Friday, April 30, 2004

INTERVIEW: Nabin Subba

This interview was published in the Nation Weekly magazine in 2004.


Nabin Subba (35), the director of the acclaimed film Numafung, talked with Sushma Joshi of The Nation Weekly about his films, the Nepali independent film movement and his visions of nation-building.

The Nation: How did Numafung come about?
NS: During the pre-democracy days, I worked in journalism for almost a decade, first in Nepali Awaj for 3 years, and then in Deshantar for 5 years. I was doing mainstream reporting. Then I started to focus on art and culture, and later exclusively on film. I was dissatisfied with Nepali films, and would write critiques about them. I had long discussions with my filmmaker friends about making a film that would have a Nepali identity, but they all said it was not possible. They said it would not be commercially viable. So I said, okay, I will have to do it myself.

The Nation: So you took it as a challenge?
NS: Yes. I wanted to experiment with a Nepali form, one which would reflect a Nepali identity.

The Nation: What do you mean by form?
NS: A film has two aspects: form, and content. I wanted to see if we could create a specific Nepali film language. We copy Bollywood, so we have a South Asian language of film, but not a Nepali one.

The Nation: Do you think you have been successful in this endeavor?
NS: This is an evolving process, one that will not happen with one film. It takes contributions from lots of people before we create a new language.

The Nation: Did Numafung break ground for a new Nepali independent film movement?
NS: New Nepali filmmakers are slowly coming up with new work. Manoj Pandey just did Laxya. Its very different from the usual stuff. Then there are the documentaries: Bheda ko oon jasto, The Life of Laxman Magar etc.

The Nation: Your film has a documentary feel to it. Are you influenced by documentaries?
NS: No, I am influenced more by Asian films, which has been recognized as a genre even in the West: films from China, Japan, Vietnam, Iran. I love the work of Majid Majidi, who did the Color of Paradise, and Li Gong, of Raise the Red Lantern. Ang Lee's? - his work is not bad, but my problem with his films is that he's not connected to the roots. They are more Western. Majidi always has Islam in the background of his films; Trang Anh Hung's films have a beautiful rhythm, like the melody of the Vietnamese language. This kind of connection is missing from Lee's work.

The Nation: One major critique of Majidi's work is that his use of children has become cliched. We listen to Numafung's story through her sister, who is also a child. What do you think about this?
NS: Our societies tend to be more melodramatic, so its easier to show it through the eyes of a child. We could also say that our societies are less complex than Europeans', although the Chinese might disagree with that, they say that there is no culture more complex than theirs! (laughs.)

The Nation: How long did it take you to do Numafung?
NS: I grew up in Brunei, Hongkong and Malaysia until I was seventeen, then I returned to Nepal. I didn't know much about my own roots then, so I did five years of research to make this film. I read all the books on Limbu culture. I frequently visited the village in Pachthar. By the end of the film, I learnt a lot about my own culture.

The Nation: Why did you choose Pachthar?
NS: My family is from Taplejung, but I needed a village close to Mr. Kumbakarna. The Limbus worship this mountain as a deity, like the Gurungs worship Mt. Annapurna. You see the mountain framed throughout the film.

The Nation: One criticism of Caravan was that it romanticized the culture of the high mountains, and did not reflect reality. Did you hear this about Numafung?
NS: The people in that area still wear those ornaments and those outfits in melas and hats. The brides still wear those outfits. Wealthy people still take horses. Of course, now we're slowly leaving our traditions as globalization takes hold. You can see the jeans and the cassette-players in the film as well.

The Nation: Numafung shows a girl who is forcibly married by her father for the second time. When she runs away he has to pay back her bride-price and becomes destitute. Did you feel some audience reacted by blaming the girl?
NS: Some audience have reacted in that way. But I also heard that the young people of the village are meeting to decide not to take the sunauli-rupauli, and they are trying to get rid of this practice. This practice started as a way to protect the girls, who were married off across the river or mountains. The parents kept the money in case the husband was abusive, or if he died, so she could come back and resume her life. But then the money started to become a prestige issue, and parents started to compete about how much the girl would bring. This also started forced marriage, where lower class men who could not afford the bride-prices would forcibly drag off women from melas. This is how patriarchy works.

The Nation: What were your reasons for choosing the social realism genre?
NS: I made a conscious decision to address gender and ethnic issues. Our country is a country of minorities. Nobody is in a majority. In our nation-building, we didn't take the right path. A lot of minorities feel they are out of the national stream. As a filmmaker or cultural worker, I feel it is my social responsibility to address this issue. If we don't bring small cultures into the national mainstream, the nation will disintegrate. That's the consciousness I had while making the film. You will notice that the accents of the actors in the movie was tinged with local dialect, because that is how people speak. I wanted people to accept that.

The Nation: So has the film proved the naysayers wrong?
NS: The film ran for five weeks, which was one of the longest running Nepali films, especially during this difficult political climate. During the weekends, it did very well. Nepalis have become broadminded, and they are interested to learn more about different cultures. It took us 48 lakhs to make the film. My partner Chabilal Limbu and I jointly funded it. I can say that we have paid all the production money back, and we're planning to make a new film with the profit. Numafung is now slated to open in Europe. These films have an international market, and a diasporic market. There's a hunger for this kind of film, and most filmmakers in Nepal don't see that.