedies of the recent years. In this marriage of possibilities, Love Aaj Kal nests alongside 500 Days of Summer. In the past twenty years, Bollywood has accepted the manic-pixie dream-girl, while Hollywood has accepted the mumbling, floundering imbecile who arrives at love or acceptance by accident. I suppose the rise of the multiplexes in India requires that women be given greater independence and agency in the movies – otherwise urban boys from 'good homes' wouldn't be able to take their middle-class dates from 'good-homes' to the theater and hold their hands. Happy Ending is the happy bastard child of this marriage between Bollywood's need for multiplex fare and Hollywood's easy formula for 18-24 years old consumers.
Happy Ending has very few actors, and they all perform well. Saif Ali Khan – also a producer – plays Yudi (and Yogi, the neck-bearded inner nerd to the shallow, preening Yudi), and quite often breaks the fourth wall. This shtick isn't overdone, and soon appears necessary for the film to work. After all, the conceit of the movie depends upon sending up both Bollywood and Hollywood stereotypes of romantic comedies while giving the audience a romantic comedy. The ingredients of a typical rom-com are repeated to the viewers: attractive leads, catchy music and flashy wardrobe, foreign locations. Apart from this insistence upon showing exactly what parts of what ingredients the movie is made of, the rest of the proceedings seems so familiar that every instance is capable of inducing a partial déjà-vu, if such a thing is possible. Everything in the movie reminds the viewer of something already seen elsewhere, but it is impossible to say exactly where, in which other movie, with which other generically good-looking couple of actors.
Yudi is a one-hit wonder of a writer who has been living the good life made possible by a bestseller. He likes women, and hates commitment – he will have to grow up and accept commitment to another person as a requirement for maturity and a full life. He is insecure, invested in his looks and himself, while Yogi seems to know a lot more about life. He is perhaps the 'depth' women look for in Yudi – but he is a typical couch-potato found in many a Seth Rogen movie. Yudi goes broke and needs quick money, and finds his deliverance in the shape of a misshapen Bollywood actor named Armaan – played close to his reality by Govinda – who is in LA for two Hollywood essentials: a kickass script for a romantic comedy, and the best body plastic surgery and silicone implants can buy. Armaan wants a romedy, with some opportunities for kissing the girl. Yudi agrees to write this film, but is stumped, because he fails to see that the life he is living is the exact stuff of which romedies are made.
The other attractive writer in the movie is Aanchal Reddy, played by Illena, who writes romantic comedies, but is cynical about love. She knows how others will lap up the trash she produces, but isn't convinced by her own vocation. In a very cheesy paragraph in her book is the line – 'Love me, and liberate me: these were her exact thoughts.' That is exactly what Aanchal seems to be seeking, but it is never very clear. Is she looking for love, or does she really not believe in falling in love, as she repeatedly mentions through the movie? How does one have a love story with people who don't believe in love, and who don't fall in love as the movie progresses? One doesn't – that seems to be the answer Happy Ending finds for itself. One can have a romantic comedy without there being love: with a new generation of men and women who'll happily explore each other's bodies without examining their inner selves. A happy tumble in the hay, a cheery good bye – don't know when we'll meet again!  One thing that I liked about the movie was that, till the very end, it stuck to having just one person change and desire love, while the other person was just happy to have the lover back in their life, without any commitment, even to commitment itself, and with just the simple promise that they'll live their lives day-by-day, without the millstone of the common toil that constitutes a relationship. It seemed a very un-Indian idea.
And so it is – utterly un-Indian, thoroughly Hollywood, the humour transplanted and therefore not always successful. The 'comedy' here would be unfamiliar to Indians who get their comedy fix from television or from movies like the very successful Houseful franchise. Happy Ending is the sort of comedy affordable to a very small part of the Indian population – indeed, of people anywhere in the world. Yudi explains why he became a writer: because he wanted to avoid having to work (from 9 to 5, because he does work very hard at his craft, although he hasn't finished his second book). Most people on this planet would find that answer blasphemous. One works because there is no other way out. A worldview like that ends up spewing nonsense like: work is prayer, work is religion, work is god, so that the small-people toil to fatten the wallets of their capitalist overlords. In such a world, the willing abdication of the duty to toil in favor of the pursuit of a craft must seem strange. Happy Ending is full of alienations that people in our part of the world might not have considered. It isn't fully accomplished, but it is clever enough to laugh at itself.

There can be a romantic comedy without there being love: with a new generation of men and women who'll happily explore each other's bodies without examining their inner selves. A happy tumble in the hay, a cheery good bye – don't know when we'll meet again!

Deflated Imitation

"Saala, aafnai pahichaan le malai eklo banayo!"

