Mumbai

Till the sun and moon exist

a story of strife:The film follows the lives of characters in a mountain village after the Maoist civil war. — photo: special arrangement  

Deepak Rauniyar studied management in Nepal, but later became a journalist for a Nepali publication in Biratnagar. In Kathmandu, he reviewed films for a national daily. As a critic he belonged to a group of young reviewers who were always critical of Nepal’s commercial film industry that often plagiarises Bollywood and Korean movies.

“Sometimes the producers would send gangs to beat up critics in newspaper offices,” said Rauniyar recently. “There were many arguments and the producers would challenge us to make films ourselves.” Rauniyar moved to writing radio plays for BBC’s Nepali service, and after two short films, he directed his first feature Highway . The film premiered in February 2012 at the Berlin International Film Festival: a first for a Nepali film.

Highway is the story about a bus journey: a trip from the eastern part of Nepal, near Darjeeling, to Kathmandu. But due to political turmoil in the country, the bus is held up a few times in the middle of the national highway. Rauniyar wanted to break the stereotypical thinking about Nepal, that of a beautiful country with mountains ranges. He hoped that through his film he would be able to show another perspective of Nepal — a country where life is no different than any other part of the world.

The 36-year-old director shot the film with a small crew and some money he raised. But then his life took a nice little turn. Through a set of Indian friends, Rauniyar met film producer Joslyn Barnes, who is actor Danny Glover’s business partner.

Barnes and Glover saw Rauniyar’s rough-cut and invited him to New York for post-production. They raised approximately $34,000 through Kickstarter (the entire film cost $100,000). Glover made an appeal for funds in a short video. Rauniyar spent the next five months in New York supervising the film’s post-production. This year, Rauniyar’s second feature, White Sun, played at the Venice Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival. The film is part of the line-up at the Jio MAMI 18th Mumbai Film Festival With Star.

Rauniyar spoke to The Hindu about his new film and his evolution as a filmmaker. Edited excerpts:

What is White Sun about?

It is about the lives of characters living in a mountain village in Nepal after the Maoist civil war. It is set sometime in 2015, when the Constituent Assembly was in a state of flux after the peace process. At this time, an old man dies. He was the village chief and once supported the monarchy. He has two sons: one joined the Maoists and the other the army. The son who joined the guerillas comes back for the first time, just in time for the funeral. The dead body is a metaphor for the old constitution and the king’s regime, overthrown after 10 years of civil war. Just as Nepal struggled to establish a new government and constitution, the film’s characters struggle to get the old man’s corpse out of the house. They could take an easier way out, but they don’t because of old beliefs. They choose to make life harder for themselves.

So are the two brothers the main protagonists?

There are actually five characters and their interrelationship forms the narrative.

I loved the clip you shared about the Maoist brother and the little girl who walks up to him asking whether he is her father.

Yes, that will become clear with the film.

Had you started writing this script after the success of Highway ?

I had a draft of White Sun , but it was a very different film then. I had originally set it in a hospital. I left that script and made Highway . I was looking for a co-production when I met Joslyn Barnes and Danny Glover. After making the rounds at festivals with Highway , I started thinking of this story again. The political scenario had changed, so I wanted to update the story. I changed the setting to a village. I approached David Barker, who had edited Highway, to co-write the script of White Sun . We started in early 2013.

I know you keep going back to Nepal. Did you feel the need to leave New York and be in Nepal to write the script?

I had to go to find the location in the mountain village, so I could place the characters there. We found an ideal location even when there weren’t roads there.

And you shot the film after the earthquake?

The first village we found was close to Kathmandu. But it was wiped out in the earthquake. So I went back and found another appropriate village, but it was eight hours by road from Kathmandu, plus two hours of walking. We hired porters to carry our equipment. We needed 10 people to carry one generator.

In the clip I watched, the mountains looked rugged. It must have been difficult to walk there.

I wanted to mostly use a hand-held camera to feel the physical efforts of the characters. I didn’t want the feeling of sitting back and watching the characters. I wanted the audience to experience walking with them. So I was very selective about the search for the ideal mountain path when the funeral procession goes down towards the river. Soon after we started shooting, the blockade of essential supplies from India began. And it went on for months on end. There was no fuel, no cooking gas. So all the cooking was done using firewood. We also bought fuel in the black market.

Where does the title mean?

It refers to the white sun in the Nepali flag. It signifies the hope that Nepal will last as long as sun and the moon exist.

How did you go about the casting?

We had a hard time casting for the children and older people. My wife Asha Magrati [who plays a role in the film] helped a lot in the process as she is a theatre director and acting teacher. So we started talking about it while I was writing the script. And each time we went to Nepal, we would intensify our search.

You took the film project to Cannes for the market section, right?

In 2014, it was in the L’Atelier co-production market, where they match film-makers with potential distributors, financiers and sales agents. The sessions last until 1 p.m. and then you are free to go watch movies.

And the funding for the film, where did it come from?

It was mixed. Some of it came from Tribeca and the Asian Cultural Council. We got some equity funding from Switzerland, and then the Netherlands Film Fund, the Doha Film Institute and the Hubert Balls Fund stepped in. Last year, one producer from Monaco came on board.

But Joslyn Barnes was the hands-on producer?

Yes, she and I worked together. In fact, this time she was a part of the team from the beginning. Danny Glover is one of the executive producers.

How have you grown as a filmmaker since Highway ? What have you learned from your experiences?

My filmmaking has changed a lot in terms of storytelling. When I shot Highway , I was just angry that our cinema was not representing our society. We were just making copies of bad Bollywood films. So I took a Canon 5D and made the film with an investment from a doctor. It was only after I shot it that I began to look for post-production money. Before I made White Sun , I went to the TIFF Talent Lab for directors, where Danis Tanović was my mentor, the Rotterdam Lab, and the Berlinale Talents Lab. All these opportunities gave me access and exposure to world cinema. I feel I have grown as a film-maker. I wouldn’t have had these chances if I had stayed back in Nepal.

What is the state of Nepali cinema now? How many films does Nepal produce in a year?

Nepal makes more than 100 films every year. These are still commercial films, inspired by Bollywood, but things are changing. Digital technology has made film-making much more accessible and younger people are entering the industry. So there are some fresh ideas being explored. People are making thrillers, comedies, and films with social themes.

Are there are other Nepali films playing at international film festivals?

After Highway, a few more films have reached international festivals. Last year, my friend Mir Bahadur Bham’s The Black Hen played at the Venice International Film Critics Week. Another film, Subarna Thapa’s Sungoro, played in the World Film Festival in Montreal. White Sun is now the fourth feature to travel abroad.

Are you less angry now?

Yes, but we still have no official support from the government in Nepal. Instead, the government is stepping in with strange rules: they only want film school graduates to direct films and a young film-maker can only produce a film in collaboration with a senior producer. It is censorship in a different way.

The author is a New York-based freelance writer


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