KATHMANDU, MAR 23/ Kesh B Malla, The Kathmandu Post - If you’re someone who’s always complaining...
A road can have different meanings. For some, the road is a trip, for others, the road is part of the quotidian. What can be an obstacle on that road, also depends on the point of view. In Deepak Rauniyar‘s HIGHWAY (Berlinale Panorama) we follow the journey of a long distance bus, that travels from Darjeeling to Kathmandu, facing different situations, which force the passengers to bond as a group.
Besides a mechanical problem, their main obstacle is the Bandhs – common strikes in India and Nepal which disrupt everyday activities as well as also blocking traffic. The first aspect of interest in HIGHWAY is how this important political factor figures in the movie. As we don’t know the exact reasons for these strikes, they appear like an unpredictable external event. This unpredictability, as well as our ignorance of the political motivation behind the Bandhs, creates an almost surreal atmosphere. At this point, HIGHWAY resembles Julio Cortazar’s short history “The Southern Highway”, where the infinite and seemingly immobile traffic, acts like a fantastic external factor, stimulating the connection between human beings.
The film’s focus however is not only on the journey per se, but also – and mostly – on different conflicts between the people inside the bus and those who await them in Kathmandu. Almost everyone in this bus must be in Kathmandu urgently, therefore, they pretend to be a wedding bus, since those are not forbidden to pass the Bandhs. At this point, the movie touches a delicate ambivalence between politics and the respect for local tradition.
Even though the film approaches difficult subjects with an appealing simplicity – homosexuality, transsexuality, adultery – its multi-layered, mosaic structure is excessive. The characters are already united by the fact that they are in the same bus together.
Of particular interest is the way the cellphones are used in HIGHWAY, as they serve both as a bridge between people, as a reaffirmation of our loneliness and lack of control. A cellphone out of service can mean both a technical problem or a real problem – or a problem we imagine. What was invented to make us feel more secure and closer to each other can also be the cause of emotional stress. As the film comes to its end and the group breaks apart, the final sensation also resembles the conclusion of Cortazar’s tale: A feeling of the emptiness of facing the reality of life, where everyone is “staring dead ahead, exclusively dead ahead.”
FEBRUARY 11, 2012 | 04:42PM PT
When a general strike in a small village immobilizes traffic and delays the travelers, a resourceful army lieutenant (Dayahang Rai) suggests that the bus masquerade as a wedding vehicle, since nuptial parties always gain free passage. However, the passengers face various other impediments — physical, spiritual and emotional.
The lieutenant has just swallowed a fertility potion and needs to bed his Kathmandu-based housemaid wife, Radhika (Asha Maragti), before 36 hours elapse. But in an O. Henry-like turn of events, Radhika discovers she’s pregnant from her affair with a criminally inclined colleague.
Back on the bus, the role of the groom falls to Pratiek (Eelum Dixit), a handsome gay man on his way to meet boyfriend Vishal (Sandeep Chhetri), whose transgender pal is murdered in a nightclub by a policeman. Acting as the bride, Pooja (Shristi Ghimire) seizes the opportunity to reconsider her own romantic choices.
Meanwhile, the bus driver’s girlfriend, exotic dancer and onetime prostitute Kavita (Reecha Sharma), impatiently awaits his arrival while trying to contend with a sick daughter and pressing debts. And in the least credible or interesting strand, an accomplished surgeon (Rabindra Mishra) cries over his estranged wife and becomes obsessed with a boutique mannequin while waiting for his mother-in-law to arrive.
In spite of the wildly uneven tone created as Rauniyar and co-scribe Abinash Bikram Shah tie the stories together in increasingly melodramatic ways, the on-location lensing of the bus journey, capturing rarely seen landscapes, architecture and real people, exerts a fascination of its own.
Deploying a mixed cast of amateurs and pros, Rauniyar allowed the thesps to improvise their own dialogue during extended rehearsals, which only adds to the tonal problems. On the tech side, inexpert editing makes it difficult to gauge the timeframe of events not taking place on the bus, and even which flashback is tied to which character. At the Berlinale world preem caught, poorly modulated soundtrack blared to painful effect.
When Nepalese filmmaker Deepak Rauniyar was en route to the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival earlier this month, he found himself stuck in New York.
This reminded him of the movie he was heading there to screen: his debut feature “Highway.” While the nine main characters in “Highway” are stranded on an ill-fated bus to Kathmandu, stymied by an illegal road blockade, Mr. Rauniyar was the victim of an Air France strike, threatening to throw his highly anticipated journey off-course.