Writer-Director Netra Gurung's Naike looks like a watered-down version of a mishmash of South-Indian movies. Everything seems only vaguely familiar, and contemptible, like a friend that needs to be disowned at the earliest opportunity. The grim tolerance with which the audience at Bishwojyoti sat through what amounted to a protracted ordeal seems the most apt response to this movie: listlessness and a dull sense of disbelief that they had paid to watch this movie.
I had to try hard to think of a point to make about Naike. And, as vague it may sound, the insight is this: imitation doesn't work unless it has layers of meaning to situate the work in a new context. Example – the dressing sense and gait for Aryan Sigdel – who plays Dev, and the eponymous Naike – are modeled after a collage of South Indian action heroes. The most discernible trace of thoughtfulness I found was in having Dev fold his sleeves up before committing a major crime: he learned that from his father (murdered by a construction contractor), and as his first step into the world of crime, repeats that gesture, and then on, many, many times as his leitmotif, sometimes in slow-motion, sometimes as if the camera got so bored it tipped over to take a nap.
Sigdel also has a signature move to show how cool Dev is – he puts on sunglasses, in a slow, practiced movement that first throws his hand away from the body to flip the legs of the glasses open, then makes an ascending, spiraling arc that brings the glasses to his face. I am not sure about it anymore, but it is possible that apart from the folding of shirtsleeves and the flicking of sunglasses to his face, Sigdel has yet another move for his character, where Dev tugs at the collars of his shirt. These are all gestures imitated from countless South Indian action flicks. If the simple gesture of folding your sleeves up – as preparation to kicking some ass – is enough masculine gesture to have the audience cheer for you, there is no need to tell a good story or tie the narrative to the reality of people's lives. I have no idea why that gesture works in South India – Rajanikanth is still a superstar there, and he has to do each of these gestures in each of his movies. But, simply ctrl+C and ctrl+V doesn't seem to work for our context. It is not possible to harvest just the one organ from an animal and expect it to live on in another animal's body. Even for a monstrosity to come alive, each organ necessary needs to be harvested from different sources, but brought to life together, as a whole. Giving Dev his own leitmotif of gestures and a 'Ma hoon Naike!' track doesn't mean the rest of the movie can neglect belonging to a whole.
There really isn't a storyline to speak of. Characters come out of the woodwork to assist with whatever plot point needs to be worked in a particular moment. Like in a Greek tragedy, things keep happening off-screen (to save production money). The writer-director writes in a wedding scene, but has no budget for anything but water bottles on the tables and a total of four bouquets of flowers. It is as if Netra Gurung only sees the barest elements of a scene – wedding at a party palace! – and nothing beyond. Does dialogue need to have subtext? Nah! That's always been done – having stories with subtexts, or context, or even text. So, in Naike, you won't find any of that. When four friends sit down to talk, change in camera positions would only make it complicated and traditional. So, we watch them all together.
The point isn't that Gurung, as the writer, wrote a wedding scene that couldn't be accommodated by the movie's budget. The point isn't that Gurung, as the director, failed to ask the art director for a better set in which to shoot the wedding scene – totally unnecessary, except to establish that two characters get married. The point is that, on the whole, he failed to imagine better ways of rising above clichés. If, at this day and age, a character speaks to herself and she isn't breaking the fourth wall but talking about her feelings to a picture and to a bed, one should suspect the director's ability. Netra Gurung seems to have had some vague notion in his head about how he'll make an action movie (shot almost entirely in Pokhara, except for a couple of days of action choreography in Ranibari, near Lazimpat). He seems to have believed that Aryan Sigdel will bring people to the theaters. But he seems to have never given any thought to what exactly would go into the movie. Or, what would come out of it.
I understand the old cliché that filmmakers are storytellers. No less than novelists or graphic novelists are storytellers. But it astounds me that people still think just telling a story suffices as an act of storytelling. If I tear pages from six novels, shuffle the pages together, and start reciting the new order of pages to people eating peanuts and oranges in Ratnapark, that'll hardly count as storytelling. But, if I can demonstrate that my act of tearing random pages from different novels to create a new, never-before-read order, and if my audience can discern the value of this inter-textual experimentation, then we're talking about storytelling in a wholly original manner. Imitation ironed flat doesn't work, because then only the barest framework of the original exists: it becomes reproduction, and that too, rather poorly done. But, taking that bare framework and embellishing it from elements from the local elevates that imitation – into adaptation. Take Talakjung vs Tulke – a Chinese story, a Nepali stage play, and now a work of cinema very rooted in the soil of a certain region of Nepal. The difference between Netra Gurung and theKhagendra Lamichhane/Nischal Basnet team seems to be that Gurung knows nothing of why he is making Naike (other than to earn at the box-office) whereas Lamichhane and Basnet knew why Talakjung vs Tulke had to be made, now, in this particular political-historical moment. One was flatly imitated, and it fails. The other works because it has been augmented thoughtfully, so that the original and the imitated sit side by side as equals, and not one atop another, letting only one of them have primacy.

Pull Quote: Sigdel also has a signature move to show how cool Dev is – he puts on sunglasses, in a slow, practiced movement that first throws his hand away from the body to flip the legs of the glasses open, then makes an ascending, spiraling arc that brings the glasses to his face.

Overstretched Melodrama

'Hya Baba! Sajilo ta chha ni!'

