Deepak Rauniyar is a Nepalese screenwriter, producer, editor and film director. After participating in Locarno's Open Doors initiative, Rauniyar's debut feature Highway premiered at the Berlinale— the first Nepalese film ever selected for a major international film festival. Rauniyar's second feature White Sunpremiered at Venice, Palm Springs, Rotterdam and Singapore, where it won Best Asian Film. It was the ninth Nepalese submission in history for the Best Foreign Language Film, but was not nominated.
In an exclusive interview with Filmatique, Deepak Rauniyar discusses Nepal's civil war, borders and racial discrimination, obsolete bodies of government and his next project.
FILMATIQUE: Highwayseeks to capture both the political and personal climates of a world rarely depicted onscreen— contemporary Nepalese society. What was your inspiration for this story, and why did you choose to frame the narrative in the details of interpersonal relationships, rather than making a film that was overtly political?
DEEPAK RAUNIYAR: Highway is inspired by my own travel experiences, especially in 2009. At that time I worked for the BBC World Service Trust, the BBC's international development charity, writing and producing radio dramas. We used to record on location, mostly using non-actors. It required a lot of travel. I have spent a lot of time during those bandhs, stuck up to 57 hours once, with no food or drinking water.
A new trend has emerged in post-war Nepal— people who are "unhappy" and have a "demand" for the government shut down major highways. This is known as a bandh.
We were returning to Kathmandu after the recording in Ilam, a distance of 350 miles between the two. At least 3 separate political parties had organized bandhs in different parts of the country. No vehicles were moving besides journalists, weddings, and ambulances. We were in a BBC car so we could move. But every time we approached a protesting group, we had to stop, talk to them, show our ID's and then pass.
In Sunasari, near the Koshi river, a few people approached us asking for help. A small van with a bride and her the family had been stopped by bandh organizers. They needed to reach the nearest temple about an hour away, but they didn't have a wedding banner or a music band so the bandh organizers didn't believe them. We escorted the wedding party to the temple and from here began to talk about the idea of a film, which later became Highway.
When I thought of a bus in Nepal, I thought of the country. The country is comprised of people from diverse strata of society, and a bus is one of the few places where you get a cross-section of society. So I thought, it would be a great "vehicle" for the film, which provides an opportunity to explore the contemporary society we were living in.
FLMTQ: Much of the film's tension arises from its geographical dimension— a bus snaking through the Himalayas, from Ilam to Kathmandu. The bus' route if often impeded by bandhs, or political protests; thus the audience also falls hostage to the jolting journey. How did you seek to communicate the anxiety of this experience cinematically? Do you believe that structure itself can evoke emotion among the audience more effectively than dialogue?
DR: I think so. Once I know the story, I try to find right structure which allows me to bring those elements into the film in the most natural way. The less said, the better. I'm not successful doing that in Highway though— the film has a lot of dialogue!
For Highway, we were following a bus journey. And because of the bus we were dealing with lot of characters, and their individual stories. It was all current so we felt, why don't we try to tell it in an inverted pyramid style, all non-linear? The major incident in the story comes first and then we go back in time and to places, characters and other elements of the story that led up to it.
We believed that jolting journey created the feeling of the bandh— being stranded, taken hostage by something we don't expect or imagine would to happen in our journey. We also implemented abrupt cutting. I'm not sure how successful we were, but that was our intention.
FLMTQ: Love seems to inform the majority of the characters' narratives, whether it be an army lieutenant en route to visit his wife, or a girl traveling to be reunited with the man she will marry. Why did you choose to privilege love in particular? What is it about love that motivates us above all else?
DR: Highway reflects a moment in time in a complex Nepali society, which is divided by caste, class, race and color— how people look, feel or believe— and in the wake of a decade-long civil war. When we face a common problem, we come together for a brief time to resolve it. But just as soon we are back into our lives. We all put ourselves or our loved ones first!
