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Close-Up: Nepali Cinema — From Aama to Numafung

There is an ongoing search for a national cinema. How should this national cinema be? That is the question, and there is a search. (Pradeep Bhattarai: personal interview)

November 2003 was a particularly busy month for those of us academically concerned with, or merely following developments in Nepali cinema. Director Navin Subba had just returned from screening his critically acclaimed film Numafung (A Beautiful Flower, 2003) at the Vesoul International film festival, where it received the public choice award. He was preparing to premiere it for a general audience at the popular Biswojyoti cinema hall.

Over mid-afternoon din and Nanglo’s momos, Navin spoke into my mini voice recorder. His voice was calm, and his vision steady.

Another conversation took place during the same month with Pradeep Bhattarai - in his own words, “Nepal’s one and only Ph.D. holder in Cinema Studies”- at his day job with an advertising agency in Kamaladi. The recorder was put on ‘pause’ mode several times to drink chiya (tea), while I tried to grasp the journey that Nepali cinema had made from Aama in 1965 to Numafung in 2003 – from an era governed by (Hindu) state nationalization, to democracy, privatization and transnationalism, to its current moment when a future direction is yet uncharted.

The following essay is a result of these two insightful interviews, among others. It also involved reading press clips on Nepali films and literature on Nepali history, politics, society, and culture, and not to forget hundred of hours of watching Nepali films.

Close Up: Aama (Mother, 1965) …Nationalization, Modernization, and The State Cinema

Official Nepali film history begins in 1965 with the highly patriotic film Aama (Mother, 1965). Produced by the Ministry of Information under the aegis of the then King Mahendra, Aama was clearly a nation-building tool. ‘Desh suhaodo panchayati bewastha’ - love the Panchayat system that suits our nation -was the message communicated to a diverse national public divided along regional and ethnic lines. The image of the mother, a universal symbol of national unity, was used to forward themes of nationalization. Characters in the film were dressed in distinct garbs of the nation – men in daura suruwal and dhaka topi and women draped in saree and cholo fariya.

In an effort to show this film throughout the country, state personnel were sent from Kathmandu with projectors and generators so that even remote, mountainous villages like Solu Khumbu where there was no electricity and where national laws had not yet penetrated Sherpa life fully (1) could receive this national imagery projected onto their farm walls. (2)

Seeing the need to develop a national film industry within Nepal, King Mahendra’s government established the Royal Nepali Film Corporation (RNFC) in 1972. National monies were invested in studios for recording, dubbing, and editing. The films produced regularly by the RNFC were documentaries on visits of the King and other state authorities to various parts of the country. (3) It has for long been argued that in a country as ethnically, culturally, and religiously diverse as Nepal, the King is the one true ‘symbol of unity’ that binds this fragmented nation together. (4) The various royal visits to communities in remote parts of the nation were recorded in documentary films produced by the RNFC, and shown to a community in another part of the nation. This helped create what scholar Benedict Anderson (1983) the ‘imagined community.’

However, cinematic representations created by the state during this period attempted to create a ‘tunnel vision’ of national identity based solely on a Hindu core. The center was clearly Hindu, and the films’ narratives, costumes, and cultural messages aimed to project this to the periphery.

Some, such as Pradeep Bhattarai argues that the first Nepali film D.B Pariyar’s Satya Harischandra, which was made before Aaama but did not make it into the history books because the film was made without the Hindu state’s blessings. He claims that part of the reason is also because Pariyar was of the low-caste domai jat with whom there was a system of pani chaldaina – higher castes would not drink nor touch the water touched by someone of his caste.

Close-Up: Maili (Third Daughter, 1993) …Cultural Masquerade and The Commercial Cinema

1990 was the defining moment for all areas of Nepali life. This was the year of the Jana Andolan (People’s Revolution) whereby multiparty democracy system was restored after thirty years of the single party Panchayat system. The king no longer had direct political power but remained a symbolic head. Economic liberalization and privatization was the main feature of this new era, and the fledgling film industry witnessed a dramatic change. The Royal Nepal Film Corporation (RNFC), housed in the Balaju Industrial Complex along with other state-run industries, was considered a ‘weak industry’ and opened for privatization. A group of producers and filmmakers took over the corporation in 1993 and promptly renamed it the Nepal Film Development Board (NFDB). The NFDB has been run like a pasal (shop) - assessing the taste of the public and catering to its demands – which has given birth to a film industry in the real sense of the word. Following in the footsteps of the world’s major film industries — Los Angeles’ Hollywood and Bombay’s Bollywood — Nepal’s film industry was named after Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu; Kollywood.

