Sunday, December 05, 2004

REVIEW: Shooting Karma by Tsering Rhitar

Shooting Karma
Dec 5, 2004, Nation Weekly magazine

Tsering Rhitar is a perfectionist who works his scenes meticulously, getting take after take until he’s ready to move to the next scene

Tsering Rhitar stands by the reception area in the Sherpa Hotel, directing his film. The film, titled “Karma,” is a story about a nun who walks down from Mustang to Pokhara to Kathmandu to track down a man who owes money to the monastery. The nuns need the money to do a puja. The film, says Rhitar, is about the paradox of the co-existence of materialism and spirituality.

“Use your own language,” Rhitar urges his actor. The director is wearing a brightly colored Nepali topi as he directs his multinational crew his cameraman Ranjan Pallit is from India, his actors are Nepali, and he himself has a partial Tibetan background. His shooting script is written in English, with scribbled notes in Tibetan. Little storyboards have been drawn in stick figures next to the script. The dialogue is being translated from the only shooting script.

“We don’t have to be politically correct,” says the director, as a discussion about the usage of the word “aimai” ensues. “We want to speak like people speak.” The actor finally decides to use the colloquial word.

The actor, who has worked with the director before, translates the gist of the dialogue into his own words. The crew waits patiently for the director to finish. Then the grip and gaffer move in with lights and translucent paper that act as filters for the low-budget film.

Ranjan Pallit, the cameraman, says working with Rhitar is: “Very democratic. We can always make suggestions, and he will listen.” Pallit says he loves Nepal and has been here 10 times already. A graduate of the Film and Television Institute of Pune, Pallit has also worked with other Nepali filmmakers.

The clapboard says: “scene 73, shot 12, take 1.” By the end of the hour, the take will have increased to 7. The sign of a good director is perfection. Rhitar is a perfectionist who works his scenes meticulously, getting take after take until he’s ready to move to the next scene. Pratap, the actor, is working on a comic scene where he leers at the nun and asks her for some Mustang apples. The line is said over and over again until the director is satisfied. In-between takes are long moments of lag-time as actors try their lines, check their postures and gestures, and listen to the feedback from the assistant director. The process could try the patience of a saint, but the crew, remarkably, seems to hold up well. “And by the way, give me some Mustang apples,” the actor says, leering at the nun. The crew bursts out laughing the line, finally, has punch. “Don’t cut me!” the actor jokes as the director finally says: “Cut.”

“Karma” is being shot in digital video which allows for the flexibility of multiple re-takes. Unlike 35mm film, video is cheap to shoot. Film scripts have to be more tightly rehearsed in order to get maximum mileage out of the budget. For Rhitar’s working process, which involves a lot of impromptu directing and rehearsing on the set, video allows the flexibility of making mistakes and correcting them on location, without a lot of expensive re-shooting. Digital video is becoming the medium of choice for many indie filmmakers who don’t want to be tied down by commercial constraints and who can experiment without having to lug expensive and heavy equipment around in remote places.

Padam Subba, brother of Nabin Subba, who directed “Numafung,” is assisting on the set of “Karma.” “Tsering helped us a lot during ‘Numafung,’” he says. This reciprocity between the small and tight-knit film community has worked to its advantage people share resources and networks, and this has allowed for better working relationships between the different directors.
Rhitar has been shooting for 25 days in Mustang. The crew lived and worked closely with the nuns at the Tharpa Cheling nunnery. The process, said Rhitar, was very moving, and the nuns made good friends with the crew. The nuns cried when the crew departed.

Like many independent films produced internationally, Rhitar’s film is being personally funded by the filmmaker. The Rs. 3 million just covers the production and post-production costs. The rest of the funds, including the telecine transfer process, will be raised by the filmmaker later.

“I am not thinking about distribution at the moment,” says Rhitar. “I want to make it first, and then think about it.” He says he would like to have it widely distributed in the Nepali market, but he also wants it to be available to the international market. Rhitar is a rare breed—an indie filmmaker who follows his artistic vision and avoids the dictates of the market. Unlike many of his compatriots who spend their days hashing out virtual photocopies of Bollywood hits, Rhitar spins stories out of his own experiences and his community. This integrity has brought him international recognition.

Rhitar’s previous films include “The Spirits do not Come Anymore,” about the dying tradition of shamanism, which won an award at Film South Asia. “Mukundo,” shot in 35mm by the same crew as the one shooting “Karma,” won international recognition in film festivals in Japan, France, Sweden, India and the United States. It also won an award for the script from the Producers Association of Nepal. Shown at such well-known festivals as the San Francisco film festival, the film garnered respect, although it was never formally distributed on a commercial scale.

