The Man from Kathmandu: first ‘global Nepali film’ to release todayOn Wednesday evening, a frenzied crowd had gathered at Patan Durbar Square to welcome Indian acting legend Gulshan Grover. The ‘Bad Man’ of Bollywood, who has appeared in more than 400 Bollywood and Hollywood films, climbed up on a stage and ordered, “Gaana band karo”—turn off the music.
On Wednesday evening, a frenzied crowd had gathered at Patan Durbar Square to welcome Indian acting legend Gulshan Grover. The ‘Bad Man’ of Bollywood, who has appeared in more than 400 Bollywood and Hollywood films, climbed up on a stage and ordered, “Gaana band karo”—turn off the music. But the music continued. Grover raised his deep baritone and repeated the line, just like in the many films where he’s played the menacing antagonist. On cue, the music stopped.
Grover was in Patan to promote his latest film, The Man From Kathmandu, which releases on Friday, March 15. The film is not a Bollywood production but a Nepali one, and the first-of-its-kind, as it brings together an international cast with Grover from India; Hameed Sheikh from Pakistan; Jose Manuel from Puerto Rico; and Karma, Anna Sharma, Neer Shah and Mithila Sharma from Nepal. Produced by QFX’s Nakim Uddin and directed by Pema Dhondup, a Tibetan-American, it is a landmark production for the Nepali film industry. The film “will globalise a Nepali story”, being screened in 50 countries around the world, says Dhondup.
The Man from Kathmandu harkens back to an earlier era when the nascent Nepali film industry was cross-pollinated with actors and musicians from across the border. In the 60s and 70s, Indian playback singers like Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle performed numerous songs for Nepali films. In the 90s Amitabh Bachchan travelled to Jomsom to shoot Khuda Gawah and Sonu Nigam sang ‘Ukali Orali Gardai’ for the Nepali film Seemana. Then, of course, there was always Manisha Koirala. But lately, despite increasing globalisation, this kind of cultural exchange with India has noticeably lessened. The Man from Kathmandu is, thus, a welcome call back to the era of collaborations.
Director Dhondup, like the film, has a cross-cultural identity of his own. His family fled to Jomsom after China’s annexation of Tibet and then moved to Himachal Pradesh in India, where the director received his higher education. Dhondup moved again to Los Angeles in the US, where he’s been living for the past 15 years.
Dhondup holds a degree in marketing and wasn’t really interested in film until Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust drama Schindler’s List changed his perspective on cinema.
“It opened a new world to me, showing me the potential of the art form,” Dhondup says. “It changed my opinion about what I wanted to do in life. The film beautifully blends commercial ambitions and artistic purpose.”
This was in 1996. Three years later, Dhondup was studying film at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Cinematic Arts on a Fulbright scholarship. He has since worked on several documentaries, short and feature films—2004’s We’re No Monks being the most notable.
Dhondup says he had never paid any attention to the Nepali film industry until he came across 2009’s horror-drama Kagbeni, which changed his perspective. Since, he had wanted to make a film set in Mustang. He was looking for a way to contact the producers of Kagbeni when an industry insider, at a party in Los Angeles, assured that he’d connect Dhondup to Nakim Uddin, who had invested in Kagbeni. When the two finally met in 2014, Dhondup proposed a film set in Mustang, which didn’t materialise, but the two were certain to collaborate on a film that would be “global output from Nepal.”
Like it’s cast, the plot of The Man from Kathmandu traverses borders and identities. The film follows a Nepali half-Hindu, half-Muslim man based in the US, his return to Nepal, and how he reconnects with his roots, the culture and lifestyle of his hometown, and with himself.
“The producer and I wanted a film that would be commercially-oriented but also not short on artistic merit,” says Dhondup. “A film that would expose Nepal and its heritage to the world. That’s the principle we’re working under.”
By bringing in actors with a strong fan base in their respective countries, the filmmakers have tried to tap into an international market, says Dhondup. And despite its limited budget, the film has attempted to match the technical finesse of other international productions.
Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether the film lives up to the ambitions of its filmmakers. Commercial success and critical acclaim notwithstanding, Dhondup hopes to continue working with Nepali producers and ultimately, create a close group of directors, writers and film technicians, so that they can work in tandem like a Hollywood studio.
Now that Dhondup’s seen a few more Nepali films, he sees promise, he says. Commenting on the recent film Bulbul, he says, “The film is still not quite sound technically but it’s humane and moving. It is dramas like this that we need to be making.”
“Because If we don’t tell our story, then who will?”
The Man from Kathmandu releases in Kathmandu on Friday, March 15.