Reeling In A New Direction: Alternative Film-Making

October 31, 2013 , by Jerusha Rai, Leave your thoughts
Reeling In A New Direction: Alternative Film-Making » My Dreams Mag

Nepali cinephiles have long been offended by Kollywood's formulaic 3-hour farragos of drama plus romance plus action plus comedy with characters breaking into random singing and dancing in between. I can think of a few films that keep me from elaborating on these generalizations.

One important element in Kathmandu’s cityscape must be billboards of feature films. You know, besides the usual Nepali ads for instant noodles and cement. Amidst a bombardment of blinding primary colours and in-your-face fonts displaying the title, mainstream ‘Kollywood’ actors pose awkwardly in leather garb and sunglasses. Not surprisingly, this is the immediate imagery one gets when one talks about Nepali films. However, the ontology of both the terms ‘Nepali’ and ‘film’ can be contested, which is the focus of this article, with recent developments within the industry and the independent scene.

Nepali cinephiles have long been offended by Kollywood’s formulaic 3-hour farragos of drama plus romance plus action plus comedy with characters breaking into random singing and dancing in between. I can think of a few films that keep me from elaborating on these generalizations. Lahure and Rahar are oldies worth commending. In recent years, the release of films like Kagbeni (2008), Dasdhunga (2010) and Sick City (2011) was received with much excitement by national and international critics. They were vastly different from what we were used to, with their digital technology and focused themes. The films also introduced experienced theatre actors to a mainstream audience. Unlike the clumsy imitations of Bollywood blockbusters, these films were a return to ‘Nepalipan’. They drew our attention to beautiful rural landscapes. They helped us appreciate distinctly Nepali practices. They questioned our over-estimation of the West and the ‘modern’. 

Along with that, our conceptions about films are also being challenged by the influx of short films. While major Nepali filmfare awards have yet to include such a category, the increasingly popular film festival Ekadeshma dubbed 2012 “the year of uprising short films” and revealed as much as 30 different less known talents. Moreover, these films have also broken out from national boundaries. They may be obscure to a mass Nepali audience, but quite a number of them have been picked up by international film festivals. ‘The Contagious Apparitions of Dambarey Dendrite’ by Pooja Gurung and Bibhushan Basnet is the most recent example. It has been selected to be premièred at the Internationale Kurzfilmtage Winterthur, a major European short film festival with over 15,000 viewers annually.

Another inspiring example, with a humanizing script, is Sahara Sharma’s “By My Troth I Believe”, which was nominated for the Tony Blair film competition and the global film competition Faith Shorts. It is one of the few good Nepali short films available online.

The theatrical experience is not even limited to the cinemas anymore. Film-makers no longer need to rely on production and distribution companies for legitimacy. Influential international film festivals like Sundance now screen entries that are available for free on the internet. Online video platforms like YouTube and Vimeo allow rising filmmakers to reach a wide audience. And if you can sift through the intimidating number of home and parody videos out there, you will find other tasteful Nepali shorts too. 

Passe Pictures
One such up and coming filmmaker to look out for is Shirish Gurung who has uploaded a number of high quality shorts under the name ‘Passe Pictures’.

“What is your recent short ‘Shuffle’ about?”, I ask him. Very unassumingly he says, “Its about a village boy who finds an iPod and explores his surroundings in Western Nepal shuffling to the sound of foreign music.” 

“Yes, but what is it really about?”, I press on. “I just told you”, is all I get.

 The self-taught filmmaker is interested in events that “make no sense whatsoever” and attempts to portray those events in his movies. Often, viewers are kept guessing as to the meaning of the film. As devoid of intention as Shirish’s approach is, the movies become a reflection of life as it unfolds, open to interpretation.

“I Hear the Raven’s Call” makes use of beautiful black and white and interesting angles to sketch the protagonist, Bona’s suffocating mundane life. Though the story moves a bit slowly, the many characters, good acting and a peculiar atmosphere that Shirish has managed to keep throughout the film more than makes up for it.

Inspired by Iranian New Wave films, Shirish first started filming with a simple handicam with help from friends and family. “Abbas Kiarostami, Majid Majidi, Jafar Panahi are some of the fine figures that I look up to” he says, and extols their rich poetry and painterly images. Shirish explores art-house films, foreign cinema, New Hollywood (American New Wave) and indie films. 

The internet has not only enabled video hosting but has allowed artists to draw from unlimited cultural sources, and we can expect Nepali cinema to take untrodden ways in the near future. Shrish is already working on a feature film called “Lato-Kosero”, with a few professional actors for the first time. “It’s the coolest experience to learn from them” he says, adding that he is making the film the same way his short ones are made. He hopes to release it next year.

Polka Studio
Other interesting shorts online come from Polka Studios. Director/ artist Asis Rai creates frame by frame animations that are politically charged. In collaboration with editor Ranajay Gurung and scriptwriter/director Gautam Gurung, he aims to counter the “cliché approach to politics”, asking why educational institutions and parents don’t stress on its importance as much as other subjects. “We want to encourage the upcoming generation to be less of a spectator and more of a player. No matter how progressive we think we are, until young people don’t reach the political system, we will always be constricted by our current political situation”.

Asis graduated from the University of Reading, UK, in fine arts and philosophy. He cites Escher, Salvador Dali and Damien Heirst as influences and is partial to “anything from the 60’s and the early 70’s”. He shares, “I sort of like to throw in a few abstract elements to give it a healthy dose of impression as well as expression. Other than that the videos are as short as my attention span, very much advertisement-like, but non-commercial. They are statements rather than stories”.

Despite the somewhat rough transitions between frames, the comment section shows the efficiency of Asis’s medium and Gautam’s script. They have driven a spirited debate on Nepali politics and what is to be done. Some critics have rightly argued that a video cannot bring about a revolutionary change, but a good one certainly sparks the interest and politicizes a young audience in a way that commentators on panel shows could never do. 

When asked what he thinks about Nepali cinema in general, Asis remarks, “There has been a significant improvement technique-wise. Better cameras, editing features, choreography, design. However, I feel there is a stronger demand for concept. Good movies or any great work of art should make you think”.

Whether the individual movies make us think or not, the new directions in which Nepali cinema is going does make us wonder. How have we been acclimated to find certain things aesthetically pleasing? Why can’t I stand the aforementioned Nepali film posters? Have foreign films and design ideas shaped our tastes for good? And hence the widespread disappointment among Nepalese youth with Nepalese art, especially with Nepali cinema? Alternative film-making could address some of these issues in the future, but with the ongoing experimentation, we are left guessing at the idea of “Nepali films”.

Text by: Jerusha Rai

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