Despite vast geographical differences between our two countries Nepalis, like Maldivians, are a laid-back people who are enormously talented and fun to work with.
by Ali Rasheed
Umesh, Reecha, and Kshitiz sit on Kakani hilltop, a couple of hours northwest of Kathmandu city centre and a popular picnic spot of the Nepalis. None of them is a professional actor but on this nippy afternoon they are waiting for the weather to clear up so that they can perform the last scene for a short film, which was originally written with a Maldivian cast setting in mind. As the wind picks up and what has, up until now, been a drizzle gets dangerously close to a downpour, producer Dipesh calls for pack-up and bundles everyone onto a waiting 4WD. Back in the guesthouse most of the cast and crew seem to be in high spirits, and there is much singing and sampling of a local strawberry beverage (it is strawberry season in Kakani). The jovial scene reminds me of a Kuda Bandos picnic. In between bouts of singing, Dipesh assures me that the weather will improve in the morning and we will have the mountain views necessary for the scene.
He is spot on, and in the morning cinematographer Shail is able to capture stunning mountainscapes for the film.
Originally called Reethi Gas (The Flamboyant Tree), the narrative of the film followed a day in the life of a young man, who lives on Hulhumale and invites his only friends to his favorite spot on the island, a flamboyant tree, to spend what he says are the last hours of his life. Hulhevi Media tried to shoot the film a couple of years ago, but shortly after a series of screen tests the actress got pregnant and the other actors lost interest in the film!
Now called Nagarjuna, after the hill around which much of the shooting took place, director Rajan and actor Kshitiz have deftly adapted the original script to Nepali and added the necessary local touches to it in the process. The Nepali production team of Nagarjuna hail mostly from Chhaproma Studios, a media company formed by a group of Kathmandu University media graduates.
Like the Maldives, Nepal is dominated by Bollywood but this year has seen bursts of homegrown talent in a spate of releases like Loot, Apabad, and Highway. While the first of the films succeeded in wooing an urban, educated demographic usually hostile to mainstream Nepali cinema, the last was screened at the Berlin film festival earlier in the year. These developments have created a buzz in filmmaking and cine-literate circles with many new productions taking off and dubbed the “new Nepali cinema”.
As a filmmaker from the Maldives, one of the things that struck me about Nepal was the acting talent. This may stem from Nepal’s strong theatre tradition and the love its people seem to have for both participating in the performing arts as well as watching them. Many theatre actors also play leading parts in films and there is no dearth in acting talent here. Then there’s the extraordinary choice of natural scenery. I can’t help thinking how much Ismail Wajeeh and Shirani would have enjoyed frolicking on the countless hilltops and, of course, getting drenched the waterfalls here. Nepal also has a strong literary tradition and there is a healthy output of books, resulting in a vibrant community of writers, readers and commentators. This has fed Nepali cinema in more ways than one. In contrast, the Maldives has been seeing a decline in theatre traditions and literature for decades. The remaining arts, such as dance, music, and painting are currently under threat by what appears to be a tsunami of conservatism sweeping across the islands.
It should be mentioned here that only a few days ago a Nepali painter reportedly received death threats from rightwing religious groups for works they deemed blasphemous. However many artists have publicly come out in support of the painter and defended freedom of expression. It seems that Nepal has an established community of lovers of the liberal arts who are not afraid to confront threats, something the Maldives currently lacks.
On the whole, it has been fun working with Nepalis, who I find very similar to ordinary Maldivians in their habitual good nature and sense of humor. Like Maldivians, Nepalis can also unfortunately show a characteristic disregard for time. But overall these are minor quirks and Hulhevi Media is currently toying with the idea of a feature-length co-production with Nepali filmmakers.
In the year that I have lived in Nepal, I have contributed in one way or another, to the production of three short films, which my Nepali colleagues are hoping to premier this December as a single presentation at the prestigious Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival or KIMFF. I’m looking forward to continued co-operation in this nation of film-lovers.