Even though the music band helps Highway's characters reach their destination, the characters abandon them. Before that, because of their uniforms and how they look, the bus staff didn't want to let them board the bus. We didn't compose that scene. The bus staff aren't actors and they didn't know we were filming. We asked our band members— who are also non-actors, a real wedding music band— to get onto the bus however they can. We stayed further away to film it. It was very dark and becoming difficult to film. Soon, it started to rain. What you see happening on screen is real.
The characters and events also metaphorically represent our political realities, behavior and alliances, which are today still very much true.
FLMTQ: Another major theme of the film is how our personal lives often intersect in unintended ways, and how small gestures can themselves become political acts. What responsibility do you believe we have as individuals to strive for collective good, and what responsibility do you believe filmmakers have specifically to encourage political discourse?
DR: I think as filmmakers we have the responsibility to create an experience on-screen that people wouldn't have otherwise. Those experiences have the power to transform people. This is essential. I believe in the power of film as an art form to help people understand one another's predicaments, and our shared experiences of life and death.
FLMTQ: Like Highway, your new film White Sun focuses on one microcosm— a village high in the mountains— as a nexus of the clash between tradition and modernity in contemporary Nepal. How do you believe Chandra internalizes and embodies this conflict, and how does he come to represent Nepal as a body of people grappling with their post-war identity?
DR: Like in Highway, the situations and arguments you see in White Sun represent the mindset of the country's majority. Groups belonging to higher castes, like the elder generation of the dead man— the priest, the old uncle— still insist on traditional law, even in the capital of Kathmandu. Then there's Agni (formerly Chandra) and Suraj, the adults, and the future generation of children, Pooja and Badri.
The first two adults are divided by their beliefs and their castes. People like the former guerilla Chandra believe in change, that traditional law is unfair to everyone else. But people like his brother Suraj still defend the older generation, even if they agree that some rules were discriminatory. Because they had no mercy for opposing parties in the past, their past now haunts them. The bitter experiences of war still permeate people's lives today. The children suffer from the other groups' beliefs, even if they can't yet understand what caste, community or class means.
I was interested to force this three generations to intersect in one place and explore what good could result from it. We've gone through a lot in Nepal in the past decades, but rarely discuss about our feelings and experiences with our parents or children. Even the shoot for us— the cast and crew— living together for two months was a transforming experience. We talked about things we never would have otherwise.
White Sun, Deepak Rauniyar (2016)
FLMTQ: Paralleling the bus journey in Highway, White Sun revolves around a procession of a deceased elder: Chandra's father. While Chandra fought alongside the Maoists in favor of the revolution, his father was deeply traditional as remain many in his home village. What spiritual or psychological importance do you attribute to the act of movement? Can you comment on the importance of the ritual of movement across generations in Nepal today?
DR: Movement came as a requirement for the story to function in both films. In Highway, to experience the bandh we needed to be on the road, traveling. The feeling of being stranded wasn't only of the feeling of the traveler, but of everyone. I wanted to bring that experience to screen.
When making the film I lived in a city, but from time to time I needed to travel to the village for work or to meet my parents. On every trip I saw villages getting emptier and emptier. Only elders, women or children were left. Even younger women were leaving the village for work in Israel or the Gulf countries. It used to bug me. White Sun came out of this frustration.
In White Sun, Chandra is forced to come home after many years following the death of his father. Chandra being new to the village gave me the space that I needed to see things differently. I could bring my experience through him onscreen. Chandra's fight with his brother forces him to walk to other villages to find help at a police station. This movement allowed me to observe and explore the village, to experience life in the wake of a decade-long civil war.
The dead body is also a metaphor for the old constitution and the king's regime which was overthrown by the war. Just as Nepal struggled to establish a new government and constitution, the film's characters struggle to get the old man's corpse out of the house. They could take an easier way but they don't because of old beliefs. They choose to make life harder on themselves. Whether it's small issues, like changing official names or establishing legal citizenship, or bigger political issues like our constitution, we don't seem to look for the logical path. We overthrew the old regime but have yet to establish the new. The death procession represents that experience.
