I couldn't resist watching Stardust on HBO during the four hours of power, leaving me with about 80 minutes to write this article for next Sunday's paper. I thought I had an interesting idea, but it turned out to be quite trite. I was so lazy that I even lifted--borrowed--the title from the movie. I am so bad at giving titles to the essays: it is usually in the "this-and-vaguely related that" format.
At least it has Nikhil Uprety in it! It seems he isn't on IMDB, although he has done tons of Nepali movies, and a few Bhojpuri ones. On the other hand, I am on IMDB :-)
Star and Dust
He can't be more than fourteen years of age, but he carries about a weathered air, sits peering into the dust and pale sun as if beckoned at by a once forgotten sight. He sits on his heels, knees folded to support cheekbones, arms ringed around the shins, the tail of school blazer brushing pine needles as he sways to a private rhythm. Often the lips curl and crumble around the edges to make small flickers of a smile or a frown as I watch for shadows of thoughts fade and flash on his face. My curiosity pushes me forward: I saunter over to where he sits and ask what school he has run away from.
“North Point,” he says in the faintest voice, too faint to catch the first time around. His arm points to the west. “Near here, North Point, Samakhusi.” I ask him why he isn't in school—Suraj laughs behind me. He thinks I am scaring the boy. “Holiday,” the boy mutters, makes no eye-contact, shifts edgewise away. He is still squatting, so he doesn't get too far with that exercise, but he indicates enough to reseal his envelope of privacy, there on the dusty ground of Ranibari.
Suraj, Yagya and Camen have a laugh at the boy's expense. It is the morning after a friend's wedding reception: each man is parched and wary of the sun. This morning in Ranibari is the perfectly mellow start to a new day our bodies need, lulled by the sun broken by the scant roof of leaves above, fanned by a blaze of dry bamboo groves that stubbornly wear their golden leaves, and spiced by the mild acid of unaccountable cynicism as we mutter in approval, but mostly laugh, at Nikhil Uprety giving an action sequence. We watch the team of technicians go about their work, but we also watch the handful who have congregated to watch the action sequence being shot.
Nikhil has to come running up a slope and veer off just before hitting the camera. The boy gets up, touches his tie as if stroking a talisman, shifts to a new perch with a better view of the actor, who does come gunning down the ground, veers off, and even before he has come to a stop, flicks the phone out of a hip-pocket and leans against a tree, grinning needlessly into the phone, flicking his long hair in squealing delight. Behind him, extras and stunts-men pile small heaps of leaves to fall hard into, practice complicated five-step choreography that needs perfect timing and grace of form to execute. The boy nods his approval, but he is shooed away from the line of sight of the camera. He is reluctant to stand and loathe to relocate, unlike middle-aged women with bright tika on their foreheads, spillover from a nearby wedding, hiding cautiously behind tree-trunks, taking in the bright magic of cinema being made Nepali-style, on the strength of grunts and guts, and nothing besides.
Caymen starts clowning, wondering aloud when the filmmakers would come to their senses, see the kuire with blond curls, cast him for the villain's sidekick. “Just give me some ratty brown wigs and like three heavy gold chains and put me in a pit and I'll jump out of the leaves.” We all laugh. But we know that this dusty troupe is stitching together a snare of magic, yelling in pain and bravado with each punch and kick that will be in service of a damsel in distress or a kid nabbed by a pot-bellied goon when all is done, when a blanket of hush falls over a darkened theater to erupt in applause as Nikhil comes running up an incline, knees a man in the face, leaps over two more, kicks one so hard that he does a complete back-flip and falls into a pile of leaves.
The truant boy has moved into the shade of picnic stall, still hunched, still peering at every object, every person, every movement. Our attention is waning, wavering, but his seems to accrete with every nod at every accurate punch, every new angle the camera squats to capture. I belong here, to this world of make-believe and leaves thrown in the air, men flying through the air, calling for damage and baby and action. The boy in his blazer, chewed-up tie and the jaundiced gauntness of frame is an eavesdropper at this orchestra of sounds and sights. But I am fidgety, irritable, tense, cynical, too easily goaded to derisive laughter by Caymen or Yagya's wisecracks, whereas the boy is like a heap of cow-dung marked into veneration with vermilion and turmeric and red ribbons, his mute, rooted mass deified, transcended into Ganesh.
Where is the illusion, I ask myself—in the obviously faked throws and kicks and falls, or in the expectations I have of the movie business? I see too easily through the effort. I project my disbelief instead of suspending it, but the boy, seems to me, has mastered the rare art of sustained awe, which must be the lifeblood of the theatrical arts, or our persistent desire to laugh with ourselves, at ourselves. I stand and shake my head as if to shake off the thought. The boy looks at me, but he doesn't nod. Suraj laughs once more at Nikhil, who is once more on the phone. As if on a cue, we all stand, ready to walk away from the morning's entertainment, Nepali-style.