At the time of release, Chhadke had it all. With recognizable archetypes, a cast of well-known actors and the insurmountable excitement leading up to its release, the movie, it seemed, would be another necessary punctuation in the line of exciting cinema events in Nepal.
Writer-director Nigam Shrestha’s Chhadke was, at its time, the most anticipated event in Nepali cinema. There had been a resurgence of sorts in the industry, with Nepali movies making their presence felt quite strongly at multiplexes in the Valley and competing alongside Indian and American movies. Well before the movie was released, the song Ek ekan dui composed by Jason Kunwar and featuring Namrata Shrestha and Nikun Shrestha, had become quite the YouTube sensation. The cast of supporting characters – Dayahang Rai, Arpan Thapa and Robin Tamang – added excitement and promise. The industry was as excited for Chhadke as was the theater-going audience: the movie was seen as another necessary punctuation in the line of exciting cinema events in Nepal.
But something very strange happened when Chhadke was released: it divided the audience very sharply, and seemed to evaporate at the box-office after a record-breaking collection during the opening weekend. Apart from Robin Tamang’s unexpected turn as a smuggler and leader of a gang, the audience didn’t warm up to the performances by other actors. In the industry, it became an example of how everything could go wrong for a movie: after stellar earning over the first few days, word-of-mouth publicity seemed to hurt the movie more than help it, resulting in it being limited to being shown at fewer than ten theaters for the second weekend, down from the initial twenty-eight. Within ten days of its release, a soft-copy of Chhadke was leaked to the illegal market. The possibility of collecting a heftier part of the production budget by selling the movie abroad – in Hong Kong, Australia, the USA, etc. – disappeared after an online portal broke news about the online piracy and encouraged people to download it ASAP before the file was removed. A promise, it seemed, had been squandered.
I received a copy of the movie before it was released. Accompanying the soft-copy of it was a music CD with Jason Kunwar’s music and lyrics – the song Ma ta khelchhu should become the children’s song of our times, I thought. (Look it up on YouTube. It is still a really beautiful song.) Chhadke was very different from anything I had seen in Nepali cinema until then and very intriguing at many levels. The character played by Saugat Malla, for instance, was far removed from anything attempted in Nepali cinema until then. Here was a genuine commentary, in the form of a character, and embodied in full strength by Malla.
Yet, despite its strengths point-to-point in the movie, as a whole it refused to stand. Namrata Shrestha – the darling china-doll of glamour hitherto – played against type, constantly lighting joints and going about murdering men, until she meets her gruesome end. But, as brave as that decision might have been on her part, something about the performance made it impossible to sympathize with her character. Debutant Nikun Shrestha played his laconic America-returned young man who gets pulled into the big game by circumstance without any spark of vitality, letting his dark glasses and perpetually lit cigarette fill in for him. There ought to have been believable chemistry between Nikun and Namrata Shrestha’s characters, but there was none. Arpan Thapa was impressive when he had to chase and kill, but impossible to understand when he spoke in Tharu – and disadvantaged by a back-story like the one Dayahang Rai’s character had, impossible to have any feelings for. Despite the parts being impressive, the whole didn’t make ‘One’. Something vital fell through the cracks and was lost. Even today, people have very mixed reactions to Chhadke. For some, it was bold and important; for others, it was self-indulgent to the point of excess.
A couple of years past the release of Chhadke, its writer-director Nigam Shrestha, is still living the consequences of it. “There were small flaws in each department as we went about making the movie, but the small flaws each multiplied with time and became large holes by the end,” he says. I wanted to interrogate Nigam on those flaws: what does he perceive as the inadequacies of the movie? What could have been done better? How much was luck, and how much a lack of preparation? What was he thinking, putting Nikun and Saugat Malla’s characters in the same film? Where did the idea for the movie come from?
Nigam Shrestha is from Chitwan, where a majority of the action in the movie takes place. The background for it – frustrated youth leaving to work abroad, and those remaining behind collapsing into a life if crime – is drawn from reality. These are the political realities of the writer-director’s own milieu. After 2006, when the state apparatus effectively collapsed, and when political parties wove a tight knit with the criminal element in every region, it became more lucrative for a young man to go work for a political big-man than to secure the loans and wherewithal to go abroad for employment. Unprecedented levels of violence in the civil society now focused on tenders called by the government for supplies and construction. The privilege of killing rhinos and tigers shifted from those under royal patronage to those under the patronage of the political parties – the very same people who were voted to the CA to write a constitution for the nation.
Nigam wanted to examine and expose this scenario in Chitwan where his friends were also getting caught in the new web of violence. But this new scenario existed alongside another, more primal violence that has been going on for far longer: the violent confrontation between mankind and its environs. “I wanted to show the parallel stories – the violence in the society, and the violence against nature – as a part of the same narrative,” he says.
