He’s now riding high on the international success of his second feature film Seto Surya (White Sun). But 39-year-old Nepalese journalist-turned-filmmaker Deepak Rauniyar still remembers a time when he was not quite as popular. “Many members of the Nepali film fraternity would take offence at my harsh reviews of their films — which were mostly rehashed Bollywood ideas.” Once, an angry group, upset at one of his reviews, gathered outside his office in Kathmandu, ready to assault him if necessary. “I realised then that if I wanted a different narrative for Nepali films, I will have to help script it myself,” says Rauniyar.
Seto Surya, Nepal’s official entry to the Oscars this year, has been screened at multiple film festivals, including the Toronto International film Festival, and bagged the Interfilm award at Venice this year. The film revolves around two brothers, Chandra and Suraj, who have fought on opposite sides of Nepal’s civil war. Upon the death of their father, the two must confront issues that are personal and political.
Seto Surya follows Highway (2012), Rauniyar’s debut feature, which traced a bus journey from Eastern Nepal to Kathmandu in the times of frequent bandhs (strikes). In this interview, Rauniyar talks about how filmmaking happened to him, the patriarchal elements of Nepal’s society and what’s wrong with the Nepalese film industry. Excerpts:
Did you always aspire to be a filmmaker?
Not at all. I was born in Saptari (close to the Indian border) and films were not part of my life when I was growing up. I was 13 years old when I saw my first film, Shahenshah. My parents harboured dreams of me becoming a doctor/engineer, but I was not that good in studies. I ended up studying management in a local college. I was friends with many journalists, and for some extra pocket money, I started writing. I chanced upon films only when I started reviewing them for Nepal Samacharpatra. Then, while working for the BBC World Service Trust between 2007 and 2010, I produced radio programmes. Eventually, in 2006 I worked as an assistant director to Tsering Rhitar Sherpa when he was producing Karma. So I learnt on the job and worked my way up.
Seto Surya talks about life post a civil war. How did the story come about?
War had always been a part of my subconscious. War changes everything it touches, even fleetingly. I always wanted to tell a story about it, not of it. In 2009, I was helping edit a documentary which my wife Asha had shot in Kavre. In that, there was an intense exchange between a retired policeman and a former Maoist, which she had captured on camera. That sequence just stuck and the seed for Seto Surya was sown.
The retired policeman and the former Maoist have taken the form of Suraj and Chandra in your film.
Suraj and Chandra are two brothers who are equally burdened and disillusioned by their respective legacies. They are born from two different mothers, with different visions as to how the last rites of their father should be performed.
Your film touches upon patriarchal traditions. Durga, the female lead, is banished from the house when she touches a dead body. Nepal has been criticised in the past too, for issues like chhaupadi (menstrual taboo) or the worship of the child goddess. Are these not the very things the revolution aimed to address?
These things still happen. But characters like Durga form the silver lining to the cloud of war. She has stopped caring for such rituals and is unapologetic about her choices. The war enabled lower caste people to find a voice. There is a scene in the film, where a lower-caste porter, carrying a heavy load, wants to cross the path on which a dead body is lying. But the priest forbids him. The porter goes away, but he asserts before leaving, “This is my road too. I should be able to use it as well.” Earlier, he would have been beaten up. Post the war, he has a voice. War did help change the caste, gender and class dynamics. During the war, many high-class priests were forced to sit and eat with Dalits, but, after the war, when the Maoists gave up their guns, the insecurities came back in full force. It was not resolved. Things changed, but at a very slow pace. A mother like Durga still needs a man’s signature on her daughter’s birth certificate, so that she can send her daughter to school.
Children form a very important part of the cast — be it the headstrong Pooja or the orphan Badri who latches onto Chandra. Was it easy to work with them?
Both kids were acting for the first time in their lives. It’s never easy to shoot with children, but I am glad we were able to do this. Children are the only hope we have, and in such dark times we need hope. Working with Amit Pariyar who plays Badri was special. He is an orphan himself, and I found him at a school where we were auditioning.
How would you define the current state of the Nepalese film industry?
We make more than 100 films a year, but we are still young compared to Bollywood. Most of the Nepali films are remakes of Hindi and Korean films. Bollywood dominates the screens. When a Dangal releases, no Nepali film will get screens. But what bothers me is that in spite of having such porous borders, we don’t have any co-production venture. We need to collaborate and make films together. Indian cinema comes to us so easily, but vice versa is not possible. I asked Indian distributors to screen my film, and no one was willing to come forward.
What are you working on next?
A political thriller set on the Indo-Nepal border. There is scope for it to be multilingual — in Nepali and Hindi. The San Francisco Film Society has come on board, but I need more collaborators.