There is something inherently masochistic about reviewing movies in Nepal, especially if one restricts oneself to the big Bollywood and smattering of Kollywood movies that open in local theaters. A movie that deserves unreserved praise is rare; the regular fare consists mostly of reconstituted cud, tasting not of originality, but of a hundred other filthy mouths that chewed and milled it around. Once in a while, there comes a genuine cinematic event – like a movie directed by an eight-year old, made for record-books, no doubt. It is perhaps because Indians and Nepalis grow up on a diet of General Knowledge books that cram facts into eager minds but don't teach them to parse the facts critically that world records are so important to people here. Longest handshake, longest talk-show, largest assembly of people to depict a national flag – all world records as useful as teats on a bull. Now, the youngest movie director!
I reject the claim that the eight-year old boy Saugat Bista directed Love You Baba, a tearjerker about a father-daughter relationship. Saugat appears in a cameo as an emcee, and seems electric with boundless energy. If he had really directed the movie, it would perhaps have a more lively imagination to it, more adventurous story and a quirk that is typical to juvenile creativity. Watching Love You Baba at Bisjwojyoti – with a dozen people in the Special section downstairs – I became certain that pasting the young Bista's face on the poster was merely a publicity stunt. I don't doubt that the boy got to call action and cut on set – I just doubt that he got to do anything else at all.
There is only one moment in the entire movie that asks for a second look. Gajit Bista, playing the titular Baba, and Ashishma Nakarmi, playing his sister-in-law who is now courting him, are in the kitchen. The lady is doing what all women do in a movie like this – making tea. She searches the kitchen drawers for something, doesn't find it, searches another, all while he waits in the corner, trying to catch her attention to beg her forgiveness and make amends for harsh words spoken earlier. It is a strange bit of kitchen-drama: the waiting for the first word, the man following the woman's movement around the kitchen, until it culminates with him reaching for the last place she'd searching, and opens the cabinet door for her. He must have known all along what it was that she searched for. But he waited, until he was sure of the most opportune moment when he could cross from a position of withheld power to one of benevolent admission of guilt. The camera moves to the left through the shot, going from the woman at the stove, to the synchronized gesture of reaching up to open a cabinet door, their hands coming together as their hearts do.
The rest of the movie – the whole of it – is rubbish. Don't get me wrong – even I cried as the father-daughter duo danced their way to victory, only to be followed by a much red-herringed death on stage. But, it is still rubbish, just as its claim that an eight year old directed it is rubbish.
It takes a whole village of hacks to create something as clichéd and pointless as Love You Baba, and a good look at the posters betrays some secrets. I am not aware of the relationship between the scatter of Bistas on the posters, but, surely, they are related! Gajit Bista has written the story while Gamvir Bista has written the screenplay and dialogue. Gamvir Bista also appears in cameo, twice – once as a dance instructor on YouTube, and once as himself. One man's vanity can be very amusing to another man: in a sequence where Gamvir Bista judges a dance competition at a school, he leaves the program abruptly, citing 'kaarya-vyastataa'. The man who wrote the screenplay wrote himself into the story as his own real-life persona, and then gave an emcee a line of dialogue to excuse him from a scene by citing his extreme busyness. The dénouement depends entirely upon a dance competition – choreographed by Gamvir Bista. And you expect me to believe that an eight-year old directed the film? It has the signature of vain older men scrawled all over it.
The very domestic scale of production is also evident in the use of a school as the focal point: there, the children compete against each other for dance supremacy, and there, they come together to compete as parent-child teams. I wonder if that is a cinematic conceit, or if it is a common occurrence in Kathmandu, but to see mothers and daughters dance before an audience was strange, and very telling of their disparate lives. Mothers have gone rotund, the daughters are pre-pubescent and precocious. The daughters move provocatively, their vocabulary of expressions and movements gleaned narrowly from television shows, whereas the mothers seem to dance to the docile rhythms of another era entirely. Will these precocious daughters be forced to the docility and domestic confinement that their mothers seem to live in? Or, will they be freer, able to choose their own way in life, able to pass on citizenship to their daughters and in turn free them also? It is sad to watch the mothers try to keep up with their daughters, poised as they are between the dusk of their youthfulness and the inevitable night that awaits.
Was it worthwhile for the Bistas behind Love You Baba to have fronted the youngest Bista as the director? Is the state of Nepali filmmaking so beyond rescue that the only thing writers and producers and shadow-directors can do now is lean on one or another crutch of gimmick? While one crop of young filmmakers are forging a new cinematic idiom for Nepal, another bunch insists upon hijacking theater seats with pitiably weak filmmaking, bringing utter trash to the audience. Movies like Love You Baba end up souring the audience to the point that they drive serious viewers away from better movies. Of course, we can't stop people from making bad movies. But we certainly can encourage viewers to stay away from such trash. I hope Love You Baba dies a swift but painful death in the theaters, so that I am subjected to far fewer of such drivel in the future.
Movies like Love You Baba end up souring the audience to the point that they drive serious viewers away from better movies. Of course, we can't stop people from making bad movies. But we certainly can encourage viewers to stay away from such trash.

Monsters Within

'Hum Kali ko bachaa sakte the!'