In the Sherpa Hotel, the phone rings, a group of German tourists enter with huge backpacks, but the actor remains on his job. “Okay, another take!” he says enthusiastically. “Nice. Lights off,” says the tired cameraman. “Get into emotion, Pratap-ji,” says the director. “Don’t talk, anybody,” the actor says as he closes his eyes for a few seconds and allows the noise to fade out as he enters his private world. A few seconds later, he opens his eyes and nods. He is ready. “Rolling, and action,” says the director. The actor says his line flawlessly. The last take goes fabulously well. The entire room of expectant spectators bursts into applause. A small miracle of filmmaking has just taken place. But there is no time for rest—it’s time for the next scene.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004


Director: Sushma Joshi
Producer: IRC and Nepal Water for Health, and Ton Schouten Film Company, Netherlands
Format: Beta and digital
Running Time: 29 minutes

Featured on CNN International's Q and A with Riz Khan in 2000

WATER (PANI) is a documentary that explores the notions of "community", in the context of development. The people of Lele, a village near Kathmandu, narrate the history of how they set up a committee to manage their drinking water system. The narrative moves from a fairly uncomplicated story told by the leaders about the initial installation to the complexities of gender and caste relations.

Women, the main users of water, voice their exclusion. The water committee is made up of upper caste Chettri men. Women, while token members, are not allowed to make decisions. In contrast, a neighbouring Tamang village, in which a women's group has also been set up, cite their successes in raising cattle and savings activities. This women's group makes the decisions amongst female members in a cooperative manner. The success of this group is in stark contrast to the quarrels of the water committee.

A maintenance fund is set up when the system starts to break down. But this external solution, proposed by a non-governmental organization from Kathmandu, becomes the locus of conflict. A monthly fee is to be paid to the fund. But the leadership is not transparent or accountable with the funds. People stop paying their monthly fees because they are not sure how the money is used. They also believe that the meager Rs.1000 (around US $ 15) paid annually by a commercial mineral water factory that taps water from the spring is enough to maintain the system. The fund dissolves as people stop paying and passively stop participating in the development process.

The fault-lines of caste is revealed as the village's powerful political leader reveals his prejudices in the process of voicing a liberal, no discrimination party line. This is juxtaposed with the views of an older woman from a group considered lower caste. She reveals the ambiguity of notions of joint ownership and "community" in a society deeply fractured by gender and caste power relations.

This documentary looks at the contradictions and conflicts that come up in any organized effort to create social change. By giving voice to the frustrating lack of coherence, it allows a deeper look into the exclusions of development. Ultimately, it looks at the process of alternative, small-scale modes of development, which are becoming more popular, and questions whether its promise can be realized if traditionally discriminatory systems, encoded in axes of power of gender and caste, are not fully addressed.

Chettri: Hindu group considered to be higher on the caste hierarchy, in which gender is more segregated.
Tamangs: Ethnic group with animistic traditions, considered to be lower on the Hindu caste hierarchy. High rates of male migration have also allowed women more responsibilities and rights within the household.

This video has been used as a training video for 700 different communities inside Nepal. People working in the water sector have used it to generate discussions about gender and caste in community management.

This video has been shown outside Nepal, in venues like:
Q and A with Riz Khan, CNN International
UN World Water Forum, Kyoto, Japan
Okinamizu Women's University, Tokyo, Japan
Flickerfest Film Festival, Sydney, Australia
International Watercourses Conference, Middlesex University, England
The School for Oriental and African Studies, London, England
The Southern Asia Institute, Columbia University, NY
South Asian Women's Creative Art Collective, NY
South Asia Program, Cornell University, NY
The Graduate Center, CUNY, NY
The International House, New York, NY

PANI - Where to Buy

You can buy PANI from IRC Netherlands.

Directed by Sushma Joshi, produced by NEWAH (Nepal Water for Health Kathmandu, Nepal) (2001)

This 28-minute video presentation in Nepali (with English subtitles) shows the very lively discussions between the inhabitants of the rural Nepali village, Lele, about the daily problems of their water supply system and its management. It follows the growing conflict in the community after a water pipe and tap system was installed. Gender and caste differences play a vital part in the disputes as women and lower caste members are excluded from decision making even though they are the principal users. The video tracks the wide disparity in control and communication revealing frustrations that result in the pipe being cut and maintenance fees unpaid. The lesson portrayed is that even small scale models of development will not work unless traditional social infrastructure, especially gender biases and cultural discrimination, are not addressed by donors and local managers.