While films made previously blatantly forwarded stories that represented a core Hindu national identity based in the caste system, post-democracy films tried to reveal the fallacy of such social hierarchical structures. Thus narratives of films made immediately in the wake of the 1990 revolution expressed a desire for an equitable social order. Caste and class differences were conveniently ironed out through themes of love and friendship. Maili (Third Daughter, 1993) the first cinemascope film to be made in Nepal by the NFDB was based on a ‘true-life story’ about a romance between two socially polar opposites — a half-orphaned ‘low-caste’ Magar girl, Maili, from a poor family, and a wealthy city Brahmin boy, Prabhat, who comes to Maili’s village in the guise of as road engineer ‘saab.’

Although expanded in terms of themes that include previously disenfranchised groups such as ‘low caste’ ethnic groups, commercial cinema can be reduced to any song and dance routine typical of this cinema. In almost all the commercial films, the background dancers are of different racial and ethnic groups while the hero and the heroine are without fail of Hindu stock. When the narrative calls for an ethnic protagonist, the mainstream actors of Hindu Aryan features take to masquerade. In Maili, the female protagonist is supposed to be of the Magar ethnic group but Maili is played by Bipana Thapa, a popular actress with distinct Brahmin features. In commercial cinema, the ethnic is marginalized in the background whereas mainstream actors are not only fore-grounded but can also masquerade as ethnics.

Close-Up: Caravan/Himalaya (2000) …Transnational Images of the Nepali Ethnic

Although circulating widely in the transnational circuit, ethnic images have traditionally always been both the interest and the domain of the west. If the west was not creating, it was consuming it. Through longitudinal relationships with ethnic groups, western anthropologists and image-makers and others have ‘spoken’ for ethnic groups for several decades. A clear example is seen in Himalaya (2000) – a directorial debut for anthropologist turned filmmaker, Eric Valli, famed for his work of people in Nepal’s remote corners – such as the Honeyhunters and the Tharus.

Shot in the Dolpo region in far northwestern Nepal, most in the film are local Dolpopas, many representing themselves onscreen. So Thinle plays Thinle, the angry village chieftain who has to lead a group of men over Meng La pass to bring salt from Tibet. Although Dolpo is politically within Nepal, the Dolpopas maintain distinct Tibetan-Buddhist cultural and religious practices owing to their geographical and cultural proximity to Tibet. Nomadic herders and salt traders, the Dolpopas have historically had very little contact with the rest of Nepal because of the sheer distance and lack of roads. The administrative center too has little presence in Dolpo, as seen through a lack of basic infrastructure, such as schools and hospitals.

Over the fifteen years Valli spent on and off in Dolpo, it was precisely the fact that the Dolpopas were ‘untouched’ by modern civilization that intrigued Valli. He romanticizes the ties of Dolpopas to their isolated and natural world when he says in an interview for a San Francisco newspaper; ‘you see people who live in harmony with nature, where the land that Thinle has given to his son is the same that was given by his ancestor.’ To Valli, the Dolpopas’ daily adventures of survival are comparable to those in a Jack London novel, a John Ford Western, or the ‘Last of the Mohicans.’

Thinle on the other hand, when asked why he participated in the film, responded that it was important to do this film ‘before the Dolpopas’ tradition melts like snow under the sun.’ In return for the Dolpopas’ participation in the film, Thinle asked Vialli to send his son to school in Kathmandu and build a school in Dolpo. I read this request for a school and Thinle’s reason for participating in the film as a response typical of an ethnic minority group living in physical, cultural, and political isolation within a nation-state framework.

The Sherpas of Solu Khumbu in far northeastern Nepal made similar requests to the Sir Edmund Hillary after his conquest of Mt. Everest in 1958. They asked him to send children to school in Kathmandu and build a school in Solu Khumbu so that they could be linked to their country’s economic and political structure in the future. For both Sherpas and Dolpopas, this desire to be linked to the center comes from a re-alignment of their political destinies with the state of Nepal. The westerner’s fascination with their remote mountain life merely became a way to negotiate their identity and destiny with the Nepali social, economic and political center.

Close-Up: Numafung: A Beautiful Flower (2003) …A Search For a True National Nepali Cinema

The film tells the story of a girl, Numafung, of the Limbu community who is married off twice to men of her parents’ choice. When her second husband, Girihang, turns out to be an alcoholic who does not hesitate to beat her when he feels like it, Numa flees his hold. This leaves Numa’s family at the mercy of Girihang, who had paid a sunauli rupauli (bride price) to Numa’s parents prior to the wedding. According to Limbu tradition, Numa’s parents must now pay three times the original bride price.