Written and directed by Anurag Kashyap, Ugly deeply affects the viewer by pointing at odd moments of ugliness within each of the principal characters. In the Mumbai portrayed here, there doesn't seem to be any surface or face that doesn't hide something. There is no person without some impatience and malice about them. These characters mistake stubbornness for triumph; they are all adept at deception and quick to capitalize on any possibility of profit. Unlike most other movies that use Mumbai as their backdrop, Ugly doesn't fixate upon any cliché about the city or its seedy underbelly. Instead, it goes into the private lives of people living seemingly respectable lives, but whose lives have also been undone by their habit of wearing false masks. On the one hand, Ugly is a suspense thriller. On the other hand, it is a study of the greed and pride and the inherent violence that pushes people towards ruin. Only, when the ruination in completed, we are left hating the monsters that sleep within each of us.
Kali (Anishika Shrivastava), a child trapped in her mother's second marriage to a stern, unloving policeman, wants nothing more than to meet her father for their weekly time together. Her mother Shalini – played by Tejaswini Kolhapure with an effective, distracted sense of absence even while she is there – is an alcoholic, veering between a meditation on suicide and one on murder. Her very controlling husband keeps track of her every waking moment, every pill or potion consumed, every word spoken on the phone. So she has her revenge by accusing him of being unloving and impotent, and by putting on makeup and dressing up for the mirror while he is away, and by dressing like a sack of potatoes while he is home. She needs to find some control over her life, but she is denied this by everybody around her. She calls her friend, trapped similarly in a loveless marriage. What she doesn't know is that her friend has found a way out:a daring escape drawn on the back of a gristly reality. One is either utterly, utterly helpless, or one is only as helpless as one allows circumstances to render one helpless.
Kashyap uses the conceit of a kidnapping to comment upon the restless greed that seems to be the character of the city of Mumbai. The layer upon layer of opportunism shown by everybody touched by the event is astounding in its suggestion that each of us is an immoral, deceitful schemer. As the policeman Shoumik Bose, Ronit Roy, who seems to have cornered the market for the tortured, brooding sadomasochist in independent Hindi movies, doesn't blink for a moment before seizing the opportunity of brutally beating and chaining up his rival for Shalini's affections from their college days, the failed actor Rahul – played by Rahul Bhatt. No other individual is shown as being more powerful – both physically and as a figure of authority – than Bose, but he still wants to avenge himself for the beatings he got from Rahul when they were in college together. Power and authority don't heal the past.
 In Ugly, it seems everybody feels the compulsion to try to out-scheme everybody around them: husband must out-scheme wife, son must out-scheme father, friend must out-scheme friend, and lovers are only useful until a certain time. A friend's misery is currency. A niece's disappearance can occasion the perfect opportunity to extort money from a sister, and so on. Without resorting to the crowds and crisscross veins of railway lines, Kashyap has caught both the darkness and frenzy of ambition that fuels the city where the action takes place. Sometimes, we forget how easily the uglier aspects of life can snare us in their nets: for no reason whatsoever, a stranger can stab us for the little gilt or bauble we may be wearing; for no reason someone we took for a friend can push us over a cliff; for no reason we can feel the favor of fortune turn away from us. This suddenness with which such evil injects itself into our lives may seem random and undeserved on the onset, but as events unfold forward and furl inwards to the things we may have said or done in the past, the slights we may have given to others or to ourselves, it becomes more and more clear that we are as much the perpetrators of such evil as we are victims.
To the very end of the movie, Rahul calls his new tormentor and old rival Bose to say that he has won – that the failed actor has successfully tricked the hardened cop and made away with a large stash of money provided by the cops to catch kidnappers. Bose asks – But, do you have your daughter with you? Anurag Kashyap throws in enough red-herrings to make it seem like the kidnapper child is merely the McGuffin in a long-con that everybody is playing on everybody else. As the intricacies continue to grow, we expect the writer-director to reveal unexpected alliances between different players to reveal some sort of mystery, something very clever and showy. But what he reveals is much harsher, much more real. There are very few things in live that begin badly and end well. The point is not that clever men can solve an intricate puzzle to save the life of a young child – the point is that young children get abducted; that wives are abused; that ambition and talent don't always match; that the trophies we collect out of pride can prove very expensive.
Ugly doesn't answer any questions, but it is clever in how it asks them. Bose, alone and hurt, returns home to look for food in the fridge. The strongest man so far in the entire movie has nothing but a jar of condiment to pick on. He doesn't have the strength to open the jar. We may set out with the belief that we are in control of every aspect of our lives. But there are monsters outside us and within us that try constantly to push us off the precipice, discard us from the comforts we know on the plateau of normalcy. And, Anurag Kashyap shows is, there is nothing scarier than the monster living inside us.

Sometimes, we forget how easily the uglier aspects of life can snare us in their nets: for no reason whatsoever, a stranger can stab us for the little gilt or bauble we may be wearing; for no reason someone we took for a friend can push us over a cliff; for no reason we can feel the favor of fortune turn away from us.

Alienating the Idiot
"Aajkal ke buddhe – in ke toh generation hi kuchh aur hai!"