Target audience: Staff working in the water sector, field staff, developers of training material and trainers. It can be used in training sessions, for example, to start discussion about the critical aspects of community water supply management.

A Teacher's Guide: Water and Development in Nepal

This teaching guide for high school teachers was developed by Educate the Children and Cornell's South Asia Program.

Download it from ETC.

Download it from Pustakalaya.

PANI Poster and postcard

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.

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!)

Friday, January 09, 2004

On The Road With The Red God

Kesang Tseten’s new film captures both the Rato Machhindranath festival and the preparations accompanying the grand event
Issue 2, Nation Weekly Magazine, 2004


The sight of a priest proudly displaying a tiny vest at the Rato Machhindranath festival has been etched into our national consciousness. “On the road with the Red God: Machhindranath” is a film recently made by Kesang Tseten. Tseten takes 110 hours of footage of various acts of human ingenuity and devotion to what seems like a lost cause—namely, the construction of an unwieldy 100 foot chariot that gets tangled up in the electric wires of Patan and tilts drunkenly as it is dragged and pushed and pulled by enthusiasts across flood-washed roads every 12 years, and where men get roaring drunk and get into fights all the way from Bungmati to Patan, and then repeat the process all the way back.

Behind the vest rests a red god, known as the Rato Machhindranath. This is the divinity worthy of all that work—painters, artisans, rope-makers and carpenters donate days of working hours to build him that sky-high vehicle. Thought to be a manifestation of Avalokiteswor, the Buddha of Compassion by some, and Shiva by others, the Rato Machhindranath enjoy a popular following. While we have all seen this god in one form or another—postcard, photograph, television appearance—what is not clear to most Valley residents is why this god in general, and his festival in particular, took on such national significance.

Tseten’s film, by carefully documenting the entire process from the beginning, brings us a rare behind-the-scene glimpse of a production involving uncountable actors and decision-makers, from the guthis of Bungmati and Patan to the hundreds of people who materialize to drag the chariot back and forth between the two cities.

The festival can appear, on first sight, to be a classic excuse to get drunk and get into a good fight. Buff young men fight each other to get on the prow-shaped steering brake. The ousted men are unceremoniously pulled off. Acrimonious exchanges involving everything from the division of meat to the dogs to assigning blame for the tilting of the chariot is apparent. Scenes of conflict abound, and after a while you begin to wonder how people even manage to get that goddamn chariot upright, let alone drag it all the way from Bungmati to Patan.

If the chariot falls down and touches the ground, bad things happen. Kings can die, royal families can get massacred, and the guthi people can mysteriously get sick and die in mass numbers. The chariot has to be rebuilt anew in the event of such a calamity. So there rests a level of national responsibility amongst all the people involved in the venture. Some measure of co-operation amongst all the different people—from the men who run alongside and swiftly put a piece of wood in between the wooden wheels to brake the momentum, to the men perched on top who give the navigational directions, to the buff young men doing the steering, to the hundreds of volunteers who pull the ropes—has to exist. And don’t forget the women who brew all that potent alcohol.

After a while, the seeming chaos and loose organization take on a logic of their own. In spite of the overt conflict, which gets hashed out at every level, it’s apparent that the co-operative nature of Newari society remains the core spirit that guides the enterprise. While it started out as a local Newari festival, the discourse on the streets makes it clear that all Nepalis think of the festival as their own. When the chariot finally makes it into Jawalakhel, the level of mass participation and work involved in the process comes to fruition. When the priest takes out that tiny vest and displays it so proudly to the country, he is not just taking out a medieval garment—he is also taking out the symbol of a process in which, in spite of the conflict that exists at every level of society, the spirit of co-operation has again triumphed over small differences and created a structure in which such a mind-bogglingly complicated event could take place.

In both a literal and a symbolic level, the festival is an analogy of any large structure, i.e., our nation-state. Conflict exists at all levels in every organization. The trick is to find a way to resolve it without major calamity. Tseten, by actively editing footage to show the reality of conflict and its day-to-day resolution, follows more than a chariot. He is following the god behind that vest—the god of compassion that can allow a society made up of diverse and heterogeneous groups of people to come together and work on a national project without getting crushed.

(Full disclosure: Kesang is a friend. At Wayne's house, with Kesang, Wayne, Ann, Chris and me: if my face is cut off, it means I took the photo!)