Wake up each day to do what you love best, do what you do better than anything else you do, have your heart broken over and over again by self-doubt, by the doubt others place on you, by the biggest heartbreak that comes from missing the mark by your smallest margin. You are stuck with the last extra inch needed to clear the bar and mark your growth, and you’ve had at it for years now, but you have always found yourself inadequate in your own estimation – always by the tiniest fraction of the immense leap of which you are already capable. This failure – and the success that will surely come when you can make that leap cleanly over and over again, without any conscious effort – will be invisible to others. This will eat you from the inside. But you have awoken to the realization that this world – this, of stuff that dreams are made of – has no rigid exoskeleton. Even in your most abject failure, you have something nobody else has: liberation. You have seen a glimpse of a world that the more sensible people are incapable of seeing. You have seen yourself clothed in the colors of your own dreams – and you look beautiful.
Priyanka Karki knew that she always wanted to be a performer. She wanted to stand before an adoring crowd that acknowledged the clean leap she could make from craft to art. When she was six, she was mesmerized by the otherworldly sight of a breeze teasing Madhuri Dixit’s hair on TV. The camera would close in on that face beloved to a billion admirers as Dixit’s hair fanned in the air. Priyanka wanted to be the beautiful woman in the television box – the only box she would ever consent to be confined to. She would stand before the mirror with a hair dryer and emulate her idol.
“I was never shy,” she says. “When I was eight or nine years old, I got cast as a child artist in the movie Mahadevi, with Bhuvan KC and Karishma Manandhar and Sunil Thapa. I instantly fell in love with that world while dubbing for the movie – in that hot, stuffy little box in the studio, I knew that I wanted to belong to that world (of cinema).” She never thought of doing anything else, of pursuing any other career. After becoming Miss Teen Nepal in 2005, she entered the world of modeling and television, working as a VJ.
Back then, in the crisis years or the nation and of the film industry in Nepal, the movies being made weren’t of the sort that we see today. The majority of movies were still being shot on film. The cost of raw stock ate up nearly a quarter of a low-budget project, leaving very little to be invested in talented crew members or in production values.
Since healthy returns could not be guaranteed, producers relied heavily on proven formulas of four songs, four fights, exploitative aesthetics and stories stolen from foreign sources. Priyanka’s father was reluctant to let her enter the film industry – it wasn’t yet a profession parents felt comfortable letting their young daughters enter.
Priyanka Karki left Nepal for Florence, Alabama, to join the University of North Alabama. There, she studied Film & Digital Media Production, with a focus on acting and directing for the camera. She also obtained a minor in Theater. Her first gig in the college theater program was as a Shark Girl chorus member in the musical West Side Story. After graduation, she moved to Manhattan to do another eight-month long crash course in acting at the New York Film Academy. While at Florence, Priyanka auditioned for the role of Jasmine in a production of the musical Alladin, being staged at a children’s theater called the Gingerbread Theater. She was cast as the long-haired, dusky princess, singing her heart out to an audience of children who came backstage after the show to get her autograph and take pictures with the tall, pretty woman in harem pants. A run of a glorious fifty days! ‘That was the most rewarding theater experience,’ she says. The success she enjoyed then cemented her resolve to remain in show business.
The theater and the movies are fundamentally different: for actors, writers and directors. Above all, the difference is most starkly experienced by the actor. With each performance the electricity and pulse of the play can change. There is no real failure onstage – there is always the next show to make up for it. But, there is no real control either – your co-performer can absolutely ruin or make a scene for the audience, and the glory and the blame will be shared. That is different in the movies. If an actor doesn’t quite hit her mark in a particular take, the take can be repeated, until somebody runs out of patience: the producer, whose money is bleeding away; or a scene-partner who has been up on his feet for fourteen hours; or the director who is utterly dismayed by the gulf between his vision and what the actor is capable of delivering.
Once a mistake gets printed, it lives on forever for people to see. Perhaps this is why most actors have a fond place in their hearts for the process of producing a work for the stage, but have their egos attached to the larger-than-life pictures of a movie. How much has a particular movie affected Priyanka Karki? Is there any one movie that has changed her life more than the other?
Her answer is rather diplomatic, in the manner of someone who has had to answer similar questions with some frequency over the years, and keen to avoid possible confrontations with collaborators past and future. ‘I don’t think I’ll ever reach a point where I can say that a particular movie has changed me – every movie is an opportunity to learn and grow up.’
Priyanka Karki has learned and grown up quite a bit, it seems, from her first release, 3 Lovers. Although she had returned to Nepal in November of 2011, with an eye on the movie industry, she wasn’t approached for any movie roles. She did some modeling gigs – and she says that as grueling as it is to prepare for and execute a ramp-show or any other fashion gig, a model is essentially doing precisely the same thing over and over again. It is the exact opposite of the vitality that an opportunity to explore a character over months brings to an actor: it is rigid, plastic, and a model looks her best only from so many angles. Priyanka returned to the US for a brief period, and in June of 2012, she arrived in Kathmandu to begin her career in the movies.