In PK, directed and edited by Raj Kumar Hirani, the only major religion in India to not get made fun of is Buddhism – referenced only once as Amir Khan's titular PK makes a narrow escape by jumping onto a red bus, and happens to sit next to an enrobed monk. It is very gratifying to see a major Bollywood production so freely criticizing the big religions on India – and specifically, the biggest of them all, Hinduism – at a time when religion seems to be overriding common sense in many and unexpected areas. Somehow, the older generation seems to have become a lot more moronic than the younger lot – unashamedly insisting that fiction be taught as history, unashamedly asking that people buy into unfeasible fantasies of greatness.
Whenever a people has declared itself the chosen of God(s), misery has followed close at heels. PK deftly weaves into its formula the moralizing that Vidhu Vinod Chopra as producer, Raj Kumar Hirani as director and Amir Khan as a star seem to have taken on as personal responsibilities in capitalist India. This time around, they have identified religious charlatanry as the villain – but it is possible to see that the real villain is religion itself. There are other movies that have examined the same theme before – OMG, for instance, with Paresh Rawal playing an atheist, and Akshay Kumar playing Krishna. But, for all the interesting courtroom proceedings in OMG, it felt a bit too self-serious, and its coterie of villains too thinly caricatured, drained of the menace that religious shallowness can bring. In PK, the two sides are evenly matched – the menace of organized charlatanry, and the alien mind that insists upon treating religion purely through logic.
Only in a place like Bollywood can religion or God exist without a context – PK seems to suggest that an individual can get by with just the idea of god, rather than a relationship with the divinity's corporeal agents. As if there isn't a political angle to the business of faith. A very wise man once told me that the biggest flaw with faith is that it is merely faith. It doesn't stand the scrutiny of logic, or oftentimes, even common sense. So, if in the business of faith there is no space for common sense, anybody incapable of suspending disbelief is bound to rub against the grain of the society in which he has been dropped.
Already quite other-worldly with his jutting pair of ears, Amir Khan is dropped in the middle of nowhere. His conception of a community is that of a planet where there is instantaneous, transparent and total communication: something like a swarm of organisms that all share the same (cloud) brain. In such a place, there is no need for outward clothing, or for inward obfuscation and self-deceit. Very different from the world we live in: here, we may not speak directly of anything important, but must speak in allegories and allusions, just as the makers of PK have to use the Idiot as a metaphor and vehicle. In PK's world, words have straightforward meanings, and all there is no subtext. Here, most of our intentions require the lubrication of lies. When PK learns to lie, it feels as if the filmmakers nearly shed tears at their own conceit, as if they found redemption in the very human ability to live in falsehood. Where would storytelling go in a world without embellishment? What would happen to the other sap that, along with faith, sustains humanity – the big lie called hope?
Amir Khan can be annoying with his over-acted shtick, but the writing in PK is fun enough that Khan stops registering as an actor, and the gags take over. Hirani likes to make his audience laugh as much as  possible before sitting them down for a stern lecture: that is the formula for his Munnabhai movies, and that was true of 3 Idiots. But he is also capable, among current Bollywood directors, of packign the most into the familiar formula. Here will be a complete Bollywood masala film, but also with the added advantage of being intelligent. Instead of making the movie seem longer by adding action sequences in slow-motion, a la any Ajay Devgan or Salman Khan movie, Hirani actually packs in a lot, lot more content. There are obvious short-comings – the climax, for instance, where art seems to very narrowly imitate life by bringing the big finale to a very static talk-show set, not unlike Khan's recent foray into television. There is a sudden and pointless moment of violence which makes you wonder if it has more to do with Sanjay Dutt's drastically affected availability or a narrative failing on the part of the filmmakers. But, even so, even with Anushka Sharma's inconsequential Jaggu acting as the foil to Khan's PK, and even as an unnecessary India-Pakistan cross-border love story, PK chugs along nicely, on light feet, trailing a burst of laughter in its wake. It does make one think about the role religion has played in the politics of this region for so long.
Do people willingly choose to be sheep and cattle, instead of thinking, debating humans? A reasonable person probably doesn't need a guru of any sort: who in their right mind would believe that another shitting-pissing human being knows more about the future, or about the divine? Is it not an insult to common sense to declare anybody a god? What sort of hubris drives religious leaders to declare that they know God's mind? As we have all sensed, religion is merely the tool a perverse majority – or a fanatic minority – uses in order to keep the rest of the citizenry hostage. Women become unequal citizens because religious codes require them to be. Nationalism gets very narrowly defined so that people of other faiths or identities become outcasts. Children are killed, homes are razed and burned, entire peoples are interned – all under the claim that the bullies somehow know more, or somehow are the chosen. I hope PK gives the audience pause to reflect on these ideas, and examine how they are affected by religion in their political life.


I have a severe earache that would make a visit to the cinema very painful. Therefore, I am not able to write a review this week. However, the show must go on. I beg both your forgiveness and indulgence as I talk about cinema in a rather roundabout manner, not really pointing to anything, but making vague gestures at indistinct pictures. An earache is nothing to laugh at, and attempting complete sentences with a sharp pain splitting through the eardrum is challenging.
Jerryy, the last big hit among the “motorbike” crowd, was a road-trip movie, at least the first half of it. Come to think of it, there have been quite a few such movies in the past few years. Most Nepali thrillers, it seems, have been stories of young men and women who travel, get into trouble. Among movies reviewed here, Chihaan featured a bunch of young men who travel to Pokhara for a weekend and end up gang-raping the woman who will come back to send them to their graves. Ek Din Ek Raat was a lot more sophisticated in the way it told its story, but it started similarly: a bunch of friends set out from Kathmandu, reach a place where they know not what they do, get into trouble, are finished off one by one.
Chhadke, written and directed by Nigam Shrestha, also starts with a journey: two men take the same bus to Chitawan, and their fates become intertwined. How they treat the forest determines the outcomes of their lives. But it is still the story of a journey: one of the men returns home and still sets off on the path of violence and crime. The other enters the jungle and finds the forest spirit within.
Kohi... Mero, directed by Alok Nembang (and disclosure: the screenplay written by me), also featured friends traveling to an exotic locale – across the Himals, to the lime-dashed alleys of Marpha and Kagbeni. But, there the shtick was used weakly, to add to nothing but video choreography opportunities. At least in Jerryy there is the moment by the lake when Jerryy is looking at the girl and seems to experience an internal change. The Zhingrana trailer playing at the theaters suggests a story-line similar to that of Ek Din Ek Raat: a group of friends travels to a strange locale, trip ends in disaster.
In Talakjung vs Tulke, the protagonist is chased out of his village, and upon arriving at the city, changes outwardly, so that, upon his return to the village, he is able to say - “Bhanesi aafnai gaaunle ni chinenan!” (Look – my own neighbors don't recognize me anymore!) In Tsering Rhitar Sherpa's Uma, the urban landscape allows for the muddle and mystery that makes possible the fatal confrontation between a brother his sister. Without the confusion of alleyways and crowds of faces in which to disappear, the interaction would have been different, direct, more emotional that ideological – as their interaction in the village showed.
I don't remember, from the Nepali movies I have seen in the past year, anything similar to Talakjung vs Tulke, which is to say, with protagonists who come to the city to be transformed. But, it seems urban boys and girls are driving out in hordes to the countryside – be it the terai or the hills or mountains – either to get devoured by local evils, or for a fundamental transformation.
There is nothing new about the genre in which protagonists travel far from their familiar surroundings, and are transformed in the process. All pilgrimages are that: arduous travel that turns the focus inward, forces the pilgrim to watch closely the divine within themselves, and come to a new understanding of their faith. But, how is the road-trip genre being used in Nepali movies, and what does the trend say about the makers and consumers of such fare?
I think it is possible to claim that Kathmandu fears whatever lies outside the rim of the mountains that cage the valley in. I think it is also possible to claim that Kathmandu also views the rest of the country as a tourist destination, and sees Nepalis from outside the valley as either servants who will bring food (Jerryy), or women to be seduced, raped, discarded (Chihaan) or as barely civilized barbarians whose rituals of blood and violence will somehow ruin the lives of the urban wanderers (Ek Din Ek Raat, Zhingrana). While none of the movies catering to the “motorbike” crowd – the kids who show up at the cinema in their school uniform, riding a modified motorbike to each couple – have as sophisticated a political point to make as did Uma or Talakjung vs Tulke about the urban-rural divide, they do seem to have a current running through  that unites them against the rural. The movies being made for the 18-24 year old Kathmandu boys and girls seems to hate the rest of the country either by thinking of it as a dangerous place where only disasters wait (or where the locals are untrustworthy, opportunistic), or as the place from where the servant underclass arrives into the city. Forget about imagining the rest of the country in its nuances of linguistic and ethnic diversity or of the many, many grievances they might have against the city.
With the rise of the multiplex theater, the divide between cinematic fare aimed at one class or region of the country and another class and region of the country has been growing. That is tragic. Of course, there will always be many different kinds of audiences, and as long as they represent wallets capable of purchasing theater tickets, filmmakers will be discerning enough to match fare to fare. But to assume that the rural audience is not capable of understanding the same movie as the urban audience is to discriminate in the worst of the ways, through a lowered expectation of intellectual or aesthetic capability. It is perfectly alright to make another Jerryy or Ladduu, but to not be able to look at the people who populate the picturesque countryside that serves as a rich brat's playground is to fail as a storyteller. Just as it would be wrong to make a movie based in a village and only show a person from the cities as a purse of clichés. Let us hope that this artificial divide between the rural and the urban in Nepali movies will soon disappear.

