‘Paaniphoto’ is a recommended watch- but with a note of cautionThe film is Khagendra Lamichhane’s directorial debut, and he has made many interesting choices that work in the film’s favour.
(The review contains spoilers of the film)
Khagendra Lamichhane started his career as an actor in the Nepali theatre industry. According to his website, Khagendra is "the most celebrated theatre personality of his generation". He has written and starred in multiple theatre plays and has won many accolades. Lamichhane also helms film projects as a writer and leading man. Prior to ‘Paaniphoto’, Khagendra’s filmography included celebrated films like 'Talakjung Vs Tulke' (2014) and 'Pashupati Prasad' (2016).
As a writer, Lamichhane writes ‘everyman’ stories. Popular in literature, the everyman is a stock fiction character. They are ordinary and humble protagonists whose benign conduct helps the audiences relate to them. Think Lamichhane’s Tulke from ‘Talakjung VS Tulke’ eating momo with his bare hands or the titular character from ‘Pashupati Prasad’ frequently stating that he is not a ‘cinema hero’. Lamichhane has always portrayed himself as a recognisable simpleton who deals with everyday problems just like us.
For a few films, the audiences accepted him as an everyman and turned his films into hits. However, as Lamichhane’s celebrity grew, his latter films couldn’t emulate the former’s glory. It was as if the everyman trope stopped working for him when he became famous. His latter films, ‘Dhanapati’ (2017), ‘Damaruko Dandibiyo’ (2018), and ‘Jai Bholey’ (2018), were all critical and commercial failures.
The last time I saw Lamichhane in person was right before the release of ‘Paaniphoto’ (2022). He was seated at a corner table of Bodhi Books, a cafe, and he wore a visor cap and avoided eye contact. It felt like he had too many things going on in his mind. I now realise that his back was literally against the wall.
At the time, Lamichhane was attending press junkets promoting ‘Paaniphoto’ while ‘Dokh’, a film based on Maoist insurgency, had just been released to empty cinema halls. Also, to add more pressure to an already arduous task, he was making tweaks to the film score, finally completing the film just two days before release. ‘Paaniphoto’ was released on July 29th and has since struggled to attract movie-goers.
The film begins with two declarations. First, the film is inspired by true events, and second, it is based on a play also written by Lamichhane. Even before the film’s first frame, you can tell that this is a personal film.
‘Paaniphoto’ introduces us to Maiya (Menuka Pradhan) and her husband Chandan (Anup Baral), both awaiting the return of their son, Krishna, who had disappeared during the Maoist insurgency almost 15-20 years ago. Chandan doesn’t think Krishna will return, but Maiya still dreams (literally) of Krishna’s return. She is often scolded or assaulted by Chandan for hoping.
Radha (Malika Mahat), Maiya’s confidante, also believes that Krishna will return. When Maiya learns of disappeared people returning home, Radha helps her travel to far-flung districts to meet the returnees to ask about Krishna. But as always, Maiya returns home disappointed and miserable.
Thuldai (Prakash Ghimire), Chandan’s elder brother, believes Krishna is dead, and he thinks his ancestors have cursed him because the family hasn’t performed Krishna’s last rites. Chandan also agrees and prepares for a cremation. However, when Padam (Lamichhane ) returns home, Chandan abandons his plans. He is hopeful because Padam and Krishna had disappeared together, and now that one is back, the other might also return.
Structurally, Lamichhane’s story feels well thought-out, which is why I recommend this film to audiences. Chadan and Maiya’s sequences are repetitive and episodic. They get news about the returnees, chase after the person, locate them, and interview them, only to end up feeling even more miserable. The vicious cycle of hope continues. Compared to Chandan and Maiya, other characters’ lives are not cyclic. For example, Manubhai (Buddhi Tamang) is seen leaving his home, moving to Kathmandu and settling there. Other characters’ lives also progress linearly, while Chandan and Maiya are stuck in a cycle.
