Cinema beyond entertainmentCritically acclaimed filmmaker Tsering Rhitar Sherpa is known for exploring different genres of filmmaking and excelling in each of them.
One of Nepal’s most critically acclaimed filmmakers, Tsering Rhitar Sherpa, has spent two and a half decades making films.
He debuted as a documentary filmmaker in 1994, and his first feature film, ‘Mukundo (Mask of Desire)’, released in 2000, was Nepal’s submission to the 73rd Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film.
After years of oscillating between feature films and documentaries, in 2015, Sherpa created and directed ‘Singha Durbar’, a TV series, thus widening his filmmaking horizons.
Sherpa has since teetered between fiction and non-fiction filmmaking.
He talked with Post's Pinki Sris Rana on his filmmaking journey, challenges in Nepal's film landscape, and the way forward. Excerpts:
Three decades ago, it was not common for people from your community to opt for a career in filmmaking. What made you get into filmmaking?
Like every other child, I loved watching films. But it was while attending the literature classes during my undergraduate years I really started to understand film as a serious art form and not just for entertainment. This interest led me to opt for filmmaking as my major subject for my master’s degree.
You have made documentaries, feature films, and most recently, a TV series. As a creator, how are these three genres different from each other?
I consider myself lucky to have the opportunity of exploring different genres. But with each work that I take on, I want to make content that I would like to see. Although the three genres are all a form of visual media with characters, cohesive narratives, and their own gratification, each has a different making process.
Filming documentaries can be challenging compared to other genres, as the narrative is never in your control. We have to be flexible and make a lot of decisions on the field itself. And unlike other filmmaking genres, the camera becomes part of the narrative in documentaries. In contrast, feature films are easier to make because we just have to execute what's already written. But portraying the story in a limited time frame is definitely a challenge. Similarly, in TV series, say in half an hour or so, we have to design the episode in such a way that we can present interesting content without giving away much. And that is a challenge in itself.
Your first feature film, ‘Mukundo’, was Nepal's submission for the Oscars. After such recognition, how pressured do you feel while making new feature films?
In festivals around the globe, ‘Mukundo’ was well received and appreciated, but it did not do well at the box office. Rather than making films that are different from others or my own, my interest has always been in exploring new things, and it is the challenges that come with doing so that have kept me going. Even to this day, I still get anxious on the day of my film release. Creating something new comes with immense pressure, but that pressure has done me more good than harm.
How do you think Nepal’s filmmaking landscape has changed in your nearly three decades as a filmmaker?
In the last few years, film literacy among Nepali audiences has grown. This is because people now have more access to good content worldwide, thanks to OTT platforms like Netflix. This exposure has meant that today’s Nepali audience demand better movies from Nepali filmmakers. However, the narratives of Nepali films that are being made haven't changed much. I think the pressure to recover the investment made for the film is a major reason that similar storylines are used even today.
Twenty years ago, when I wanted to make ‘Mukundo’, it was funded by the Japanese channel NHK. ‘Mukundo’ was an experimental cinema that was relatively unconventional for the period in which it was being made . The Nepali government provided no funding back then, and it still does not get involved today. If only the government shouldered the responsibility of proper funding, Nepali filmmakers would not be simply limiting themselves to the stories that sell.
The other major problem is the limited market. During the lockdown, when our industry was severely affected, I started uploading my films on YouTube in the hopes of making some money out of it. In India, independent filmmakers can sustain themselves if the niche market watches the films because the market is quite big. But in Nepal, that isn't the case. So, to move forward, the government here has to play a role. It should start acknowledging film as artwork and start investing in it.
In many of your films, the subject is the Himalayan region's lifestyle, culture, and tradition, which rarely gets represented in Nepal's mainstream content-making scene. Since you hail from the area, share with us the responsibility you feel making content based on the region.
Of course, you feel a lot responsible for how you are portraying the culture. When you bring stories from your own experience, the content is more sincere and is given the depth it requires. There were enough documentaries made by foreign filmmakers on Sherpa climbing the mountains. But when we tell our own stories of our communities, we can easily untangle minor issues that hold grave complexities. But sometimes, we can also become defensive regarding our content due to our affiliation. We could also play the victim card. That is why a filmmaker must learn to stay close and, at the same time, be objective.
It’s common for documentary filmmakers to make social impact documentaries. But even with your non-fiction content, you seem to explore social issues. Why is that?
For me, the fiction and non-fiction genres are very similar. To be a good filmmaker, regardless of the genres, you must be socially aware. It is okay for people to take cinema as entertainment, but we as filmmakers need to bear ethical considerations since this form of media has a monumental impact on people. Since I belong to the school of thought that sees cinema as a mixture of entertainment and social responsibility, my content always has a social message.
Director, screenwriter or film producer, which role do you prefer the most?
My main interest lies in directing and writing. A film producer is instead a compulsion for me. I only take the role of a producer when I come across good stories but don’t find people willing to make financial investment. In such films, I end up being a producer so that the directors do not have to take on the burden of managing everything by themselves.