[D]eepak Rauniyar’s Highway, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival 2012, was recently screened at the Osian’s Cinefan Film Festival. Credited with making the first Nepali film to travel to one of the top festivals in the world, Berlinale, Deepak Rauniyar tells us more about Highway:
What was the starting point for the 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 and I started talking about the idea for this film, Highway. 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 secure funds for making the film?
While I was shooting for a TV series, I met Dr. Sameer Mani Dixit through a friend / actor who was acting in my series. He had a dream of making a “good” Nepali film for a long time. He was unhappy, like me, seeing films with the same formula getting released every other Friday. We discussed possibilities of working together. I told him the story of Highway. And right then and there, he decided to put some money for this film.
How did the New York-based Louverture Films come into the picture?
I met Joslyn Barnes, an acclaimed producer and co-founder & chief operating officer of New York based Louverture Films through one of our executive producers, Mita Hosali (Mita is producing my other film KaalBela).
Joslyn’s production schedule was packed, but when we met and she watched a very early rough-cut of Highway, she saw the promise of the film and agreed to co-produce. We decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the post production, and we started talking with Joslyn’s friends and colleagues who she thought could be interested to work on the film.
David Barker came on board as the editor, and then the acclaimed composer Richard Horowitz and up-and-coming composer Vivek Maddala came on board. All three really shared a wonderful spirit of collaboration and gave a lot of themselves. The New York indie scene is really an amazing community; the post house Final Frame and the sound mix house Goodpenny also gave a lot to the film and appreciated the challenges of working at this budget level. I was really moved to see the can-do attitude and positive spirit of so many people. And through all of this effort, we completed Highway. Had Joslyn not come to co-produce this film, it would have been difficult to finish Highway at this scale.
How did the audience in Nepal react to Highway that is a departure from regular films in the country?
In Nepal, Highway received extremely polarized reactions from the audience. Some thought it was the worst film they had ever watched. Others felt that this is the film they had been waiting for, for a long time! But the best part is that we are all talking about a Nepali film, which we never did before. Whether you go to a college or tea shop; you read Tweets or a Facebook post, they are talking about Highway. In the first two days of release, 9400 Tweets had already used #Highwayfilm! Several films have been released after Highway, but we are still talking about it.
Tell us about the editing process of Highway that makes the narrative different from usual films. What was the idea, the vision?
We had scripted the film in a very linear structure. By the time I finished the shoot, I had a feeling that as the film is based on contemporary subjects, I should edit the film in a news story structure. But the first edit draft I had tried was based on the script. Then I felt that it was not working.Thus we made it non-linear. I had decided to use jump cuts before I was shooting.
We had trouble connecting all stories together without leaving the bus too much, which is the backbone of the film! And we had a challenge to tell all the stories without making people confused and not resorting to classical ‘flashback’.So we came up with a structure that I thought was interesting – the bus gets stuck in a ‘bandh’, and as the people on the bus struggle to find a way to get through it and move forward, their stories unfurl backwards through time. So as you come to understand their stories and motivations, you have the sensation of forward momentum.
David is a very smart editor. We treated the story in a way that you don’t get too much information at once, but it opens like you are peeling an onion. And most of the decisions are based on emotion of character, not time or space or continuity.
How did you choose the main cast? Are they all well-known actors in Nepal?
Asha Magarati, who plays Radhika, the wife of the Lieutenant, did the casting for the film. And we also had a month-long workshop before we went to shoot. We didn’t have much choice among the mainstream actors. And from my past experience, actors from theater background or non-actors were good for improvisation technique. So from the very beginning we were liberal to non-actors / theater actors, but we also wanted some actors from mainstream industry. And Asha did the same, she cast a mixed group of actors. Some of them are well known. Some were doing a movie for first time. And others few were established faces in their respective field but had not acted in any films before.
You choose to portray homosexuals, transgenders and bar dancers as the main characters in the film. Were you trying to make a comment on the contemporary society in Nepal?
Yes, we thought that a bus would be a great ‘vehicle’ literally for the film, because it’s one of the few places where you get a cross-section of Nepali society. And as you delve deeper into each character, you begin to see that people who are normally considered ‘marginal’ in the society actually are not necessarily that marginal, and that the ‘normal’ people, are not all that normal. That we’re all struggling in our own ways. In that sense I wanted to use difference as way of helping people recognize what is common in each other, as a path for healing this very wounded society.
And Abinash Bikram Shah, our screenplay writer, came up with these fantastic ideas. And we went for it.
What kind of cinema have you grown up on?
There were no cinema theaters in my village.
The first time I watched a film in a theater was Shahenshah of Amitabh Bachchan. I was thirteen year old then.
I grew up mostly watching Bollywood. But I don’t only enjoy “Masala films” from Bollywood, there is a wide world of film out there.
I believe in film as a medium of expression. Perhaps because of my background in journalism, I like exploring or exposing things that challenge me and the society around me, especially the kind of stories that offer platform to generate questions and debates.
I am inspired by the successes of great films such as Salam Bombay, Schindler’s List, Monsoon Wedding, Fire, Hajar Chaurasi ki Maa, Mr. & Mrs.Iyer, Amores Perros, Crash, The White Ribbon, The Lives of Others, Johnny Mad Dog and No Man’s Land which are not only made creatively but have also breathed life into particular subjects and characters that have had a major impact on human history.
My need and desire to make Films are similar.
What is your comment on the film industry in Nepal?
We, filmmakers/audience in Nepal, have everything except the courage to tell our own story, courage to explore our own kind of story telling or courage to accept that change in taste. It’s not that good films were not made. Films like Mukundo: Mask of Desire or Numafung: a beautiful flower, introduced Nepali cinema to international audience but failed to get audience at home.
But now time has changed. The traditional “mainstream” is no more mainstream now. A young film school graduate, Nischal Basnet has broken all records of business with his debut film Loot. Highway achieved World Premiere at one of the top film festivals of the world and created a huge wave even inside the country.
Recently another filmmaker Min Bhamhas travelled to Venice Film Festival with his short film Flute. Debutant filmmakers like Prachandaman Shrestha, Subarna Thapaare are coming up with their new films. Veteran filmmakers, Nabin Subba (director Numafung) and Tsering Rhitar Sherpa (director of Mukundo) are also coming up with their new films.
The year 2012 is very important year for us. It has already given us a lot. I am all-hopeful.
Tell us about your background. Also tell us a bit about the short films you have made before.
Filmmaking has never been just another profession for me. I have come to make films with an objective. When I first assisted Tsering Rhitar Sherpa for his feature Karma in 2005, I was working as an editor in a national daily newspaper for the arts page. I often had arguments with filmmakers who furiously called about the bad reviews their films got, as they normally were bad copies of Hindi films. These conversations often ended with them challenging me to make films myself. So I started getting interested in filmmaking. My first attempt at making a film on an original subject with a unique style was Chaukaith (Threshold), which earned me some success in 2008 and encouraged me to make a feature film. Now I have left journalism and have moved to filmmaking. I want to explore and contribute toward creating a unique identity of Nepali cinema, without blindly following or copying Bollywood or other film industries.
What are you working on next?
My next film is KaalBela- the story of Chandra, a Maoist combatant and Suraj, a policeman, who fought on opposite sides of the ‘People’s War’. Now thrown together under tragic circumstances in a spinal rehabilitation center, another phase of the war has just begun for them – the battle to move even a muscle, to reclaim the functions of body and mind, and to cure the demons that haunt their memories of war.