However, be aware that Lamichhane’s writing is not perfect. His female character, especially Radha, has problems. All of Radha’s actions and motivations can be summarised by one regressive statement–‘she wants to marry Krishna when he returns home’. The script is also hellbent on selling this notion to us, making her say out loud that she has no other ambitions, dreams, and desires. In the film’s climax, Radha even transforms into a bride and steals Krishna’s only photo.
Radha is not a one-off example. When you rewatch Lamichhane’s filmography, you will find multiple examples of problematic women characters. In ‘Talakjung VS Tulke’, Fuli (Reecha Sharma) wrongly frames Tulke for raping her and ousts him from his village home. In 'Pashupati Prasad’, the titular character is a paedophile who lusts after a young school-going girl. In ‘Dhanapati’, the eponymous character is a misogynist. Since men like Tulke, Pashupati Prasad, and Dhanapati are the protagonists, we are asked to sympathise with them and to perceive women the same way they would.
However, credit where it’s due, Malika Mahat, the actor playing the problematic Radha, shines in her role. She is my favourite actor in the film. She is effortless in her natural delivery and is a powerful performer. Lamichhane directs her in such a way that she demands our full attention, but we sigh because Lamichhane, the writer, has given her so little.
‘Paaniphoto’ is Lamichhane’s directorial debut, and he has made many interesting choices that work in the film’s favour. For example, Lamichhane chooses to show the flashback events from Krishna’s point of view–with the camera acting as Krishna. We only see Krishna’s photo and never the actual person. Also, the choice to capture the foggy atmosphere seems to signify that Chandan and Maiya can’t see beyond the present, which is quite commendable for a first-time director.
The director should also be credited for trusting to use location sound (sync sound) rather than dubbing. I've always felt dubbing ruins many actors' performances, whereas sync sound enhances them. And sound designer/mixer Kishor Acharya proves me right. Kishor is also well supported by Pushpa-Sangam's calm and melancholic background scores.
This film’s editing, however, falls short. The film loses pace right after the interval, and the runtime is padded with montages and time lapses that feel random. Nimesh Shrestha, the veteran editor, also uses excessive fade-outs and fade-ins, which takes us away from the story. The film is shot by Deepak Bajracharya; while his choice of shots is commendable, many of Bajracharya’s movements seem unmotivated.
The biggest chink in Lamichhane’s directorial armour is his casting choice. It feels like Lamichhane’s vanity took the better of him when he chose to cast himself as Padam. Not only that, he designs a superhero-esque introduction for Padam, a shot filled with perfect lighting, music, and slow motion, not unlike how Rajamouli introduces his heroes in ‘RRR’ (2022).
Now, details like these are essential to preserve a film’s verisimilitude. The audience chooses to believe that the world they see on the screen is true as long as the film doesn’t break its own pre-established rules. For example, we are asked to believe that famous celebrities Anup Baral and Menuka Prahan are husband and wife, and we adjust to the notion. But, when makers shoehorn Lamichhane, also a renowned celebrity, and ask us to see him as old as Pradhan’s son, this breaks verisimilitude.
‘Paaniphoto’ is not a perfect film, but it has one of the most excellent endings in recent Nepali films. Lamichhane ends the film abruptly and ambiguously. He leaves Chandan, his protagonist, with hope, leaving the audience to ponder the film long after the final credit roll.
Despite the film’s problems, it is still worth recommending, and movie-goers should give the first-time director a chance. Lamichhane is an interesting case study of how one maker attempts to tell stories in different media- theatre, radio, books, and cinema. Knowledge like this will help Nepali cinema move forward.
Besides a few casual greetings, I haven’t had the opportunity to talk to Lamichhane in person. But we did speak online on a Gauthali Talks episode. At the time, he assured us that he would put more thought into his writing–in depicting society and writing women characters. I had believed him then, and I still do hope he will stand by his words. Just like his main characters in ‘Paaniphoto’–Chandan and Maiya–all I have is hope.