Voiced from the margins

“Tu toh turn bhi 48 frames mein karta hai. You were born to be a hero.”

Shamitabh is a minor movie in the grand tradition of movies about movies, but it might be the most interesting movie made as a tribute to certain megastars of a bygone era: Rekha, Rajinikant, Kamal Haasan, Amitabh Bachchan, etc. It is a middling film with interesting ambitions: where else have you seen, for instance, an item number done in sign language? Whether the sign language verbiage is authentic or even useful seems besides the point – what seems important to the filmmakers is that there be ambition at all to take the bold step of rendering one item dance in sign language.
Danish – played by Dhanush, he of Rajinikant's-son-in-law fame – is from the Maharashtra hinterlands. Like any self-respecting Indian, Danish grows up watching movies made in Bombay, and harbors dreams to someday make it big in the metropolis of glitter and glam. There is one little hitch: he is a born mute, alert and alive in every other way, but incapable of uttering any sound on his own. That doesn't deter the young lad – every waking moment of his life is spent in the ether of borrowed gestures and emotions: the movies are the spent teabags with which steep into his days and color them.
Then there is Amitabh Sinha – Amitabh Bachchan with a most profound baritone – who lives in a cemetery, attended upon by a genie of a gravedigger, and like any self-respecting failed artist, always drunk out of his mind . He is the personification of the failure of ambition: a man so full of spent dignity that he wears a white suit even when he is in the gutters. Completing the trio of leads is Akshara, played by Akshara Haasan in her debut, as the source of all wisdom in the movie: an assistant director who only wants to make a movie of her own, and who helps Danish out of kindness alone.
There is something quite off about the movie – that much is true – but if you can see past that initial awkwardness, you will find a tender nostalgia for the world of magic that is the movies. If you are of a certain age and know of certain histories of that universe, you recognize more in the movie. Danish, in his attempt to reach Mumbai, finagles a job as a bus-conductor, where he impresses people with his impersonations and style. Later, he abuses the film industry for not accepting the common Marathi man as a silver-screen icon. All of this, of course, is tribute to his father-in-law, the demigod named Rajinikant. To Akshara's father are sequences done in silence, of hysteric but affecting melodrama, of poignant physical comedy. And to Bachchan, of course, the entire conceit of the movie: that his voice is in itself a legend, in itself an entity worthy of a place in the history of Indian cinema. Hain?
But, at the center of it all is a man intent on proving himself: the superstar of Tamil movies, Dhanush, who is still at the margins of acceptance in the larger Bollywood picture. He is slight of build, and dark: everything the opposite of the fairness-cream peddling bodies designed by scalpel and dumbbells. And, in Shamitabh, he doesn't have a voice of his own. Rather, he speaks in a borrowed voice, as if insisting upon impressing upon us his outsider credentials. Perhaps it is no surprise then that nearly all the important characters are outsiders, creatures of the margins, waiting either to be lifted to the heavens, or fall to the netherworld.
I found Akshara most interesting, both as the debutante, and as a character. Always dressed in black, with a defiant sweep of asymmetric hair interfering with half of the face, Akshara the AD seems quietly confident of her own capabilities as an artist, and is defiantly a gender outsider. She hardly wears any makeup through the movie, the camera choosing instead to look at her blue-green eyes, and repeatedly rejects the superstar suitor, pointedly telling him off by saying that she isn't interested in sitting around and looking into his eyes. That stuff is all good in the movies, but had no meaning in real life, she says, because she has more important things to do: realize herself as a creator, as an artist. “Kiss my ass, monkey,” she says to the hero when he tries to seduce her into letting him play in her movie. The desperate hero obliges by bending over and giving her a kiss on the buttocks. Somehow, in that one gesture, there seemed more triumph and progress than in a busload of movies like Gulabo Gang. Also, her character is perhaps the closest it has come in Bollywood movies where the heroine, on whom the hero has designs intended solely to advance his own career, is solidly butch. It is sad that this sort of recognition has come from a team at the margins, and not from a bigger name in writing and directing in Bollywood, but it is amusing to watch Akshara's character.
We have become so attuned to the classic formula for a successful Bollywood movie that when something slightly off-grid appears on our radars we become momentarily discombobulated. Our references yield nothing, because we expect the referred to fall neatly into prefabricated molds. Shamitabh may not have the loud and saturated moments we have come to expect – it has an item song in sign language, for instance, or a shameless and shallow parody of ditsy actresses and actors on motorbikes – but it does have a strangely articulate center, a heart that beats irregularly, as if to demonstrate the fragility of what we are witnessing. It has to ability to come at everything from an unforeseen angle, and from that skewed perspective, touch a nostalgic nerve or inspire awe. But, it does take a certain distance created through forgiveness, tenderness and acceptance of the work's project. The tussle between ambition and ego that Shamitabh dissects is nothing new, in cinema or in our own lives, but the way it speaks of the smaller issues – of locating oneself in a larger world, of looking in from the margins, of the seeds of our ambitions and despair – there is novelty in the lens, in the sounds and gestures of which it is constructed.

