Author and screenplay writer Prawin Adhikari on how Bandipur - halfway between essential hill-Nepal and anywhere, and halfway between fairytale and reality - became the perfect setting to shoot Suntali.
Bandipur and I go back a long way: the slate on the roof of the house I was born in had come from the quarry in Bandipur; my father had studied there as a child, and returned after his matriculation to teach there and politically organize his students. Every Tihar, my grandfather’s elder sister – whom everybody calls Didi, and who still walks the cobbled chowk in Bandipur, leaning on her cane and grinning ear to ear – brought sacks of oranges and peanuts as koseli from her fields in Bandipur. But before 2010, I had only been there once, while I was still in high school, and I had misconceptions about the village – for the better, since I remembered it being more spacious, more bridal in its riot of bougainvillea, with more children playing about and a cooler breeze than that I encountered in 2010. In my first visit, I had been dragged along as my father made a stop there with a politician, a few weeks before elections. I was my father’s son, and the only people I met belonged to the same political party, making the same sort of bland remarks that local politicians make.
But, in 2010, I had gone there to reconnoiter the village for a screenplay adapted from a novella I’d written sometime in the summer of 2003. The novella, based on true events, had been set in Khaireni, where I was born and raised, while the screenplay had been shifted to Bandipur. This was reactionary instinct on my part: Khaireni had urbanized in a way that rendered it unrecognizable to someone looking at it through a lens of nostalgia. The direction of progress chosen by my villagers didn’t suit my plans for a story based there. Bandipur, on the other hand, had acquired a quaint charm and monetized it: there were potted bougainvilleas, but only around tourist lodges and boutique hotels. The children played with the noisiest zeal when blonde volunteers with diverse European accents taught them nursery rhymes. But, Bandipur still retained a certain charm that had gone from the decrepit to the cured. It would do handsomely for the setting of the dark thriller that I had written. Over five days in March of 2010, I paced up and down the central chowk and imagined where a particular scene would be set.
That movie was never made. But, from that dark tale came just the frothy cream of it: a minor character that seemed light enough to make anybody smile. Bhaskar Dhungana, who wrote and produced Kagbeni, and produced Sano Sansar, wanted to make a light comedy rooted in Nepaliness. He and I had been toying with script ideas since 2008, and we had had our share of failures and success: the first project that we actually shot no longer exists, but a few other shorts that we worked on, with Bhaskar dai directing and he and I writing, are now on YouTube. The more accomplished of them – Falesne Jaro – even went to a few film festivals around the world. Even though it was shot over just a couple of days as a student film in Prague, it is photographed beautifully, and the minimalistic music heightens the sadness in the story. We wanted something just like that: shot beautifully, set to beautiful music, a story entirely Nepali.
How does one situate a story? As a writer of fiction and screenplays, I have struggled the most with settings. A story can be rendered entirely credible or otherwise just by its setting. By that we could be talking of set decoration, but also of the inflections and dialects the characters use. It could be about the skies and the mountains that form the backdrop for romance or strife – but it could also be the sole reason the morality implied in the story works or fails.
Setting is paramount. And our new story – Suntali – sought a setting halfway between essential hill-Nepal and anywhere; halfway between fairytale and reality. The behavior we wanted to bring to the characters needed to be universal in their zaniness, but their speech had to ring true in a local dialect. For this, the setting had to be at once of this world, and with the slightest switch in perspective, otherworldly. Bandipur seemed the obvious choice: although Jiri was mentioned a few times as an alternative, nobody from the team ever made it there to consider it as the setting. Plus, the story had raced ahead to include specific temples and trees and hills around Bandipur. It was simply too perfect a fit to pass on.
Ondra Belica, who had shot Falesne Jaro, came early to look at the location. Bhaskar Dai and Ondra, along with other members of the production team, traveled to Bandipur to identify suitable locations. The screenplay had many unique locations, and save for a couple of locations, even scenes set in the same setting - say, a major character’s house - moved constantly within that setting. We had written scenes for which a window needed to align perfectly with the view of a shop, for instance, or a character’s room in a specific kind of a house had to look down a particular alley. These kinds of spatial unities make sense in a fiction-writer’s head, because he can always make things up without being restricted by reality. Film producers, on the other hand, prefer location descriptions to match pre-existing structures.
But, Bhaskar Dai, Ondra and the team returned from Bandipur with meticulous photographs and floor plans for each available space, and with notes for edits. In an earlier version of the script, I had written a scene in an orange grove: imagine a pretty girl named Suntali, standing cross in an orange grove, pelting her lover with ripe oranges while accusing him of being a mindless dolt! And fighting and crying and hugging and making up and making out. With the golden glow of a sunset in the Himalayas lighting her hair afire as she tries to wipe her tears, half-laughing and half-crying, mad in love. Imagine that!
Yarp. You’ll have to imagine all of that, because, unbeknownst to me – rather, because I didn’t do a thorough enough job of researching the setting – a viral epidemic had decimated Bandipur’s famous orange groves a few years before we went there to shoot our movie. There was no orange grove in which Suntali would cavort. We’d be shooting just before monsoon – yarp, no mountains for mood-lighting either. Some other locations key to making the story work didn’t exist as I’d imagined them. We’d have to make do with what did exist, in what shape they existed, and yet transform them to serve our vision of the space.
