What does it take to make a classic film? A pool of well-known faces, a fantastic screen writer, director and expensive machinery and equipments? What if Nischal Basnet did not begin to think like that? Bijaya Adhikari finds out how Loot became a box office spinner and a turning point in modern Nepali cinema.
a common man thinks of special things. A special man thinks through common things. Nischal Basnet thought of a very common thing: “I want to make a film that I would want to watch, a film that I would enjoy. Not a film that audiences at large automatically expect from Nepali filmmakers.”
Hence the idea for Loot was born. “I had never thought of any future for Loot. I only wanted to make a film about bank robbery,” recalls Basnet, “the very first scene in the film is exactly how I imagined it even before I started writing it: There would be people in masks and the entire film would be about unmasking those faces.”
QFX Cinemas these days is synonymous with multiplex audiences, and Nischal Basnet humbly nods his head in accepting that he had only the audience seated inside QFX Cinemas’ screens in mind when he first thought of foraying into filmmaking. He had studied his audience well: educated people, globally aware people, people exposed to world cinemas. Basnet wanted to make a ‘unique’ film and the way to become unique was to stand amidst the crowd of stories in its raw originality, not some rip-off from a foreign film. Audiences automatically expected larger-than-life execution from any film that would be taken from international films, but makers here could never justify such lavishness with their meager budget. Hence, all the results were the same—all films fell flat on their faces. Basnet crossed his fingers; he only had innovative storytelling in place of the expected grandeur.
Nischal Basnet was a film student back then. He had already made a short film titled Innocent, which was a story based on gun culture in the gallis of Kathmandu. He took hints from the stories about gambling joints, how frequent gamblers there provided loan against steep interest rates. “Karma was already in my head. His role as a gambler was set in my head as I was writing my script,” Basnet remembers. “The character of Pandey, portrayed by my fellow film student was handpicked. I needed an edge to the story, and he was just ‘there’.”
Loot was originally planned to be shot as a short film. Nischal Basnet started writing the story first and the dialogues followed. His friends popped up in his head lending to him character portrayals for the movie, his colleagues filled in as pieces of a puzzle as he nicknamed his characters. By the time he was done with the script, it seemed to cross the borderline of an hour and a half long feature, and he suddenly exclaimed, “So what? Let’s make it a two-hour-long film!” A mere 5 hundred thousand rupee project elevated slowly to 10, to 15, to 25—till it reached a budget for a full length feature.
When the script of Loot was first evaluated, the common question running on everyone’s mind was, “Will this film ever be made?” Doubts as such could have weakened the knees of most filmmakers. History showed that experiments weren’t taken kindly by the Nepali audience. But Nischal Basnet wasn’t merely making a film, he was determined to entertain the audience with a Nepali story, character in jeopardy because their situation was uniquely ours, their reaction to events would be such that only Nepalis would be able to do so. This determination made him approach Daya Hang Rai, with whom he wouldn’t have otherwise approached.
“I was a film student, I wanted to go with the film in a guerilla style shooting format and of course, approaching a great actor like Daya dai wasn’t on my checklist. But people do talk about scripts when they start showing potentials. Daya dai had heard about my film and I got a slight nudge to approach him. I didn’t know how I was supposed to talk about remuneration with Daya dai, but he kept it simple. ‘Give me a rupee for working in the film, anything more than that will be a bonus’ he said. That day I realized that I was truly ready to make a film,” a smile hovers on Basnet’s lips as he traces his history with the formidable actor.
The character of Gofley, portrayed by Daya Hang Rai had to be fat. And every time Basnet would meet Rai, the latter would be welcomed with a feast of noodles and eggs and bid farewell with the same platter. “It is surprising as how Daya dai gets into the character and comes off it. I could see his belly bulging. He fattened himself in almost no time!” says Basnet chuckling.
But even more interesting is the casting of Saugat Malla: The character of Haku Kaley, the pivotal character played by Malla—a relatively unknown face back then, did not even have a name. But when Nischal Basnet received an assurance that Saugat Malla would be interested to do the character, he giddied up to Daya Hang Rai. “Did you talk to him today?” Basnet would check up on Rai every day.
When Nischal Basnet finally talked to Saugat Malla, the latter had a single query, “What would be the level of the film?” Basnet bluntly said, “I don’t know.” Malla then suggested, “You have just stumbled into this field. So make sure that at least your team is that of professionals.” Nischal Basnet politely nodded.
The primary character’s name was Kaley, a name extracted from Basnet’s own life and times. Malla suggested otherwise and came up with the name ‘Haku Kaley’, both the words meaning the same thing - a person of dark complexion. It took a while for Basnet to okay the name, a nickname that today generates an imagery of one of the most memorable characters in modern Nepali cinema.