“People are frustrated everywhere but they’re expressing that frustration differently,” said the 33-year-old filmmaker, who eventually made it to Berlinale, as the film festival is also known. Mr. Rauniyar’s feature was the first Nepali film to enter the Panorama section in the history of the festival, a coveted forum reserved for ground-breaking, independent cinema. “The Nepal people know is not the Nepal we present in Highway,” explained Mr. Rauniyar, whose film bravely strips the country of its fabled Shangri-La veneer, revealing a combustible society still reeling from the side-effects of a 12-year civil conflict between the royal government and the Maoist movement.
Pictured, filmmaker Deepak Rauniyar.
“This is the story of my generation,” Mr. Rauniyar asserted. Born in the Eastern lowlands of Nepal, Mr. Rauniyar dabbled in teaching and journalism before delving into filmmaking. “When you don’t believe in the system, you get violent,” he mused. Such violence sometimes manifests itself in the strikes or “bandhs” that erupt along Nepal’s endless highways, blocking integral arteries that fuel trade routes across the mountainous nation, triggering massive fuel shortages and spikes in the price of essential goods.
“I’ve been stuck in these bandhs myself,” revealed Mr. Rauniyar. He recounted an especially gut-wrenching journey in 2009 when his bus remained at a standstill for nearly 57 hours. With the exception of a tepid beer—“after about 18 hours of nothing,” he recalls—Mr. Rauniyar remained without food or water. “I’ve seen vehicles driving over the people sleeping in the road in a rush to escape,” he confessed.
Though “Highway” is largely inspired by that harrowing experience, it’s also infused with a healthy dose of optimism. It comes in the form of an unlikely resolution—to pose as a wedding procession, one of the few, unofficial exceptions to a blockade—to escape. “No one wants a bride and groom starting their new life in the middle of a strike,” Mr. Rauniyar said.
A still from Mr. Rauniyar’s debut feature ‘Highway.’
For his first feature film (Mr. Rauniyar has two shorts to his name, including Chaukaith (Threshold), officially selected for the 2009 Cannes Film Festival), the young director chose to eschew a traditional script, opting for an approach that was largely improvisational. “In our society, we’re always being told what to do and what not to do,” stressed Mr. Rauniyar. “I guided my actors in terms of what I needed from each scene but till the end, I didn’t dictate.”
The frenzied, 48-day shoot had no shortage of dramatic, behind-the-scenes hiccups—the director of photography had to jump ship and a crucial power generator was stolen, among other things—and these deserved to be chronicled in a film of their own, says Mr. Rauniyar. “I thought I couldn’t handle it,” he remembered. “But there were so many people involved and that was definitely encouraging.”
If the five, sold-out screenings at Berlinale are indicative of things to come, Mr. Rauniyar certainly has reasons to stay upbeat. He hopes to work the Indian film festival circuit in September, while also aiming for a North American premiere later this year. “People stayed for a long time even after the film, asking me questions,” he said almost incredulously, describing Berlinale. “To be in a place where you don’t know anyone and realize that people want to talk to you, purely because of your film, is really amazing.”
Corrections & Amplifications: Deepak Rauniyar was stranded in New York. An earlier version of this post incorrectly said Mr. Rauniyar was stuck at Newark Liberty International Airport.
The split reaction has been common among packed theatres watching “Highway”, a sweeping social commentary hailed by many as a new benchmark for the domestic film industry but dismissed by others as complicated and boring.
“This is a terrible film. There are too many confusing strands and no action. It makes no sense,” Prashant Thapa, 27, told AFP during the interval of a showing this week in a Kathmandu multiplex.
Fellow cinema-goer Ujjwal Acharya, 32, disagreed, saying “it’s a brilliant movie… really creative”.
Since Highway, co-produced by “Lethal Weapon” star Danny Glover– opened to packed houses across Nepal it has polarised audiences, prompting more than 10,000 tweets, provoking contempt in some corners and adulation in others.
“Seventy percent of people are saying it’s the worst movie they ever watched,” its first-time director Deepak Rauniyar, 33, cheerfully told AFP as viewers filed out of one cinema.
“People are talking about it a lot and they are angry. If you look on the Facebook page there are two separate groups – one who say they really love it and the other who really don’t. There are none in the middle.” Set amid the breathtaking landscapes of eastern Nepal, Highway follows the journey of nine passengers stranded on an ill-fated bus to Kathmandu trying to get through three illegal road blockades, known locally as “bandhas”.
Its jumpy storytelling style makes it unique in Nepali cinema, which normally follows the familiar Bollywood narratives that are often copied scene for scene in Nepali movies.