We have become so attuned to the classic formula for a successful Bollywood movie that when something slightly off-grid appears on our radars we become momentarily discombobulated. Our references yield nothing, because we expect the referred to fall neatly into prefabricated molds.

Against Plot

'Mera garam dimag ho gaya tha mera. Tera toh thanda dimag tha. Do logon ko maar diya hathauda se. Woh bhi nirdosh!  Bimar ho gaya hai tu - ilaaz karwa le.'

Revenge is a place. In Shriram Raghavan's Badlapur, revenge is quite literally situated in the eponymous town, somewhere inland of Mumbai, with an average altitude of 18 meters above sea level. Revenge is a place both of stillness and of chaos, of waiting and making sudden spurts towards the goal. Badlapur is a sleekly done revenge story that, somewhere along the way, veers off into unexpected territories. Everything seems vaguely familiar, yet also slightly removed from the familiar, slightly strange.
Although Varun Dhawan plays Raghav, the protagonist, Badlapur really belongs to Nawazuddin Siddiqui, in the role of the slimy, slithering Liak. A robbery goes wrong and two innocents die as the pair of bank robbers try to get away. Liak, one of the robbers, lets the police arrest him, so that his partner can get away with the loot. Liak keeps his silence for fifteen years, and hopes someday to claim his half of the loot. Meanwhile, Raghav, whose wife and son have been killed, waits to have his revenge.
Raghavan, as the co-writer, could have taken Badlapur in any direction -- even the plot-heavy version that can keep the audience on the edge of their seats, a sleekly done thriller like his Johnny Gaddar. Instead, Raghavan rejects plot in Badlapur, and focuses instead on the inner worlds of his characters. He has two brilliantly realized beings to play with: one in a slow descent into madness, and the other like a bubble trapped in a cesspool, slowly but inevitably rising above his circumstances. A thriller can take the clockwork of the revealed and hidden in plot and pacing so seriously that mere cardboard cutouts could play the characters doing all the jumping and punching and hiding and conniving without the audience minding it a bit. But if those shiny trappings are removed, the viewer is forced to still his focus and watch just the one person agonizing, or just the one man's ambition to 'fly to Bangkok, get every kind of massage, Thai and sandwich.'
Liak dominates the more nuanced bits of Badlapur. How a person can be such a slippery serpent, and yet gain a degree of salvation, is a testament to Sidiqui's ability as an actor. He starts lying the moment he is arrested by the police, and continues lying until the very end, even though everybody around him has gradually wizened up to his lies. His ambitions are fairly simple - to rescue his lover, a prostitute, and spend his life with her. However casually he may make a promise, he keeps it, through years of desperation and torture. Somewhere along the journey, he realizes that he has to be better than his father - someone he never saw, and who had no part of good in him.
On the other side of the coin, Raghav descends into a very private hell. His life is cleaved into two: the well-scrubbed exterior, where he is a loner, making his way between the factory where he works and his home scrubbed of any vestige of the past; and the messy interior where the past has left stains on the walls. He is debilitated by two facts: that Liak is in jail, and that Liak's partner has never been found. When he leaves Mumbai and shows up in Badlapur, the clerk at a hotel asks: How long are you here for? Raghav answers: 20 years! What does a man do if he can't even plot his revenge? If there is no opportunity to hurt or humiliate the object of your hatred, what do you do? Isn't that wait for agency to come into your hands worse than anything you could inflict upon another person as your revenge? And this forced inaction creates the opportunity for Raghavan to push Raghav in interesting directions: Raghav is provided with an opportunity to show mercy to Liak. Raghav knows it is merely a small part of Liak's plot to escape. Raghav then finds the opportunity to use Liak as a pawn.
There was a time in Hindi cinema when revenge was as straight-forward as they ever came. Morality wasn't messy . 'Yeh haath mujhe de de, Gabbar!'  -- This has no ambiguity. The likes of Rekha and Dimple riding their horses through 'Chambal ke ghaati' to exact revenge was understandable. But, in Badlapur, there seems to be a logic at play that says that sometimes the accrued interest on one act of vengeance can be so large that it requires -- demands, even -- the sacrifice of an innocent. The audience empathizes, and moralizes. If the character who has our empathy does something that goes against our moral sense, we have to invent ways in which to reconcile our pathetic needs with our sense of right and wrong. Raghavan manipulates the audience perfectly in this context, inviting sometimes to examine the tortured and deserving Raghav, and inviting sometimes to catch a glimpse of the heroism inherent in the slippery, serpentine Liak.
The most interesting aspect is the decay of the moral certainty in the world of the protagonist. Revenge cannot be similar to trying to punish somebody for an infraction, the movie seems to say -- revenge is against oneself more than it is directed at anyone. The corrosive acid of this sentiment first and foremost disfigures the person holding it. But there has never been a notion of justice without the provision for revenge: when, in the modern world, the task of seeking revenge was taken away from the individual and made the prerogative of the state, the individual's psyche has become doubly inflicted with the same violence: once at the hands of the perpetrator of the act, and again at being denied the ability and opportunity to seek revenge.
Badlapur is not sleek with style, but it is saturated with substance. It makes the viewer continuously uneasy at what transpires on screen, but more so at what must be transpiring in the minds of the characters. It deserves to be seen.