FLMTQ: Both films also utilize non-professional actors alongside more seasoned film veterans. Was this choice for the sake of naturalism, convenience, or both?
DR: The casting process was long in both films. We went all around the country. We were open to all kinds of actors, professional or first-time actors. Especially in White Sun there were several characters— such as children, and elders— that we knew would be hard to find in the industry.
I like improvising dialogue and movement with actors. My process starts with a precise screenplay then tries to bring as much local truth as possible into the film through rigorous work on location. Dialogue is re-worked through rehearsals to ensure that both non-actors and actors speak as authentically as possible.
So I need actors who are flexible. In my experience, some actors, and especially popular actors, like being dictated to. We were careful about that. We also looked for actors with a similar ethnicity and political beliefs as the characters. It would have been hard to cast someone who didn't understand what Chandra/Agni was going through or who didn't believe on him. Because of all this, it took a long time.
But I've worked with Asha Magrati, my wife, for casting on both my features. She is a theater veteran with much more experience than me. We start talking about actors during the writing process. She understands what I need and helps me find what I'm looking for. She has been great.
White Sun, Deepak Rauniyar (2016)
FLMTQ: Some of the most stunning visuals in both films are of Nepal's rarely-seen natural landscapes. What was it like to film in these remote landscapes, and what obstacles did you encounter along the way?
DR: During the process of getting White Sun prepared and funded, two devastating earthquakes and several massive after-shocks struck Nepal on April 25 and May 17, 2015. The quakes caused not only enormous loss of life and infrastructural damage; they also revealed profound political and societal fault lines. Given the situation post-quake, we decided to push the shoot 6 months.
Our first choice for a mountain village location was destroyed by the earthquake. It had already taken us a long time to figure out where we were going to shoot. It was not easy— on a limited budget— to find the right village in terms of logistics as well as technical and artistic requirements. I wanted to use a mostly handheld camera to communicate the physical efforts of the characters. I didn't want the feeling of sitting back and watching the characters. I wanted the audience to experience walking with them. So I was very selective about the search for the ideal mountain path, for when the funeral procession goes down toward the river. It was a difficult task to find a place I liked that was not logistically impossible to shoot. I kept hiking until I found what you see in the film.
For shooting in the mountains, I was prepared to minimize the use of lighting equipment because of the lack of roads and available electricity. My DoP preferred the Red Dragon camera, given its smaller size and low-light sensitivity. But some lighting was still required, and even a small generator on that mountain path needed 10 porters at a time! So our crew was sometimes 80 people when we needed extras for crowded village scenes.
But just as we were going to the shoot our only import border with India got blocked and we were left without cooking gas or fuel for our generator and transportation. We were forced to cook with firewood for over 80 people, which slowed our process down. We were buying fuel in black markets, a few liters here and there, and transporting secretly to the mountain. Some nights when the light had finished, we would start shooting and there would be no fuel left! It was exhausting. A 35 day shoot turned into 47 days, and our budget went up. We had to make a lot of compromises like cutting down the crew to just 11 people, and figuring out different means and places to shoot less expensively. I was producing while directing, and it became a nightmare.
But thankfully we were able to finish. And given the way the film has travelled, the team is happy. We can now almost forget, what happened back then!
FLMTQ: Are you working on any new projects, and if so, can you tell us a bit about them?
DR: I'm developing a police procedural, a political thriller, that is currently titled Raja. The film is set in a Nepali town in the midst of massive protest at the India-Nepal border and will explore the Madhesi community (a dark-skinned community, which I come from) with our detective, learning the truth behind the violent protests through his eyes. These protests have already claimed over 100 lives. I believe this exchange of point-of-views could become something beautiful, not only for Nepalis, but for people around the world as race, discrimination, and national borders are topics of great importance for communities everywhere right now.