Passion Flower: Soongava

January 6, 2014 , by Sewa Bhattarai, Leave your thoughts
Passion Flower: Soongava » My Dreams Mag
Subarna Thapa is the unassuming director of Soongava, the first mainstream Nepali movie to be based explicitly on homosexuality. He has worked all over the world including in Japan and New York, and lives in France with his French wife Natalie, but came back to Nepal to make his first feature film. 


Subarna went to France almost fifteen years ago to study theatre, graduated from Cours Florent (It’s pronounced ‘Floron’, he corrects me with a slight smile) in 2002. His film Soongava turned out to be a path breaking film, and was nominated from Nepal to participate in the foreign films category of the Oscars. Before being a filmmaker, Subarna was a theatre artist. He worked with a French theatre group at first, and then later with local theatre groups in Nepal making dramas on French culture.


Tell us about your schooling in theatre.

A French group came here to make films in 1994, and again in 1995. They gave us scholarships in 1997, and took us to France for three months. There I made some contacts, increased my network. Later I worked with Studio seven at Bajra Hotel for three years.

I applied to a French theatre school in 1999. I passed the entrance, and three rounds of exams for scholarships.


Can a first generation immigrant ‘make it’ in the art scene of a foreign country? Because art involves not just technicalities but also nuances that come with a cultural background.

It is difficult for a first generation immigrant to achieve artistic success abroad, because any individual nation’s cultural repertoire is rich and varied. But sometimes it works in your favour because it gives your art a distinctive characteristic. I actually graduated first in my class of actors.


When did you start working in films?

Right after graduating I started working with some people in France, and also worked with Japan Foundation. Then with one of the people in the Japan foundation I made a multimedia play called “Five Streams” in New York.

Before Soongava I did one feature film called Malami about rural exodus in Nepal. It was produced by the French government, and was screened in French national television, in some film festivals, and in private screenings.

Subarna Thapa

What led you to work on homosexuality?

I realized that most people choose their themes according to the market. But I wanted my first feature film to raise a serious subject. In sixty years of Nepali film history, homosexuality has never been addressed.


What kind of research did you do for Soongava?

I talked to a lot of homosexuals, contacted homosexual organizations. I started writing the script in 2005. By that time, Nepal’s LGBT community had come a long way in their rights, in their expressions. Maybe ahead of international LGBT members in citizenship rights, single parenthood, etc. They could identify themselves as “third gender” in citizenship card.


But it seems that Nepal has progressed legally, but not much socially in this respect?

Exactly, it’s like the air-plane came first to Nepal, and it carried the bicycle in.


Was it challenging to film a story of homosexuality?

It’s not like this subject is new, it has been done many times in international cinema. I felt it was about time it was taken to Nepali audiences, but how to present it in a credible way in Nepal was a challenge.


Do you think homosexuality is accepted in our society?

People are quick to console others and say that everything should be accepted in today’s world, but would they say the same if it concerned their family member?


Do you think it will be anytime soon?

The movie is perhaps my way of resolving my personal feelings about homosexuality. What if my children present that identity to me? How will I deal with it?

Subarna Thapa

Soongava has a tragic ending. Was that your way of saying homosexuality is not going to be accepted anytime soon?

Tragedy is a fact of life, and adds variety. Though my film is tragic, the epilogue is positive. So I do not think my film portends any pessimism for homosexuals.


Were you interested in homosexuality before doing Soongava?

Actually, no. Perhaps I am a little sad my first feature film is not based on my personal experiences, or on that of my close ones. But actually that worked out in my favour, because many people have come up to me and complemented me for sensitively handling a subject that I knew nothing of.


What was the best compliment you got for the film?

People told me I seem to like women very much (mischievous smile). Which is quite true, of course.


What kind of reception did you expect for it?

I had financed the film myself, with 50-60 lakhs I got from selling my property. I had expected to recover my money.


And critical reception?

At the time, offbeat movies were quite the trend in Nepal. So I thought my movie would work.


And how was the actual reception?

Commercially, not so good. Rural audiences could not connect to it, and it did not have the entertainment factor that attracts masses. Critically, the opinions were divided. I realized that in Nepal people want aggressive kind of films. I am not an aggressive person, and neither was my film. It was more soft and emotional.

I found better international recognition though. It became a kind of visiting card for me, established me as a sensible, simple film-maker. Women viewers liked it more.


Were you scared about raising such a sensitive subject?

No, the way the screenplay was written, it avoided controversies, so I was not scared.


Why did you avoid the controversy though? International films with this subject would definitely have been steamier.

I wanted my movie to be watched by all kinds of audiences, even my family, my kids. Actually people suggested that I release Soongava as an adult film, because it would bring in more people. Sure, the censor board has standards like adult and PG and the rest, but no one checks ID cards. But that was never my intention.

Plus, if I had made my film steamy, censor board would have cut the scene. There is a scene in Soongava of the two characters undressing, and a love scene follows. In reality, both the actresses had towels on, so you can imagine there was not much exposure. But the censor board asked to cut it.

Subarna Thapa

Did you?

No, because no one would object to it. In another scene, I close it when the actresses are about to kiss. I knew that if they kissed, it would be cut, and my work would have been compromised. But even without explicit sex scenes, Soongava does not avoid erotica. The interact between the characters is very sensual.

And finally, I was working with Nepali ladies. They would have been reluctant to perform steamy scenes.


How did you get the actresses to perform?

I asked each to think of the other actress as her lover. If you channelize your own emotions, you get the best acting.


