Saili stands out as a contemporary film, but its biggest problem is that the titular character has no agencyThat aside, Saili comes with its own set of expectations. The music video never explained too much, thus engaging our imaginations and involving us emotionally by demanding the audience participate. Adapting a five-minute song into a feature-length film is a hefty task, but we do expect our intelligence and emotions to be as engaged. But alas.
The music video for the song ‘Saili’, featuring Gaurav Pahari and Menuka Pradhan as a married couple who separate because one of them has to go abroad, has close to 20 million views on Youtube. The video tackles migration in such a nuanced way that the lyrics, music, and images resonate with you long after. Banking on this immense popularity, the video has been made into a film, featuring the same actors, setting, and theme. But the film, unfortunately, is not as moving or as thought provoking as the song.
Don’t get me wrong; this movie is not terrible by any stretch. At a time when Nepali films are as dismal as they are, Saili stands out. It presents a dose of reality that will please an audience fed up with glossier fares that provide little substance. Saili has substance, but it also has shortcomings that should be looked upon as opportunities for future filmmakers, especially writer-director Ram Babu Gurung.
Ram Babu Gurung is one of those rare Nepali filmmakers who explores similar themes in every movie he helms. His films are set in hilly villages, with a flawed lead who wants love in their life. In the end, they don’t get the girl they want, but the girl they deserve.
Gurung is comfortable with his craft. In his last three films, he’s worked with the same team of technicians, who I’m certain can predict his preferences without putting in too much effort. You can expect Shailendra D Karki on the camera, Nimesh Shrestha as the editor, Uttam Neupane designing and mixing sound, and Rohit Shakya as the composer. The team serves the director’s purpose to such an extent that every Ram Babu Gurung film looks, sounds and feels the same.
That aside, Saili comes with its own set of expectations. The music video never explained too much, thus engaging our imaginations and involving us emotionally by demanding the audience participate. Adapting a five-minute song into a feature-length film is a hefty task, but we do expect our intelligence and emotions to be as engaged. But alas.
The film starts with Pitamber (Pahari) who is immediately love-struck when he sees Saili (Pradhan), and impulsively confesses his interest in a quirky letter. Saili too starts falling for Pitamber, but her father (Maotse Gurung) doesn’t agree to their union. Pitamber’s father (Prakash Adhikari) owes Saili’s father money, and the latter sees this ‘love’ as a scam to not pay the debt.
One stormy night, aided by his friend Birman (Dayahang Rai), Pitamber barges into Saili’s room and asks her to elope.
The two run away and Saili’s angry father reports this to the police, who arrest Pitamber. Saili herself borrows money from Kheduwa (Lokendra Lekhak) and pays back her father, which gets Pitamber out of police custody. Now to pay back Kheduwa’s debt, Pitamber attempts to go abroad. But he cannot do so because of a technicality in his citizenship. And so, Saili volunteers to go abroad instead.
The film subverts the song premise. The wife going away instead of the husband is a welcome twist. While the song had the couple crying at each end of a telephone call, Gurung shows the very same couple fighting. He makes the husband useless and the wife the breadwinner of the family. Saili not
waiting for her husband’s approval to prove her worth is a welcome development that contrasts the patriarchal mindsets of many contemporary Nepali films.
However, Saili’s problem lies not with the story, but with its script.
The first problem is with the narrative pace. It’s a slow burner that takes a really long time to get to the point. We’re already told from the trailers that Saili and Pitamber elope after falling in love, but Gurung takes the entire first half and even some of the second half to get there.
Adding to this lethargy are scenes that are either clichés, or are repetitive and redundant, especially in the first half. For instance, every time Pitamber and Birman talk about Saili, the same thing happens—Pitamber is unsure about their love and Birman assures him that Saili is the woman for him. Again, every time we see Pitamber’s and Saili’s fathers together, the scene is always about ‘rin’ (debt). As an exercise when you watch Saili, try counting the number of times ‘rin’ is uttered in the film. You’ll lose count!
Finally, and most importantly, Saili, the titular character, has no agency in her own story. The entire story is told through Pitamber’s perspective as he is the only character that gets a visible arc. Pitamber’s story arc goes like this—Pitamber ogles at Saili; he sends her love letters, and sings an eveteasing song, ‘Pyat pyate’, to woo her; he convinces her to elope; when Saili is going abroad, his ego is hurt and he becomes an alcoholic, even attempting to elope with another girl. For what feels like an eternity, we wait for him to find catharsis and abandon his ego. We spend so much of the runtime with him that the filmmakers should just have titled the film, ‘Pitamber’.
Saili, on the other hand, doesn’t have an independent choice in any matter. Even her decision to go abroad in her husband’s place is not her own, but is forced upon her. Even after watching the entire film, the audience never knows what Saili likes or dislikes, because we never get to spend time with her. There is not a single scene that is ‘about Saili’, exclusively, nor is she given scenes that would build her character. In the first half, there are a few instances of Saili with her friend, Sunita (Kenipa Singh), but, characterisation be damned, all these two women talk about is men. Saili has no inner journey and so, she never reaches catharsis. The titular character is disregarded to such an extent that she doesn’t even have a narrative or emotional arc.
And herein lies the problem with men writing fiction about women. Societal roles are changing, and writers have adapted by depicting ‘working women’ in their films. However, men still drive the narrative forward, even in a film called Saili. Women, in the end, are nothing but objects of masculine desire—Saili is still only a reward for Pitamber.
If you sit through the credit roll, you will discover that 90 percent of the crew in the film, especially the top positions, are men. You’ll only find three or four women in a total crew of 50 or so people, none of whom are major decision makers. The boys now need to sit down and contemplate hiring women for their team if they’re to tell Saili’s story. It’s time the Nepali film fraternity realises that women should be telling women’s stories. Hopefully, the makers will do that in Saili 2.