The film was shot on location in a rural village of Pashtar district predominantly inhabited by Limbu ethnic community and both actors and non-actors are employed to play the film’s characters, giving the whole project a sense of un-melodramatic realism.

Numafung is made partly in the ethnic Limbu language but mostly in the national Nepali language – the older generation speak in Limbu and the younger generation reply in Nepali - depicting the reality of most ethnic groups in Nepal. The film thus actively seeks to have a three-way dialogue - between an international audience and the Limbu community and between the Limbu community and national Nepali society – by reaching three levels of viewing public; the international festival market, the national audience, and the local ethnic group on which the film is based.

Numafung is thus not only a milestone in the history of Nepali cinema, but also in the project of redefining/rethinking/re-imagining Nepali national identity. It is an attempt to re-conceptualize what constitutes ‘national’ for Nepalis.

During a personal interview, director Navin Subba expressed that there were two main reasons behind making Numafung. The first was to represent minority ethnic groups in the national sphere and the second was to create a cinematic form that can be recognized as distinctly Nepali. In essence, he was asking that Numafung although based on an ethnic minority group be considered a ‘national’ film that can hold a mirror up to other ‘national’ cinemas.

In thinking about a distinct Nepali form, the film’s story, broken up into fragments seen from the point of view of Numafung’s sister, could be treated as a thangka painting in which various fragmented incidents make up the whole painting. Or perhaps some attention could be paid to the rhythm created by the editing. A subtle pattern in the editing – four close ups and one extreme long shot –can be likened to the familiar rhythm of a madal which can perhaps create a ‘Nepali rhythm.’ ‘Although it is difficult to decide how form is made, perhaps in the way that one can recognize Japanese cinema and Iranian cinema, one can also recognize Nepali cinema.’ (Subba, personal interview)

Despite the international exposure, Numafung did not play to packed theaters as had been hoped. While commercial filmmakers say this is because Nepali films with ethnic subjects are not commercially viable, Bhattarai attributes its lukewarm reception to the fact that the Nepali public, ‘fed with an overdose of Aryan faces and Aryan stories is not ready to accept a Pavitra Subba or a Ojhang in leading roles.’ (Bhattarai, personal interview) Meanwhile, filmmakers like Navin Subba are accused by mainstream society of toeing the ethnic line. Ethnic activists and community members, on the other hand, claim that Subba has betrayed the ethnic sentiment by catering his films to the larger mainstream society. Such is the dilemma of the Nepali ethnic filmmaker!

While international film festivals accept films like Numafung to be a ‘national’ Nepali film, the debate inside Nepal is centered on the separation of Nepali films into two categories; commercial cinema and alternative cinema. Films made in the Bollywood tradition would be considered commercial cinema while films made outside this tradition would be considered alternative cinema.

At this point we can imagine two possible futures for Nepali cinema. In the first, films made by ethnic directors and/or in ethnic languages will become the alternative cinema, which ironically will represent the nation in the global film circuit. Commercial cinema will continue in the pre-charted path set by cinema holding the view of the state in which national representation remains forever problematic. If indeed in future Nepali films are separated into these categories, commercial and alternative, it is foreseeable that the trends described in this essay will continue without ever converging.

Alternatively, a second possible scenario is one in which filmmakers work towards building an image-life rather than fragmenting it. This would require opening up of the fixed definition of what constitutes ‘national’ – both in filmmaking as well as in other major areas of Nepali life. This would result not only in the inclusion of those marginalized in the national life, but also move away from the blatant imitation of the Bollywoodian formula of five song sequences interspersed with three fight and two rape scenes. Nepalis might finally have a cinema they can truly call their own.

Kesang Sherpa graduated from Yale University in May 2004, where she majored in Film Studies, and Ethnicity, Race, and Migration Studies. This essay is part of a larger essay titled ‘Un/Re-Imagining National Nepali Cinema’ which won the Howard R. Lamar prize for the best senior essay in the Film Studies Department, Yale University.

1. Many (Pradhan et al.) argue that Sherpas who lived very geographically isolated from the administrative center did not come under the direct impact of national laws like, for example, the national civil codes. (back)

2. Personal conversation with former fight choreographer, L.G Khambachhe, New York City, March 2003. (back)

3. Spotlight, Vol 20: No 07, August 17-2000, Interview with Producer and Director, Yadav Kharel. (back)

4. This historically held view is expressed in contemporary times as the nation struggles to come to terms with political dis-unification owing to a longer and more chaotic experiment in multiparty democracy. King Birendra who was made politically inactive following the 1990 people’s revolution and reinstatement of democracy, was often called upon by the public and sometimes by political parties to mediate in party politics and the Maoist insurgency. (back)