Monday, February 02, 2004

INTERVIEW: Bhaskar Dhungana


Bhaskar Dhungana, one of the owners of the Jai Nepal Cinema Hall, talked with Sushma Joshi of the Nation Weekly about the hall’s history, upcoming plans for digital exhibition, and the potential for Nepali films to be more widely distributed with new digital technology.

Jai Nepal Hall is doing successful business at a time when most cinema halls are barely breaking even.
We are surviving.

Why is cinema not doing so well in Nepal?
Cinema is not cinema anymore. It was a social event before. Now it’s a place where people are herded together in a commercialized space. We have to recreate the social aspect, in my opinion. We have to make it fun. And by this I mean a clean environment, and a place where families and children are welcome. Cinema is also about light and sound as well, and the technology has to be good.

How did you get interested in starting a cinema hall?
I always thought it would be nice to have theatres like the one in foreign countries in Nepal. I was studying in the US from 1990-1996, in Luther College in Iowa. After I came back, I was interested in making my own films, but I never found people to collaborate.

What attracted you to this location?
I went to see Caravan at Jai Nepal Hall, and thought it would be a great hall to refurbish and renovate. I passed by the hall one day and talked with the owner about the state of the hall. That’s when he mentioned he was interested in leasing it. So we got a ten-year lease.

How did you fund the initial renovation?
There are three of us at Vision Quest: me; Nakim Uddin, my jwai; and Rajesh Siddhi, who studied with me at Luther. At first, we had no money. We approached a lot of institutions. Finally, we got funding from the Nepal Share Market, plus our own initial investment.

How do you choose your movies?
We don’t give priority to high-brow movies. The average Nepali doesn’t like it. We like to show action-oriented movies in Hindi and English. Nepali films don’t run well. We ran Bheda Ko Ooon Jastai for seven days, but that had a lot to do with the good marketing of the producers. Bluntly speaking, Nepali films are not of good quality, technically and content-wise. Bollywood is not far behind Hollywood in technical terms.

You are starting digital exhibition of films in your hall for the first time. How would this affect viewers?
We are working with two companies called GDC and AdLabs, based in Hong Kong. They’re promoting a new technology that would put films on digital data disks. The quality of this is higher than DVD. We’re promoting digital exhibition in five theatres nationwide. This is a useful technology for small cities and towns which don’t have access to a print release.

There’s been a lot of hype about a digital revolution, not all of which has materialized in the last few years. Would hall owners end up investing in a technology that could become obsolete within a few years?
The digital exhibition technology we’re promoting has been approved by SMPT. They set the global standards. There is cheaper technology, but we believe this one is around to stay.

People say that Nepali films are not being given priority, as theatres only show Hindi films.
Movies are not made or selected for nationalistic reasons. People go to see films because they are fun. They won’t watch it unless they enjoy it, or at least they get their money’s worth. Why shouldn’t we give Nepali films priority? If they did well, it would be great for us as distributors.

What about the argument that Hindi films take away the market by competing with Nepali films?
This is like saying rice is not selling because there is too much chow-chow. People will watch the best movie that is being shown, whether it’s from their country or not.

How do the censors affect your choices?
The censors are pretty liberal. Problems only arise in political content. For instance, they objected to the film LOC, which was extremely critical of Pakistan. We agreed with them.

What was your biggest grossing films?
It was Kal Ho Na Ho and Kohi Mil Gaya for Hindi, and the Matrix and James Bond for English.

Any plans to go into the production business?
We thought about it. But first we have to develop a platform in which these films can be shown. Its useless to have a movie with good sound if the hall doesn’t have the equipment to broadcast it.

What about concerns about security?
A bomb went off in our parking lot once. But I don’t think they were targeting us specifically – three other bombs went off around the Royal Palace at the same time.

How do you see Jai Nepal in ten years’ time?
Overall, I think it will be thriving. There need not be a revolution in production. There can be a revolution in distribution, like the large format I-Max theatres. I-Max needed special equipment before, but now digital has superceded that need. Bheda Ko Oon would never be released commercially on a global level today. It could be if we had digital exhibition, and they could put their film on a data disk.

How would this new technology affect the distribution of Nepali films?
Nepali films could eventually get a worldwide audience. It is also easy to subtitle in digital. In ten years time, it will be a different ballpark. That’s the future. But we have to start the work now. We’re meeting up with the producers to discuss how the government might help support and ensure the growth of digital cinema, so we could push this technology forward.

(This interview was done in 2004 for the Nation Weekly magazine. The interviewer is a little fuzzy on whether it got printed or not--writers write lots of  things that don't get published. However, it has been read a lot on this blog. I hope it inspires some other young people to return from America and start their own business!)