Entertaining realitiesApil Bista cut his teeth directing 2016’s Jhumkee, a slow-burning drama set mostly in a Tharu village in the Tarai during the late period of the Maoist insurgency. Most of the characters in the film are the oppressed, all quietly getting on with their lives, resigned to their circumstances. They speak their own dialect, and they look unremarkable—they act naturally.
Apil Bista cut his teeth directing 2016’s Jhumkee, a slow-burning drama set mostly in a Tharu village in the Tarai during the late period of the Maoist insurgency. Most of the characters in the film are the oppressed, all quietly getting on with their lives, resigned to their circumstances. They speak their own dialect, and they look unremarkable—they act naturally.
The film was written by Ram Babu Gurung, who is known for bringing to the screen stories from the country’s rural belt with films such as the Kabaddi series and Taandro. Jhumkee received positive critical response when it was released, with reviewers calling it a film “that keeps the audience on a cliff-hanger” and one that “makes an unassuming political statement”. The film announced the entry of an exciting new talent in cinema, someone trying to find his own visual language.
Bista’s style was starkly visible in the film—there was little dialogue, long wide-angle shots, and no ‘hero’ as such to speak of. The emotions were mostly restrained, never loud. Bista is another significant addition to the growing list of Nepali directors, who are veering away from Nepali cinema’s Bollywood-inspired flamboyance and attempting a more ‘realistic’ take.
Bista’s new film, Kagazpatra is releasing this Friday and is the first film that the director wrote himself. It is the outcome of Bista’s long and sustained observation of a certain trend—Nepalis flying abroad for work on a ‘dependent visa’.
“Though I can’t say if it’s good or bad, it certainly is an alarming one,” says Bista. “There are both good and bad sides to it. Maybe it’s good on a personal level, but looking at it from a wider lens, it’s alarming.”
Bista has always been an avid traveller, trotting through parts of South Asia, the Americas and Europe. It was during one of those trips to the west that he started keeping a vigil on this trend.
“I encountered all sorts of people and cases. While some have done well on a personal level, others have faced much trouble once they reach their destination countries. Feuds and abuse are all too frequent among such couples,” he says.
From its trailer, Kagazpatra looks darkly comical. Two characters, who look mismatched as a couple, are attempting to fly abroad. They are clearly looking for greener pastures and have chosen an unnatural way to get there.
“This is my attempt at telling a story that we should care about,” says Bista. “I want to show something from my perspective and point at a truth that we should care about and be aware. My aim is to do so while providing entertainment.”
Even though the issue at hand appears to be an entrenched, national trend, Bista says he made this film for himself first, not to impart a social message or to uncover truth. “I make my films for entertainment,” Bista says. “That’s the only rule. First, I have to be able to enjoy the movie myself, and then if the audience enjoys it, I’m happy.”
His new film too has plenty of silent moments in it because he himself is a quiet person, says Bista. “A film is a direct projection of a director’s mind. You can’t hide from what you’re thinking. To make a film is to stand naked in front of the audience,” he says.
Every good filmmaker is a cinephile at heart and Bista is no different. When he was young, Bista would make secretive jaunts to the theatre. “I once travelled from Tansen, where I was studying then, all the way to Pokhara overnight to watch Seemaana, a Rajesh Hamal film,” he says. “Hamal was an absolute favourite. There had to be an extended final fight sequence, and Hamal had to beat the antagonist bloody. That was fun.”
Bista was born in the mid-western district of Pyuthan, and he would often visit Nepalgunj and to India with his late father, who was a medical professional. His father too loved movies, and during those trips across the border, the father-son duo would watch the latest Bollywood offerings. Both of them liked the films of Ajay Devgn, Akshay Kumar and Sunil Shetty, Bista says.
“Watching a film should be a visceral experience, you have to cry and laugh and feel the pain of the characters,” the director says. “And most Bollywood films provided that.”
Bista professes to having watched Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan’s 1984 classic Sharaabi more than 60 times. “I loved that the hero was rich. I wanted to be just like him. I wanted to drink expensive brandies like he did,” Bista says.
Watching all these films, Bista’s own desire to become a hero someday took root. “My friends would encourage me because I supposedly had the good looks suited for on-screen heroes. And I wanted to become a hero as well,” says Bista.
Once he came to the capital for higher studies, he joined the now-defunct Institute of TV and Performing Arts, where he took a course in direction. “As time passes, you need to know your limitations. While previously I wanted to become a hero, later I realised what I wanted was to become the captain of the ship. I was more interested in making the actual film,” he says.
After completing his course, Bista moved to Mumbai and with a little help from some friends in the sprawling Bollywood industry, managed to get a job at Ram Gopal Varma’s studio. He worked in the casting and direction departments for five years, from 2004-09, before returning to Nepal.
“By then, I had already realised that I wanted to be a storyteller. I wanted to entertain the audience,” Bista says. In 2010, although he wanted to start directing, he ended up producing Manoj Pandit’s Dasdhunga. It was only in 2015, more than five years later, that Ram Babu Gurung, a close friend of Bista’s, offered him a script. Gurung’s story had the “quintessential vibe of village life,” says Bista.
No song and dance
Veteran theatre actor Sarita Giri, who plays one of the lead roles in Kagazpatra, says that Bista is a clear-headed director. “Though I have known him in person for over a decade, this is the first time we’ve worked together,” Giri says. “He’s a focussed director who understands his characters intimately but doesn’t shy away from letting the actor improvise their roles. He also likes to take the matters in his own hands, without depending too much on assistant directors.”
To entertain is by default, but there are different ways to do it. “A film should engage just the same as a video game does. You have to be excited for as long as you watch the film,” Bista says.
There are various ways to entertain, says Bista. “Some might do so by making their characters dance or by engaging them in quarrels. But I am more interested in characters who have no interest in travelling to scenic hills and dancing,” he says. “I’m interested in the ones who are consumed by everyday existence.”
Written and directed by Apil Bista, Kagazpatra, featuring Najir Husen, Shilpa Maskey, Sarita Giri, Bholaraj Sapkota, Lokendra Lekhak, Jivan Bhattrai, Laxmi Bardewa and Arjesh Regmi, is releasing today, March 22.