KATHMANDU, July 23: After rushing to the theater the first day that Highway released, a friend of mine seemed pretty depressed. He said, “People walked out at the interval.” This friend, an aspiring filmmaker, said he loved the movie, but it bothered him that the Nepali audience failed to understand the depth of the film.
For many of us, our introduction to ‘Highway’ was as a film funded by non-resident Nepalis, and one that had been selected in a major International film festival, a place where no Nepali film had ever gone.
Highway entered the 62nd Berlin Film Festival. The film premiered in the Panorama Category of the fest in February this year; it was the first time that any Nepali film qualified for the slot.
After postponing the date for release a few too many times, and a massive publicity that garnered much talk and drew an entire army of desperate audience to the theaters, the film finally hit the screen last Friday.
The social media has been abuzz with reactions to the film. The audience is clearly divided into two groups, the pro-Highway gang, who use adjectives like different, daring, and indulging and the anti Highway, who are calling it boring and confusing.
The plot of the film is not regular and neither is the presentation. Deepak Rauniyar uses a yellow overtone throughout, giving the film a jaundiced feel to represent our society that is plagued with sadness arising from political instability and hypocrisy.
While shaky shots define the uneasy bumpy rides of the Nepali Highway, the jump cuts, which remain persistent throughout the film, demonstrate style and tension build up in the story.
Every character in the film bears a burden of not only telling a tale but also represents a certain group in the society. Eelum Dixit, who explains to his mother that he is not possessed, plays a homosexual. Bhumika Shrestha is supposed to represent the life of a transgender.
Reecha Sharma is a sex worker, Dayahang Rai a lahure and so forth, and because none are the people next door, the film requires the audience to pay utmost attention.
That is where the confusion arises: many intertwined characters appear in random. That wouldn’t have been a problem had the film been a bit longer. Also, if the Highway had a longer run time, the audience would have been better able to relate to the characters.
And here, by no means can we point a finger at the director or the editor’s capability, but we can’t ignore the fact that ours is an audience who prefer staying for some good three hours in the theater blowing whistles and throwing popcorn.
Our audience isn’t used to putting random into order, and making sense of it after the movie is over. They believe in ‘paisa wasool’ whereby a film is expected to overwhelm them with emotions of happiness, grief, some action and at least some amount of comic relief. Now, a little comedy in the film surely wouldn’t look out of context after all life too has its share of laughs.
As for the editing part, it is absolutely alright for a director to chop off parts he thinks are unnecessary. But the four editors involved have made the film a strong breeze that destroys everything in its path. The audience is left to recover afterwards. Highway always insists an absolute attention from the audience.
The dialogues, the credit says is ‘improvised by actors’ and if that’s the case, it’s a great achievement on the actors’ and the director’s part. There are no reasons to complain as actors talk the everyday talk making it even more realistic.
Karma is fine, but to play an America return, we’d expect him to have command over spoken English. A scene where Karma and Shristi Ghimire speak to each other makes you realize that Shristi would have done better justice to the role.
As the modern, confused and in love runaway young girl, Shristi shines and she does it beautifully, not too bright and never dim. Dayahang Rai is a wonderful actor and he has proved it once again. He is desperate, witty and fits wonderfully in the role he’s been assigned and the film itself.
Other actors don’t have much to do. It’s never quite clear what’s wrong with Rabindra Mishra, who is qualified enough to operate but unable to hold his life together because of his attraction to a dressmaker’s dummy. Expressions Mishra comes up with are fantastic but sadly his dialogue delivery is pathetic.
Overall, Highway is bold and therefore unique. It is what Nepali cinema needed all this while, a film breaking the shackles of traditional storylines. This is sensible cinema that asks of audience’s participation. It’s a film about Bandh and the director has given it a similar feel.
At a time when we like to identify ourselves with the global audience, watching films from all over the world, how sensible is it for us to reject a film outright for being different. Aren’t we the ones who have declared to have had enough of the lead characters singing and dancing on some hillside on the outskirts of Kathmandu?
Haven’t we had enough of scripts shamelessly lifted from Hollywood and Indian films? It’s high time that we encourage movies that narrate stories of our times.
The verdict is that Highway is successful in creating a much needed discourse in Nepali cinema. A year ago, this would not have been a possibility. Highway is a good thing to have happened to the Nepali film industry, and a onetime view, even if only to encourage the new breed of young filmmakers, is definitely worth it.