With a third of its measly $100,000 budget funded by public donations raised via the Internet, almost everything about the making of the film bucked the prevalent movie trends in Nepal.
The country’s fledgling film industry peaked in 2000 with “Himalaya”, an acclaimed story of salt traders, but directors have since been unwilling to get away from the tried-and-tested formula of romantic plots with song-and-dance numbers.
“I wanted to break the stereotypical thinking about Nepal – everyone seeing it as just a mountain country where it snows – and I also wanted to show the life can be no more different than in London or New York,” Rauniyar said.
“We can make films on a low budget and have an industry that is recognised around the world. We should start making horror films, really commercial films, art-house cinema and start telling our stories.” The film’s dialogue, improvised by a relatively unknown cast, was inspired by a bus journey in 2009 in which Rauniyar was stranded by blockades as he tried to make it to Kathmandu.
A former teacher, Rauniyar also used to work on a national newspaper in Kathmandu and says he would often argue with movie directors who complained about unfavourable reviews for their “bad copies of Hindi films”.
“A lot of our cinemas were getting stuff frame for frame from Indian cinema. We opposed this and argued against it,” he told AFP.
“I always said we could make films that were world-class. I said we should go beyond Bollywood and think about our way of telling a story.” Rauniyar said Glover had backed the film through his New York company Louverture Films, which promotes movies which have a social purpose, and that the star was also involved in the editing.
“He wanted to come to the Nepal premiere but he couldn’t make it so he sent a video message to everyone,” Rauniyar said.
“Highway” got off to a promising start ahead of its July 20 release in Nepal, becoming the first Nepali film to qualify for the Berlin International Film Festival’s Panorama category for new directors.
But Rauniyar believes he knows why “Highway” is not loved by all his audiences.
“You have to think, you need to work, and you need to pay attention. They hated that,” he said.
by SOPHIA PANDE / Nepali Times
FROM ISSUE #615 (27 JULY 2012 – 02 AUG 2012)
Deepak Rauniyar’s new film, Highway is an experimental film for Nepal in many ways. It is the first film that anyone has directed to date, here, in which all of the acting of the considerably large cast is improvised. Astonishingly the dialogue too was largely improvised, and, as a result,for the first time in Nepali cinema, we hear our language spoken as it is on the streets and in our homes and not in the stilted clichéd accents we have become used to in other Nepali films. The literature that we studied growing up is beautiful, but it does not seem to translate well into spoken dialogue on film, a mystery that is yet to be solved. Perhaps it is something to do with the fact that our spoken Nepali today is an odd amalgam of Nepali and English with all kinds of other things thrown in, and therefore it sounds rather inelegant on the screen. Highway‘s improvisational spirit has managed to circumvent this problem neatly, and with not a little innovation.
The screenplay for Highway was written by Abinash Bikram Shah and is a classic interweaving of stories a là films like Crash (2004) or Syriana (2005). We are shown a number of disparate characters: Pratiek (Eelum Dixit) is a troubled, possibly gay young man travelling home to his lover; Pooja (Shristi Ghimire) is a young pretty medical student travelling with her mother to Kathmandu to get married; Mahili (Nirmala Rai) is a mother going home to counsel her daughter against divorce; Manoj (Dayahang Rai) is a former Lahure rushing home to his wife after consuming a potion from a local healer that might reverse his impotence (it must be made good within 36 hours of consumption). All these different players are brought together with the device of a bus that is travelling from Eastern Nepal towards Kathmandu, at a time when bandas were (well, still are) the flavour of the month.
As the bus is stopped by the usual destructive angry mob enforcing a banda, the group on the bus collectively concoct a cock and bull story involving the two youngest people on the bus (Pooja and Pratiek) being newly weds and claiming that the bus is, in fact, their wedding bus. Fortuitously, the bride-to-be has her wedding clothes, and there is a band on board complete with their uniforms and instruments.
The film flashes backwards as each character’s previous history is revealed. Most laudable is the diversity of the actors in age, gender and ethnicity. This, of course, is the higher motif that lies behind the title Highway – not merely the story of a bus stuck on a road, but also of a cross-section of the country coming together at different periods in their lives and somehow interacting – cooperating constructively for a common goal.
Some of the performances are the best I’ve seen to date in Nepali cinema. Reecha Sharma as the dance-bar girl with a small daughter, who is also the girl friend of the bus-driver, is raw and heart wrenching as she portrays the bravery that is required of single women in a dodgy profession in a fast devolving metropolitan city. Likewise, Shristi Ghimire is charming and very convincing as the vulnerable young medical student torn between her lover Ronit (played by Saugat Malla) and the America returned boy Abiral (played by Karma) that she is headed to marry.
