Meet the director and writer behind the most celebrated Nepali movie of the recent timesWith hopes for acting dashed, and a years pining for a career in film, Binod Paudel has finally made his name by breaking the mould.
It was not easy for a movie like ‘Bulbul’ to achieve what it has in its one year since release. A small-budget, the risk of casting a mainstream actor relatively unknown for her acting skills, releasing at the same time as an awaited Bollywood flick and not following typical film conventions, Bulbul was a big risk. But for Binod Paudel, the director and writer of the movie, this was the story he always aspired to tell. Defying all odds, not only was his debut movie a success, he has also been bagging awards in both national and international festivals.
Now principal of Oscar International College, Nepal’s first film school, Paudel’s love for cinema started in his formative years. “I used to watch Hindi cinema a lot during my budding years. I was always fascinated, and wanted to be the hero,” says Paudel.
Due to some family reasons and economic conditions, like any Nepali may have felt, he also went to the Middle East for employment. But his love for cinema never died and once he found financial stability, he returned to Nepal in 2006 and joined the film school he heads, to study acting.
However, the Nepali industry was more concerned about how he looked than how he acted. “Filmmakers were mostly looking for an actor who had a good physique and did stunts. I didn’t quite fit the mould and that’s why I wasn’t able to get many opportunities to show my acting capabilities,” says Poudel.
While he was able to catch a few gigs in theatre and in some movies, the reluctance of Nepali movie makers to go beyond conventional filmmaking disappointed him. Later, in 2009, he moved to London to study an MBA. The UK had all the resources and facilities, and everything he needed, but his love for cinema didn’t wane. With his wife’s encouragement, he again felt the need to return. Instead of acting, he opted for writing and created his own film.
“I came back in 2012 and wrote my first movie, Saanghuro. Working on my own project allowed me creative freedom. Then I decided to put on the hat of writer-director then become an actor,” says 40-year-old Paudel, who went on to win a National Award for the writing of his first film.
While he was making progress in his career, the institution responsible for expanding his knowledge and skills was in crisis. Multiple protests and dissatisfaction among students plagued the institution, which led to Tribhuvan University—affiliated with the college—delivering an ultimatum, he says. He later decided to take the role of the film school’s principal and under his leadership, Oscar International College started producing graduates who now are contributing to a new wave of Nepali cinema.
The school kept him busy, but one particular story always stuck in his head—a story he wanted to make on the wives of the Nepali immigrants. In 2017 he pulled his socks up and made a movie on it.
“Since I myself went to the Middle East and have met many women who were waiting for their husband’s return, I felt the story was powerful. I thought it could connect with people as it was a lived experience for many,” says Paudel.
After the completion of his story, he started looking for actors who could play the lead of the story—Ranakala, a tempo driver, of whom the story revolved around.
While many questioned selecting Swastima Khadka, a Nepali mainstream actor who was known for playing conventional roles, there was something he saw in her, which made him feel like this was the actor he wanted to work in his film, he says. “I saw some glimpse of Swastima’s previous movie. I felt she had a lot of potential which other makers were unable to get from her. That’s why I was clear in casting her for the role of Ranakala,” says Paudel.
Though uncertain about whether she should do the movie or not, as it was a big risk, Swastima was on board and later the duo got into preparation mode. “We used to travel in tempos and spend time with the female drivers regularly, to get under the character’s skin. Swastima even learnt to drive a tempo,” says Paudel, who likes to focus on character development for his stories.
When asked what the intention behind using a tempo driver as his lead, Paudel says the tempo captivated him cinematically. “The sound and the setting of tempo added a layer to the character of Ranakala. By making her a tempo driver, I wanted to show she was independent. While driving has always been a man’s world, in Nepal many women have been driving tempos and breaking the stereotype. The intention was to portray her character as someone strong,” says Paudel.
However, it was not easy to make a movie with an unconventional story compared to the Nepali box office earners, even though the story was of many Nepali women. The distributors were on board, but they didn’t treat his movie with much seriousness. “Our movie was taken as a light, small movie,” says Paudel.
But he doesn’t blame the distributors, as the film industry is yet to welcome women-centric narratives with open arms. “Our film industry and even the audience grew up watching male-centric stories, where female actors had little to do in the film’s narrative. The female actors always need a man as their saviour. Plus our culture has always been male-dominated, which is reflected in our art as well,” says Paudel.
Regardless of the prior struggles, his film went to be a hit commercially, critically-acclaimed and an award winner. From winning best director and best female actor in last year’s National Film Awards, to the public choice award at the South Asian Film Festival held in France and bagging six awards—which included best movie, director, screenwriter and actress—in the recently held Nepal International Film Festival, the movie has set a benchmark for the Nepali movie industry.
Paudel acknowledges the pressure the film’s success has put on him. “People have more expectations and it has put a lot of responsibility on my shoulders to not let down the audience,” says Paudel, who is pursuing two different movies, one based on the stories of the Captial’s youth and another on the resettlement of Bhutanese refugees.
While many say Nepal’s film scene is changing slowly from traditional story lines and repetitive content to risk-taking content, for Paudel everything still seems superficial.
“We still prefer loud movies with cheap comedy. Our cinema culture should change, and that can only happen when conscious and mature makers enter the realm,” he says.
Paudel also stresses the need of state’s support in improving Nepali film. “The state should value art and pave ways where good movies can flourish. Good cinema can add value to a nation,” he says.