In his articulation, nature is the beloved of the character played by Saugat Malla. When his botanist character gallops through the forest imitating a deer, he is entering the embrace of his beloved. The gangs involved in cutting trees and harvesting rhino-horns or tiger-pelts are, in this articulation, violating his beloved and attacking her vitality. Through the act of empathy, he achieves the right to respond with equal violence. This requires him to shed off his connection to the world of men: clothes, language, privileges given to fellow humans at the cost of other sentient beings.
Divergent from him is the fate of the character played by Nikun Shrestha. At the very beginning of the movie, Saugat Malla’s character meets Nikun’s on the bus en route to Chitawan. When they meet again, the story has finished its course, and the meeting is fatal. Nikun’s characters shows very little resistance when circumstances require him to wear the mantle of crime to continue belonging to the world of men – to avenge his brother’s death, to provide for his bereaved family, and thereafter, to retain the smidgen of power he has wrested for himself. This means more violence, more encroachment of the jungle, more alienation from nature. This means falling into the embrace of quite another sort of a beloved: the heady rush of coveting the unattainable, the thrill of chasing and purchasing power for its own sake.
How much of this vision resonated with the audience? That is a difficult question to answer, not the least because the different interpretations of Chhadke have been equally vocal and numerous. One side of the aisle rooted for the gangster story – with the advent of the ‘real’ in Nepali cinema, a new generation had just been whetting up their appetite for something just like that: peppered with local idioms, recognizable archetypes that were nonetheless lurking just around the corner, the talk of rhino horns and brown sugar and timber smuggling. For this group, what was there of the gangster story was inadequate – there should have been more of it, more intrigue, more gangster games, etc. Bollywood has been supplying a steady stream of stories about local gangsters, and undoubtedly that has prompted the creation of an urban crime genre in Nepali cinema, too. But this half of the audience complained even more loudly about the ecological allegory thrown in: Saugat Malla’s character didn’t belong to the movie, people mostly said.
Another part of the audience thought the ecological allegory was the best thing about the movie – I think the rest of the movie doesn’t belong with Saugat Malla’s part. Here is a story that starts as a research trip for a postgraduate student, and ends with the total sublimation of the human impulse into the verdure and violence of the jungle. Malla’s character reminds me of the fool in a Calvino novella – he is so devoid of a self that any entity that he observes fills that void and makes him into something else: the fool becomes the soup pot set before him or the ripe peach he sees on laden branches. He is so completely capable of empathy that he ceases to exist. Malla’s character thus becomes whatever he encounters and experiences in the forest: and Malla has the ability to take from the mind an idea and then sculpt it to be expressed through the body, until physique itself transforms into allegory. There hasn’t been another work that has achieved the same in Nepali cinema.
So, what is Nigam up to these days, with the expectations accumulating from his debut movie prodding him forward? Along with his partners at the production company Ras Tandav, he has set his sights on an even more ambitious project: a period movie based on an iconic Nepali short story. (He doesn’t want to disclose the name of the short story or of the writer.) It will be very challenging: there is no doubt about that. There were many obstacles before Chhadke, but Nigam isn’t worried. “There were mistakes in Chhadke. But we can only learn and improve on them in our next movie,” he says.
But a lot of good also came out of the Chhadke experience: although people think Chhadke didn’t make money, that isn’t entirely true. In fact, in certain terms, it did exceptionally well – especially in showing the strength of the foreign-market revenue stream. It sold rights in Australia, Hong Kong and the US well before its release. If online piracy hadn’t hampered its opportunities, it would have gone on to do even better business. It had one of the best opening-weekend collections to date for a Nepali movie. Again, if pirated soft-copy of the movie hadn’t been so widely sold at Tribhuwan University and elsewhere, among the youth that would have made the biggest part of its viewership, perhaps it would have gone on to earn a lot more at the box office. As it is, for the high budget it reached during shooting, the money it recovered was impressive. Typically, a Nepali movie costs half of what Chhadke cost to produce, and rarely earns as much as Chhadke earned.
When I asked Nigam what he thought of the future of Nepali cinema, he seemed excited about it, but also had some reservations. Reality is finally making an inroad into Nepali cinemas, he said, and that will help establish a tone unique to the variety of Nepali contexts. There are those Nepali movies that take place in an imprecise pastiche of Nepalipan: most tropes borrowed from Bollywood, a non-existent reality that seems lifted from Mahendra Mala idea of nationhood. Then there are movies rooted in a space and time unique to Nepali realities: Loot, Chhadke, Dhuwani, Tandav, Kabaddi, Talakjung vs. Tulke, Suntali, etc., that are each informed by the specific locales and cultures that form an integral part of the story itself. These movies span the rural and the urban, Himal and Terai, various inflections of the language and culture and ethnic mix. A Nepali idiom is slowly but surely arising.
The future looks promising. Nigam is especially confident that his peers like Min Bham and Safal KC, and more seasoned directors like Prashant Rasaily will take Nepali cinema to greater heights. Meanwhile, for his part of the contribution to the industry, Nigam Shrestha wants to continue making movies that defy expectations and also allow him to exercise his creativity. We can only wish him the best of luck with his forthcoming project and wait.