With the intervention of theater-trained professionals like Rai and Malla, the script started taking shape into the film that it is today. “I would send a page of ideas that sprang up in my head to Saugat dai and Daya dai. While Daya dai made only a few touch-ups here and there, Saugat dai was brutal. When I would get the script back, it would be more than what I would have sent him. He is not just an actor, he is a genius. The tone of his character’s voice, the dialectical delivery would be written on paper. I could ‘see’ the scene on paper,” says Nischal.
Things took a whole new turn after cinematographer Purushottam Pradhan was roped in. The veteran cinematographer gave one suggestion that took the movie to a different level altogether. “Don't confine yourself,” said Pradhan, “Think big. People aren't going to watch this film in a 17 inch screen. Imagine a theater screen.”
The guerilla style pattern exploded into a full length filmmaking process backed up by professionals standing by at all levels. A mere rooftop became a wide apartment construction site. The space suddenly opened up. Even with massive pre-planning and extensive research, Loot had its own ad hoc moments that make the film visually spectacular. There was only one basis for finding the location for the film, to come up with locations that were never filmed before. The team kept searching for the dirt, the puddles, the dust and the gore of the city that is originally hidden from day-to-day life.
“I don’t know why, but I would always be looking for ‘dirty’ places.” says Nischal, “Somehow, I felt that those locations would do justice to the script. I could see the reflection of the story at the most unusual places, the uncomfortable nooks and inconspicuous crannies.” The otherwise avoided local watering holes, the puddle made by rainwater, slaughterhouses and many other locations in the film stuck to the concept. They represented the everyday Kathmandu - nonchalant, un-noticed during day to day commutes but existing nevertheless. Nischal thought that these spaces made the perfect playground for his characters and the story.
With a solid pre-production backing up, the actual shooting went smoothly. But on the editing station, the initial line-up of the edit just didn’t add up. There were unavoidable flaws, unforgivable holes in the scene. And to make matters worse, professional editor Surendra Poudel had doubts about the ending of the film, “Will the ‘nine minutes’ of the film’s ending put people on the edge of their seats? Can this mystery work?” Nischal Basnet had to justify his film to his own editor, “If there is enough built-up for the story, people will stay back to understand the film,” he said.
Scenes were cut down, editing scissors started running haywire. The temporal pacing of the film, which is told is non-linear chronology was taken care with precision. Even at such a threshold, the editor did not want to make corrections nor did he want to edit the ending of the film. “People expect happy endings. They expect a closure. You cannot give them a huge layout and a definitive built-up and suddenly change the scenario,” the editor warned Basnet.
Nischal Basnet then shaped his own edits; his beliefs and the kind of audience that he had in mind, pushed him to create the ending. Loot wouldn’t have become the classic tale of Kathmandu’s crime if it was limited to Gofley’s blatant humor or Haku Kaley’s trickeries. Loot is mainly remembered for its ending—an ironical twist that justifies one of the most memorable dialogue in modern Nepali cinema - “Bal haina Pasa, Dimag laga Dimag!”
Loot had generated early hype from its trailer. There were unedited profanity, street lingo, unseen faces and a promising story to it. When the film hit the cinemas, audience took this experiment positively not just because Basnet had achieved his goal to make a ‘unique’ film but the audience had once again become wary of most of these so called ‘new generation’ Nepali films, which had otherwise seen a promising harbinger with Bhusan Dahal’s laidback thriller Kagbeni in 2009.
Loot made a huge initial collection, something most Nepali films had in years failed to do. Word of mouth promoted the film and the number of people entering the cinema halls multiplied. Even though the film was targeted at an urban ‘multiplex audience’, it received nationwide acclaim, gradually going to Nepali audiences worldwide.
Loot broke ground at all levels. Actors Saugat Malla and Daya Hang Rai became household names within two years, both of them individually signed over a dozen films and opened the door to theater actors to make it big and meet shoulder-to-shoulder with the so-called ‘mainstream’ actors. A bold statement it may be, but the Nepali film industry finally could define the ‘anti-hero’ with Haku Kaley, who became famous overnight. With actresses like Richa Sharma and Srijana Subba drained out of their ‘glam’ quotient, Loot boosted the image of new age cinema actresses—which was reflected upon earlier by Deeya Maskey in Bhusan Dahal’s Kagbeni.
The movie went on to celebrate box office successfor a long time. Reviews for the film came in as expected—the younger generation accepted the film as a story they could genuinely relate to. Others couldn’t take in the profanity and crude humor easily. Nevertheless, Loot created a milestone. It will always be remembered as ‘the entertainer’. Also, the ending of the film had its own aficionados and a separate index of critics as well all the while, both parties wowing the way the film ended.
Today, Loot isn’t a categorized film. It is a special film, made by a special man whose common way of thinking has made it a historical manifestation. It might not be the inception of a genre that we have warmed up to call ‘new generation cinema’, but it definitely is the first name. Loot is the leader of an age that is yet to come. An age of a Golden era, perhaps?