Regression or redemption?For over 15 years, the TV series Tito Satya has followed the same, safe pattern—present social issues with comic overtones by exaggerating everything, typecasting characters, and adding comical sound effects to reaction shots along with an occasional laugh track.
For over 15 years, the TV series Tito Satya has followed the same, safe pattern—present social issues with comic overtones by exaggerating everything, typecasting characters, and adding comical sound effects to reaction shots along with an occasional laugh track. Nepali television audiences have been taken with this style of presentation because of the prevalence of similarly-formatted shows like Jire Khursani, starring Mundre (Jeetu Nepal), and Meri Bassai starring Magne Buda (Kedar Prasad Ghimire), all on prime time television.
If you remove the laugh track but keep everything else the same, from the stereotyped characters to the hackneyed typical jokes, you get Chhakka Panja, the film. And not just one but a trilogy, with each iteration going on to make millions. Nepali audiences, it seems, can’t get enough of the Chhakka Panja series.
It all began when Deepak Raj Giri and Deepa Shree Niraula, known affectionately as Deepak-Deepa, decided to migrate from TV to cinema. They didn’t just bring over their show, Tito Satya, to the big screen, but all of prime time Nepali television. The Deepak-Deepa team has since made five different films with three directors and all five have been certified hits. Chhakka Panja 3, their third venture together, has made more money than any Nepali film in history. Chhakka Panja 3, the latest installment, is still playing in theatres, well into its third week.
While the first two films were basically extended jokes at expense of migrant workers, especially their families left behind, the third installment tackles the country’s education system. The film begins at a government school where an event is being held in the presence of the education minister. In the middle of the programme, a little girl abruptly stands and speaks up, saying that her school shouldn’t be celebrated. She says that her teachers are useless and that there is no English teacher at her school. This scares the appointed president of the school management committee, Kaji, played by Nir Shah, as he has been politically appointed. He calls on his estranged son, Raja (Deepak Raj Giri), to help resolve the issue and win back favour from the locals.
Meanwhile, an English-language television journalist, played by Deepika Prasain, who is also the daughter of the appointed headmaster, played by Shiva Hari Paudel, decides to selflessly take up the vacant English teacher’s job to make the school better. However, local politics gets in her way and inexplicably, she is left with no option but to marry Raja, the enemy’s son. However, things don’t go as planned at least not until a montage where Raja changes his mind and realises all he’s done wrong. Predictably, in the end, it can only be Deepak Raj Giri who saves the day.
The other characters in the film help move the plot along and except for a few forgettable song sequences, the pace of the film is quite brisk. Giri had teamed up with Abhimanyu Nirabi, who is perhaps the most clichéd and melodramatic writer in Nepali cinema, to pen the script for the first Chhakka Panja. Two films down and Giri has learned a lot from Nirabi. This time, as the sole writer, Giri weaves a South Indian-esque film, with extreme melodrama, over-the-top acting, and all the clichés in the book. There are regressive jokes on Madhesi identity, fat shaming, heightshaming, and a distasteful take on professional women (which you can also see in the trailer). But the level of self-awareness in the writing must be commended. Many times, Deepika Prasain calls Deepak Raj Giri’s Raja ‘uncle’ commenting on the age difference between the two actors, and all other ‘superstars’ who romance young women.
The writers have managed to include all the running gags of the Chhakka Panja series. Kedar Prasad Ghimire, stands out, just like in the other films, with him and his meat-loving mother providing the best laughs. Ghimire, along with Jeetu Nepal, is credited as dialogue writer and it seems he has taken the liberty of providing himself with the best laughs. Concerning the writing, what works for the film is that the screenplay is exhaustive—since so many things are happening at the same time, the audience doesn’t get bored.
Chhakka Panja 3 has been executive produced by a host of major TV personalities, including the cinematographer, Purushottam Pradhan. And it is Pradhan who is responsible for the film’s South Indian aesthetic, with sweeping pans, low angles and movement shots from every possible angle. Pradhan has mastered his art, which was seen as experimental and groundbreaking in Loot six years ago, but it hasn’t aged well.
The primary issue of the Chhakka Panja series, apart from its script, aesthetic and characters, is that each film raises a certain social problem but never provides it with any meaningful depth. The issue is only there to provide a semblance of social realism. In this film, a caste issue is raised through Janajati Buddhi Tamang’s character who falls for Brahmin Swastima Khadka’s character. Swastima’s brother Mundre gets into a muddy fight with Buddhi, but their confrontation remains unresolved and only acts as a pretext for the film’s primary climax.
This is reminiscent of the first Chhakka Panja, where Buddhi Tamang’s character makes his wife call all the men of the village ‘brother’ in an attempt to prevent her from being unfaithful. These resolutions are cheap and unearned. In Chhakka Panja 3, there is no clear resolution of the ‘problem’ that is raised. Maybe it’s intentional, perhaps the makers are only attempting at discourse, like they have been doing for the last 15 years.
With the spotty box office system, the only immediate measure of success is the number of shows a film gets as the days go by, and Chhakka Panja 3, currently in its third week, is likely to get more shows than a new release. The team behind the film is commercially viable. They have not only brought their TV audiences to theaters, but with five consecutive hits (Chha Ekan Chha, Wada No 6, and the three Chhakka Panja films), they have created a Nepali franchise equivalent to Hollywood’s superhero blockbusters.
However, this team has failed to recognise the responsibility that such power brings. If you watch Tito Satya episodes on YouTube today, you will find that they are extremely regressive. The number of sexual innuendos and double entendres will leave you cringing. You’re left wondering how this was acceptable to Nepali families at that time. Now, even after so many years and multiple blockbusters, they can’t seem to let go of their old ways.
Deepak Raj Giri, a writer for all of the Chhakka Panja films, however, seems like he is on a path to redemption. While the first Chhakka Panja went so far as to condone slapping your wife because Hitler did it, the new film is comparatively subtler. The makers are settling into a stride and they seem to understand the kind of film they are making. It might do everybody well if they now took a moment to self-reflect and realised their moral and civic duties as torchbearers of Nepal’s mainstream commercial cinema.