The Spark from which the Wildfire will Rage
Nischal Basnet is the spark from which the inevitable wildfire will rage. In Tsering Rhitar Sherpa's Uma is a prophetic sequence enfolded as an inside joke: Tulasi Ghimire – whose Darpan Chhaya had been the biggest box-office success until Nischal's Loot came along – directs Nischal in a movie-in-a-movie. Nischal parodies the loud, flamboyant dishum-dishum machismo of the typical Nepali filim hero strutting through a lush pastoral landscape. But, it was also with Loot that the dominance of a particular cinematic aesthetic that had been championed by Ghimire's generation started its slow demise.
The radical shift that started with movies like Numafung and Mukundo, but which was nudged most off-course by Kagbeni, floundered for a bit before hitting its mark with a slew of works that attempted at once to escape the routine of chewed-up, derivative formula, but also retain the local viewership while innovating. First Love is a good example: structurally familiar enough, but in its substance radical and provocative. But, again – it was only with Loot that the two were married, through its bawdy item-dance alongside a clever heist; urban angst against rain-soaked, old-school romance; etc. And, Nischal was the engine behind that achievement.
The man who wrote and sang Udhreko Choli Chha Hai made an itinerant fool's journey to the world of filmmaking. He tried to study IT, went to Sydney to study but had to return empty-handed when his college shut down just five months shy of giving Nischal his degree. Parents and friends worried for him when he decided to join the film industry. But he persisted, searched for opportunities to start as a spot boy, hid his comfortable upbringing from others so that they would put him to hard work without reservations.
He found work, including a stint as a production assistant on Nabin Subba's by-now-mythical Good Bye Kathmandu. He asked Purna Singh Baraily for the job, offering to put himself on probation for a few days. Ever curious about all aspects of filmmaking, he constantly asked questions, and was "learning more about what not to do." He saw the various kinds of waste around him: penny-pinching pound-foolishness; the dishonesty of people spending the budget; the inability to accommodate a wider range of suggestions. He also realized that the very people he had been frustrated against – the old guard of Nepali cinema, who insisted upon the tried and tested formula – weren't entirely wrong. Their work brought people to the theaters, whereas the 'alternative stream' alienated the audience. There was no substance to the writing – "Lekhaai ko gudi nai thik thiyena." A bridge was necessary: for the aesthetic of Nepali cinema to be transformed, a journey had to be made from the old to the new, and like a magnet trailing iron filings in its wake, take both towards synthesis in a new direction. And, Nischal wasn't going to wait for somebody else to come along and create that bridge.
In the years since he set out to make Loot, Nischal has been active in creating the change he wanted to see. He is a writer, director, producer, actor, lyricist and singer. With his partnership in Popcorn Productions, he is also a distributor. His production Kabaddi, the trailers for which you can find on YouTube and watch at QFX cinemas, also features him as an outsider who arrives to steal away a village belle. He is wrapping up Talakjung vs. Tulke, a dark comedy written by and featuring Khagendra Lamichhane. He is producing Tandro, a Samten Bhutia film inspired by real life, and he is polishing up the screenplay for a movie he wants to shoot around dashain. Take any interesting work of Nepali cinema in the recent years and chances are you'll find Nischal involved in some capacity. Praise and abuse comes alternately – he brought back the Nepali middle class to the theaters, but he also started the trend of cheap street-talk in the movies – but, at least, there is reaction. At least, there is engagement.
"People who wouldn't talk about Nepali movies are now talking about Nepali movies. That, in itself, is a big achievement," Nischal says.  But, he still worries that there isn't much effort being put into the writing, the pre-production planning, etc., that would make a project worthwhile. The industry still attracts hucksters and conmen, and is rife with stories of exploitation of all kinds. A particular section of the media delights in portraying the industry as a cesspool of vices. Nischal takes offence – "To portray the industry as a place of sin and scandal is to also taint the work of honest filmmakers."
The point is not to create esoteric works that appeal to a small group. It isn't to churn out saccharine fare aimed at pleasing the widest possible mass of audience. The point is to bridge the gap between the two – to create movies that will speak to and move audiences in a far-flung single-screen theater and also in an up-market urban theater in the capital. The point is to not knowingly repeat mistakes from the past. The point is to retain the original spark of passion that first flung one into the violent embrace of a creative profession. "I still am who I was," says Nischal – but it is possible to discern in him the change that has come from maturing under the burden of expectations. Grappling with the realities of actually making a movie has perhaps made him more humble, but his wound-up energy eager to explode is also visible. Let us all hope that, when the explosion comes, we can bear witness; let us hope that we get to watch the wildfire rage.