There are many great performances that induce both laughter and tears in this small gem of a film that has for the first time pushed the boundaries of our local, homegrown cinema (the film played at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival). Made simply, but not simple, with an experimental open-ended conclusion, Deepak Rauniyar has shown us that we can make good, and brave new cinema economically, but beautifully if our hearts are in the right place.
It is in theaters now, see it for a breath of fresh air and for its sincere and true contribution to our cinematic future.
Highway (2012), the feature debut of Nepali filmmaker Deepak Rauniyar, marks the rise of a fresh new cinematic vision for the Himalayan nation. Decidedly different from the standard commercial product heavily influenced by Bollywood, the film takes an understated look at an increasingly common phenomen
on: the bandhs, roadblocks caused by strikes or protests that often paralyze traffic and disrupt daily life.
The unusual road drama centers around an ill-fated journey on a highway from eastern Nepal to Kathmandu, the nation’s capital. A bus filled with passengers of various social and economic backgrounds gets repeatedly stuck in bandhs. Each passenger is desperate to get to Kathmandu for a different reason — a man needs to reach his wife quickly to try to conceive a baby or else the herbal fertility medicine he has taken will lose effectiveness, a young woman leaves her lover and is on her way to an arranged marriage, and a man hurries back home to see his boyfriend who is devastated by an attack on a transgender friend. They quickly put their heads together and transform the bus into a wedding vehicle — with a bride, a groom, and a wedding band in tow — to gain passage.
Crisscrossing this seemingly humorous adventure are fragments of each individual’s backstory, ironically filled with despair, hardship, and deceit. The non-linear narrative structure, which includes the main plot and disconnected subplots, offers a kaleidoscopic look at contemporary Nepali life, which has only recently emerged from 12 years of civil war. The film gives a realistic portrayal of the new Nepal and is the first film from the country to be included in the Berlin International Film Festival (2012).
Director Rauniyar responded to questions about his film via email.
What inspired you to make this film?
Recently, in postwar Nepal, we’ve seen a new trend emerge in the country — if a group, an organization or a party is “unhappy” and wants to demand something from the government, the first thing they try to do is to shut down the major highways which connect the capital or a road or a city or the whole country! This is known as a bandh. It has become a part of our daily life now. When you start a journey, it is always uncertain, and the bandhscan last for a few hours or for days or even months.
I have experienced several bandhs. One of these was 57 hours long with no food or water. I even witnessed two people being killed — when vehicles were allowed to leave around midnight of the third day, they drove over the people sleeping on the road in a rush to escape. Since that traumatic experience, I have wanted to express my feelings through a full-length film.
In 2009, I happened to be on a road trip from east Nepal to the capital, Kathmandu. Our journey was obstructed by three different bandhs, organized by three different groups in three different parts of the country. This was when my colleagues Kedar Sharma, Khagendra Lamichhane [who worked on the story] and I started talking about the idea for this film, Highway.
Is the bandh a metaphor for Nepali society/life, which seems to endure many other forms of roadblock, as suggested by individual passengers’ stories?
Yes, but don’t you think it’s also a metaphor for society/life in other parts of world today? Sometimes, I don’t see much difference traveling on a bus in Nepal or commuting by subway in New York. Until or unless we have a problem or are in need of help, we don’t even look at the person sitting next to us! Neither physical nor mental bandhs are limited to Nepal. I felt that by setting a story against the backdrop of this new bandh culture, I would not only be able to explore physical bandhs, but also explore the mental/psychological bandhs that many of us seem to be facing these days.
How did you create all these very interesting characters who represent a very diverse spectrum of Nepali society?
As you know, Highway‘s story begins with a bus journey in a small town of eastern Nepal headed for the capital Kathmandu. When I thought of a bus, I thought of the country. The country means people from diverse strata of the society. And a bus is one of the few places where you get a cross-section of society. So I thought, it would be a great “vehicle” for the film. I very much wanted to represent people of different backgrounds as a way of helping Nepalis and others around the world recognize what we have in common with each other, as a path for healing this very wounded society. Most of the characters of Highway were inspired by our real-life experiences: either from my life or screenwriter Abinash Bikram Shah‘s life or something we commonly experienced or took note of.
There is something very naturalistic about the actors’ performances. How did you cast them, and how did they contribute to the sense of realism?