Why the name Soongava?

Don’t you like it?


Of course I do. I just wondered how it is relevant.

Actually I had named the film “Snow Flowers”. Snow is reminiscent of mountains, which is a link to Nepal. Snow flowers are beautiful, but are buried in snow. Lesbians are like that, hidden in society. But later I found that there was a Chinese film called Snow Flowers. I did not want people to be confused, so I named my film Soongava (orchid). I learnt that orchids are beautiful, they are found all over the world, and they symbolize love and passion. And flowers would reflect the theme of my film well.


Do you think this film has given a new direction to Nepali cinema?

Definitely. It has told producers that they should never make a film like this, they will go bankrupt like Subarna (laughs). Well that’s the positive side. On the negative side, people may realize such films find international recognition, and hopefully will make better films.

Subarna Thapa

Do you regret that you lost your money on the film?

I don’t regret it for myself. I have something tangible to show for my money, I did not lose it in a casino. My film will be releasing in France soon, the first Nepali film to be released there in such a way.

But I do feel bad about putting my family’s financial security at stake.


Do you plan to take more such risks in the future?

In Nepal the risk is because we don’t have a risk-free way of making films. In France, for example, there is the CNC. You give them a synopsis of your project, and if they like it, they will fund it. Even India has the NFDC where film-makers can pitch their ideas. Nepal needs such a body.

The upside is that it is so easy to make films here. Getting your project approved by a body like CNC could take months.

In future, if I make experimental films, I will use public funds. If I use private funds, I will use it to make a saleable film that is still better than run of the mill. But all my films will have my personal touch, an artiness.


Why aren’t experimental Nepali films appreciated in Nepal?

Films are for entertainment. People know a Chennai Express better than a Lunchbox. Our experimental films do touch people, but a small section of people. That’s the universal trend.

Besides, we don’t have good marketing strategies, and our film-makers are not clear about what they want from a film. In big industries like Hollywood and Bollywood, there are clear genres of entertainment and serious cinema. Entertainment films have a strict formula they never veer from. Maybe our films try to mix both. If you want to make money, you need the formula, and if you don’t have the formula, don’t expect the crowds.


Maybe our resources have something to do with it? A Nepali film can never command the budget that an Indian or American film does.

It’s not always about the budget. Yes, money is important, but not everything. More depends on the director’s vision. We would do best to focus on our original stories that are unique, and present them simply.


What do you think is the future of Nepali film?

I am a part of Nepali film industry, and no one is going to say that his own future is dark.


Do you think the current trend of experimental subjects in Nepali films is sustainable?

Well, we need to keep trying.


But in the name of experiment, we have also had some films targeted at cheap popularity.

To differentiate between good and bad films, I think there should be some bad ones that we can compare to.


Favourite film? Something you are inspired from?

I like films made by Andrei Tarkovsky. He presents a lot of metaphors and spirituality. But if I made a film like this, people would fall asleep. I like Darren Aronofsky, director of Black Swan. I admire the film “A prophet” by Jacques Audiard. When it comes to Nepal, I like Basudev, Sindoor.


How did your French schooling contribute to your film-making?

I don’t think I am influenced by anything, because the more local a film is, the more global it is. But I did learn about forms of storytelling, the way scenes are shot, the way a story is presented. I learnt to stay away from unbelievable melodrama that we indulge in.


For example?

Fights here may have one person beating up twenty, but in European cinema it’s more realistic. The hero may get beaten.


How do you feel about your film being nominated for Oscar?

It’s not a big deal, because I believe Nepali cinema cannot yet compete with global cinema. I am happier about competing with films in Nepal.


You are a French citizen now, and there have been controversies about selecting your film for Oscar nomination. How do you feel about that?

I prefer to be called a Non Resident Nepali. These controversies are actually generated by vested interests. When Caravan was nominated for Oscars, for example, none of the film-making team were Nepali. The film was registered with 1% Nepali share in production just so that it could compete under the foreign film category. When too many people misused the foreign films category in this way, the Oscars tightened its rules. And now some say that I, a French national but culturally a Nepali, should not be allowed to send my film in as a Nepali film. Does it make sense?


Why do you think Nepali films are unable to compete with global ones?

Nepali films today are raising many interesting subjects. Even the four finalists for Oscar nomination were very interesting. But the executing was not so great. Like a baby aborted before term, these films failed to deliver their subjects to proper conclusion.



We are far behind technically when it comes to sound, visuals, storytelling, subjects we raise. This takes away from the quality of movies.

Plus, people leap too fast. A writer becomes a director if he can find the finance. There is not enough training or practice. Or perhaps, when one offbeat film does well, many others try to copy it. Then they forget what they originally intended to say. It ends up looking like a normal sitting room with extravagant couch or lighting. Incongruent.


What can be done to encourage these films?

Independent film-makers should make short films. They may not run in theatres, but they can provide an exercise, and if they work, they can be made into feature films.



After Soongava, Subarna has already done short film called Chhora, about transmission of language from father to son. It was screened recently. This man who calls himself “not aggressive” is nonetheless bursting with ideas. He would like to make a film about the ills within our film industry, another one about the psychology of men in late thirties to secure their lives, and another one on Nepalis in the French army (there are about 200 of the, he informs us). And finally, he wants to conduct a workshop for Nepali youngsters on how to make films. Let us hope he continues to give cinema more experimental and path breaking films.


In Conversation with: Sewa Bhattarai
Photographer: Bikkil Sthapit

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