A thorough rewriting of the script followed the final reconnoitering of the locations. Bhaskar Dai had brought back information about every wall, every door and window, and which way they faced – now, sitting in Kathmandu, we could imagine how the light would play at what time of the day, and what shot would work and what wouldn’t. Even now, when I think of the line-by-line revision of every scene to conform to the floor-plans from the locations, I feel the burden of all the labor we put in.
After thoroughly combing through the screenplay (for our draft version 5.2), we picked a few scenes with which we would conduct the auditions. There was a set of logic behind these choices: in terms of how we wanted to use the space, which scenes gave the actors the most range to perform the nuances of their characters, etc. Sticking to the floor plan – or roughly sticking to it, as the rehearsal space allowed – we rehearsed scenes with the actors, especially the scenes that seemed most space-bound, most dependent upon the resources we had, and ones least adaptable on the fly.
Yet, the best laid schemes of mice and men, as the poet said.
When Suntali finally went to Bandipur to commence shooting, the monsoon came early. Spaces that had seemed charming now proved crammed, the heat of lights stifling the cast and crew. A wall had to be moved by a few feet. How does one ask permission from the landlady to move a wall by a few feet? With the promise that it would back in its original position within a few days! A newly interested politician – in fact, one of the old politicians whom I had visited with my father during my first visit to Bandipur, and called Uncle – threatened to stop production if he wasn’t paid off. A village drunk objected to being denied free passage – especially when the camera was rolling – and threatened to pick a fight at every available opportunity. A third grader with her milk-teeth entirely dissolved by tooth-rot refused to control her fidgeting and insisted upon singing when silence-on-the-set was called for. Villagers so eager to work as extras suddenly froze when ‘Action!’ was called; teenagers cramming for end-of-term exams hid away from the windows and yelled whenever silence-on-the-set was called for. Old ladies spent entire days diligently watching the actors, and only when evening came asked about when the dancing would take place. ‘No dancing in this film, Aama!’ They’d become crestfallen. ‘No dancing. And the hero sews dresses. What kind of a film is this?’
Despite the many problems the unit faced during the shoot, Bandipur has come alive beautifully onscreen. The colorful and intricate details of the Bindhyabasini temple at the eastern end of the chowk, the airy interior of the old library, the triangular wooden stairs in a Rana-era building that is now a college, the mud-plastered kitchens and wooden window-seats: Bandipur’s exteriors and interiors have been lit and photographed beautifully by Ondra. What I like best is the fact that the spaces come alive without the slightest exaggeration of trick lighting – it is a reminder that the spaces we occupy, in all their ordinariness, are in fact magical and attractive, if one simply switches one’s perspective by a couple of degrees. The wooden posts in the middle of the room, the evening light filtering through wooden windows, the moss on stones and the dog curled in the middle of the street: these are at once uniquely ours, and universally recognizable. That syrupy quality of time that is an essence of Bandipur’s character is also captured in the languid movements of the villagers or of the children jumping and playing. But the quickness of gossip and intrigue – without which it is impossible to imagine village life in Nepal – is also present.
I dread to imagine what Suntali would look like without its setting of Bandipur. I am sure Jiri or any other of the many picturesque settings possible for it would have brought another set of beauty and charm to the finished work. But I still believe that this particular story belongs in that particular village – without its cars and motorbikes, without the accompanying noise, with its uniformly recessed shops and pine-crowned seat of the patron goddess. I am very aware of the work the production team – Jaya Shah, Prachanda M. Shrestha, with Sudipta Karki and Firoj Khadka – put in to ensure an uneventful shooting schedule. That required numerous negotiations and contracts, re-negotiations to manage the new-fangled greed of some individuals, making overtures of generosity to secure the cooperation of others. It was easy for me and Bhaskar Dai to choose Bandipur as our setting for its charm and quirks and beauty. It wasn’t as easy for the producers to make it available for photography, for two schedules over separated by a few months.
And it was easy for us to march into Bandipur, some forty of us at any time, to shoot a movie we wanted. But the people of Bandipur had to tolerate us with our bright HMI lights, with the constant bustle well into the night, with the disruption of foot-traffic and ratyauli-song playing through the night. Their hospitality and generosity, even when they didn’t realize that being an extra requires repeating the same boring action over and over for an entire night – or even a couple of days – made the experience a lighter burden. Many of us made friends with the children and the lady who sold chow mien and sukuti.
I look forward to going back to Bandipur once the movie is released. So many villagers will be eager to see themselves in Suntali, most of them women who can’t travel to another town just to watch a movie. I hope to be present when they get to see themselves on a big screen, projected to be larger than life and filled with the color and vigor of twenty-four frames per second. I hope to be there when Bandipur rings with their applause and cheer for themselves and their chowk and lane and shrines and fields. I hope to be there when their faces will glow with a newfound awe for the space in which they have made their homes.