3 Lovers is a weird little movie. In it, Priyanka’s character is the object of obsession for a gangster who threatens to kill anyone else who dares make a move on the girl. In the typical manner of a movie for men, imagined by men of very limited intelligence or sensitivity, Priyanka’s character is merely ornamental, lolling about with her best friend and hugging large stuffed toys, talking to her parents on Skype, etc. Mero Best Friend, which had been shot before 3 Lovers, was stuck in post-production for long enough that it didn’t appear in the movies until much later. Priyanka wouldn’t admit in the interview that she regrets doing these movies, but, come on! Then came Priyanka’s dance in the movie Kollywood, a frenetically colorful affair a la Bhaujiwood – the delirious item-dances of Bhojpuri cinema – and Kathmandu sat up to take notice of this exotic, dusky woman who could really dance.
In a little under three years, Priyanka has established herself as one of the more successful actors. She starred in Vigilante, Nepal’s first home-grown 3-D movie, and continued her collaboration with the director Dipendra K. Khanal with Jholey, which did very well. Dayahang Rai, perhaps the most reliable new movie star these days, and Priyanka brought the audiences back to the cinema after a long time. Concurrently, other movies like Chha Ekan Chha and Jhola had also started attracting viewers who hadn’t been getting a steady fare at the cinema since the waning of the influence of Loot a few years past. But, for a movie with a shoestring budget and equally barely-there storyline, Priyanka worked as the charm, in her gaudy make-up and deliberately vulgar delivery of the character of a very determined prostitute who demands fair wage for a fair job done.
Director Bikas Acharya’s Nai Nabhannu La – 2 continued the spate of commercial successes in her career. Recently, Priyanka traveled to Honk Kong to participate in an awards ceremony where she won two trophies and a lot of admiration from the Nepalis living there. She is now awaiting the release of director Bhaskar Dhungana’s Suntali, which had its world premiere at the Busan International Film Festival in October (Disclosure: I share writing credits with Bhaskar Dhungana for Suntali), Avaran, Mala, director Subarna Thapa’s Fanko, Sadanga, and the third installment of Bikas Acharya’s Nai Nabhannu La – 3. Since June of 2012, she has been involved in 12 movies! And, surely, you haven’t been able to escape her face on numerous advertisements and magazine covers and fashion spreads.
How has the experience been, as a woman, in the fashion and film industry? Priyanka’s perspective from the inside is optimistic, upbeat even. ‘Girls now earn more in the advertisement industry than men do,’ she says. ‘Women regularly endorse products, and command a fair wage, too.’
But, is there equality – in terms of pay and dignity of work? ‘We’re getting there slowly,’ Priyanks says. She is emphatic when she makes this point: ‘If the biggest thing on a movie poster is a woman’s face, the times (must) have changed enough that we should be able to make demands. There is more substance in roles available to women now... The girls can speak up for themselves now.’
But, this is a treacherous industry, too. It can seem like all play and mood-lighting and glitter to an outsider. In reality, both theater and cinema require extreme endurance of the physical and psychological kind. Oftentimes, as a movie starts hitting the eighty-percent mark on its shooting schedule, people start wondering if they shouldn’t be elsewhere, doing something else, earning a salary instead of a fee, eating in the homely security of family, instead of chain-smoking to keep the jitters away and instantly perking up with playacted joy when a tired voice somewhere shouts – Action!
The rewards are there, as are there risks. Many a light-man or spot-boy on a movie set left home years ago to become a hero or a director. Many a woman has failed to made it past being paid 500 rupees for a day’s work as an extra – with Olympian discipline standing on the exact spot, repeating the exact movement for long, sun-scorched or wind-chilled hours. But, sometimes, you make it, and a stranger walks up to you and thanks you for being their inspiration, for bringing them joy in small measures. ‘The biggest thing you can earn in the Nepali film industry is the people. With one good movie you can earn millions of hearts,’ Priyanka says, before breaking into that big grin of hers. – ‘You’ll never earn millions of rupees here, after all!’
‘This field isn’t something you come into just because you failed your SLC exams or because you ran away from your family or because you have five lakhs in the bank. This field is just as tough as it is to become a doctor or an engineer – Unless every inch of your being belongs here, don’t think of this as a career option,’ Priyanka warns. This is the only advice she would give to any young fan out there who wants to emulate her, who might have seen her in the television box and wants to belong in it alongside her.
And yet, there is a breed of us that flock, like moths to a flame, to the bright HMIs, trying for days to learn the essential trick of not looking straight into the blinding lights. When, shivering in a late monsoon drizzle, we wait for the tray full of plastic cups of warm tea to reach us, we look around and see – a boy barely out of high-school, a businesswoman with an NYU degree now worrying about how the clouds will move, a veteran sound-engineer patiently tweaking the dials on his equipment, a director of photography perplexed by the dappled-shadows he thinks he created but is no longer sure of, an assistant director trying hard to anticipate the needs of a dozen people around her, a man hunched over a pail of embers trying to build smoke, and actor pacing back and forth and murmuring to unseen spirits as he reads various renditions of his lines – we see the exoskeleton of ‘real world’ drudgery being stripped away by the will and wonder that has brought together this motley crew. Like Priyanka, this is a crowd of people who always knew what they wanted to do, become, achieve, and never doubted that they would be living through this precise moment. Even in that cold drizzle, they are each clothed in the colors of their individual dreams – and they are beautiful.