In the opening sequence of Justin Peach’s ‘Lonely Pack’, we witness street children huddled together on a worn-out sidewalk on a chilly winter morning in Thamel.
The film explores the grotesque, the subaltern, and the remarkable ability of people to be apathetic. In the first few minutes of the film, one of the children stands up to pee on the sidewalk facing people walking by. The vulgarity of the scene is somehow diluted when contrasted to the squalid conditions he exists in. When the lowest in the social strata confront the mildly curious but frankly unconcerned passers-by, it reveals insights about how caught up people are with their own ambitions. More than that, it shows an almost neutral acceptance of sordid reality, if not opaque ignorance.
The documentary helps us develop a ‘sociological imagination’ as C. Wright Mills conceptualizes, to synthesize our issues (that may be detached from the plight of street children) with more significant social issues.
Deepak Rauniyar’s ‘White Sun’ has a similar effect. In the film, when expectations of an ardent revolutionary confront the characters who rely on Brahmanical patriarchy for their moral entitlement, it irritates the composure of the particular village society.
The symbolic seepage of an individual’s political affiliation into their last rites also poses pertinent questions about the nature of syncretism between the religious and the political.
However, most Nepali films fail to induce these questions – a far cry from giving us any answers.
Cinema as an audio-visual medium can arguably be underpinned by an amalgamation of knowledge disciplines. Filmmaking is an art, and by virtue, also a craft. These essentialities of cinema enable it to serve a purpose. On an individual level, it may serve the innate need for creation in an artist. In the context of milieus, it serves to evoke emotive and intellectual reactions in the audience.
The aforementioned purpose of cinema has been relevant in discussions ever since its inception as a medium of storytelling. However, formula films capitalizing on similar plots and structures diminish the purpose of cinema to mere entertainment. For such films, cinema exists only to entertain, and other effects are secondary or even a byproduct of the primarily intended one.
The Covid-19 pandemic is another phenomenon to factor in when we think about Nepali cinema.
The intention of this article is not to disregard any function of cinema. A discourse on aesthetic taste cannot stand firm without a consensus on free choice. Veteran journalist Bijay Kumar once aptly summarized this inclination stating that he would book first-seat tickets to a Salman Khan-starring film regardless of the ‘quality’ of the film.
Director Manoj Pandit argues that throughout the evolution of Nepali cinema, which hasn’t been long, films have primarily depended on evoking emotional reactions in the audience and have not served what cinema should, i.e., the intention to challenge their beliefs.
“I want to make people uncomfortable, especially the youths. I want them to see that the colors of life are facades to the darkness that resides inside all of us,” says Pandit. His philosophies deviate towards Buddhism, and he believes that humans are suffering every moment. It is, however, purely a matter of choice whether an audience wants to submit to or contend with his claim on the hue of life.
But the public sphere must be conducive to such discourses in the first place.
In his article ‘The Social Practice of Cinema and Video-viewing in Kathmandu,’ Mark Liechty introduces Nepal in the 1970s as “still largely a pre-mass media society in which people perform to entertain themselves” and that fifteen years later, Kathmandu entered the mass media age. Despite having a relatively short history in digital media, globalization exposed Nepal to various digital mediums and consequently newer film styles.
Covid-19 pandemic and Nepali cinema
The Covid-19 pandemic is another phenomenon to factor in when we think about Nepali cinema. It has radically reshaped the way audiences and studios approach cinema-viewing and its making. Pandit, however, is hopeful for the Nepali film industry in times where theaters are being forced to shut down.
He believes that as the cinema experience shifts from the theaters to people’s screens, the experience will become more personal. In turn, he believes the concept that cinema is a ‘mass product’ will start to erode.
“The idea that cinema is meant to entertain and it should entertain everyone is a destructive one. Regardless of where the industry has reached in terms of technicality, we still largely rely on emotive phenomena in making films. I hope the pandemic catalyzes a shift to rationally inducing films.”
His hope rings valid to a large extent. As streaming platforms grow, more Nepali filmmakers will find their niche audience. Because if films aren’t meant to entertain everyone, then they aren’t meant to be made for everyone as well.
It is without a doubt that films facilitate discourse. They act as catalysts to conversations because they offer a common item open to individual interpretations. But the subjects talked about in such conversations rely on the subjects explored in the film. And if a movie doesn’t explore significant issues, the less the chances that the discussions are substantial.
Humans do not talk about films all day long. But they do often talk about movies they watch and even form worldviews through those films. Whether films that explore society’s nuances help induce discourse or whether a society willing to engage in dialogue enables films that raise critical questions is a dialectical quagmire.
We know for sure that Nepali cinema needs a movement, and that movement needs to break the industry from its old mold. The pandemic might be just what we need to do that.