Contrary to standard methods of filmmaking, I didn’t give actors written dialogue. They improvised their lines on the set while doing a scene. I didn’t dictate how they should express their emotions. I didn’t even like the camera dictating their movements. I would outline to the actors the situation of a scene, its background and where the scene was taking place, what could be important in the scene and why, and I let them improvise the rest. Mostly they decided how they were going to speak, what they were going to say, how they were going to move, how they were going to express emotions, etc. I believe improvisation allows an actor of any background (child/old/illiterate/professional) to perform to their best ability and it also gives a more natural flow to a scene. An actor or non-actor can add a lot of detail which the writers might never have thought of.
Not all actors like improvising, and some can’t really improvise well. I have always worked with my wife, Asha Magarati [who also plays a role in the film], on selecting cast. Asha has been acting and producing theater for almost 20 years now. In Highway she assembled a mixed group of actors, some of whom were well-known in theater and film in Nepal, some of whom were acting for the first time. I felt it was a good decision.
How did you come up with the non-linear, multi-plotline narrative structure?
It came from need! We were dealing with lot of characters, and their individual stories, during one bus journey. It is a current story, even newsworthy! So, we felt, why don’t we try to tell it in an inverted pyramid news style, all non-linear! The major incident in the story comes first and then we go back in time and to places, characters and other elements of the story that led up to it.
In addition to this structure, the open ending, which leaves none of the individual passengers’ stories resolved, seems to have been unsettling for audiences in Nepal. Can you tell us more about the audience reactions at home and how you feel about them?
In Nepal, Highway received extremely polarized views from the audience. Some thought it was the worst film they had ever watched. Others felt that this was the film they had been waiting for, for a long time! There were different reasons for such polarized views.
We grew up watching Bollywood films with happy or tragic endings, so some people were really upset when Highway ended in such a way. One viewer wrote a comment on Facebook: “I think, writer felt lazy writing when he came by the end of film, so he left film incomplete.” Some other people were unhappy about the length of the film — they thought it was too short [75 min.], which is true compared to what they watch regularly. Some even said they felt it was a documentary.
But the best part is that we were all talking about a Nepali film, which we had never done before. Whether you go to a college or a teashop, you read Tweets or Facebook posts, everyone was talking about Highway. In the first two days of the release, 9,400 Tweets had already used the hashtag #Highwayfilm!
The challenging part was, we didn’t know how to handle “new media” very well when some people used it in an organized way against our film. And this was a distraction — instead of talking about the issues which the film raised or provoked, the social media side of things started to get stuck in superficialities. It’s a good lesson for the future, and also a reflection of a distracted culture, everywhere.
How do you think a more adventurous Nepali film audience can be cultivated? And what do you plan to do next?
It’s difficult to say. I strongly believe there is a big audience that wants a “conscious cinema,” and in recent years the industry has started to pay a little attention to that demand, and yet there is a lot to be done. Neither governmental nor institutional support is available for such work inside the country. The majority of society and mass media is focused on profits, returns, not content. So, the majority is competing to lie: “look how much we earned!” There are not a lot of people like my Executive Producers, Drs. Sameer and Lonim Dixit and Mita Hosali, who want to invest money in the story, in the characters, who are willing to take the risk, even of failing, in order to advance the range of cultural consciousness in Nepal, or to bring Nepali narratives and characters to the rest of the world — which is very important. On top of that, we are heavily dominated by Bollywood and Indian TV series, and any changes in their trends affect us, too.
But I am still hopeful. Newly-built multiplex cinemas have drawn new audiences. And in the last few years, more than a dozen young directors have joined the industry who are making a “conscious cinema.” We have three international film festivals in Kathmandu, and a lot of other movements and film festivals spreading throughout the country, which has helped cultivate an audience. In 2012, four Nepali films traveled internationally. So, if we get a little support, and we can work together, we can overcome this situation. But it is definitely going to take time. It will not happen overnight, for sure.
I am working on my second feature now, which we hope to shoot next spring. It’s a little early to talk about it. But I am excited and I hope others will be, too.
By La Frances Hui /AsiaSociety.Org
MARCH 10, 2014, Variety – Deepak Rauniyar’s “White Sun” has been selected for Cannes Festival Cinefondation Atelier among 15 projects that will be pitched at the a co-production mart and networking hub for films in development from Latin America, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa among principal sources. Speaking with Variety Cinefondation’s general manager Georges Goldenstern said “It’s an optimistic film which notes the weight of the Nepalese past on the present, but explores new ways in which the Nepalese can work together,”.
on Mar 19, 2015 /Filmmaker Magazine –
Fifteen works — scripted, documentary and interactive — were selected today for the Tribeca Film Institute‘s All Access program, which offers grant monies and other non-monetary support to projects by creators from statistically underrepresented communities. The projects were chosen from a submission pool of 710 entries.