Red Monsoon, a Nepali-language feature film directed by young Nepali filmmaker Eelum Dixit, will open in Kathmandu multiplexes in May. A select crowd of Lalitpur intelligentsia, myself included (I say this with my tongue firmly in cheek!) were invited to preview the film last week in the more intimate atmosphere of the refurbished 1920s-era Yalamaya Kendra complex.
South Asian film is perhaps too often synonymous with Bollywood. The overwhelming image is of the colourful, sequined song-and-dance routine, melodrama, three-hour-plus duration, as well as big-budget, cartel-backed production.
But Red Monsoon contains only one of these characteristics. The low-budget film (starring several members of Eelum’s family) opens with footage of one of Kathmandu’s many crowd-pulling religious festivals, yet riot police are beating back revelers. In the next scene, a group of young men discuss migration to the Gulf. “Good luck with your new life in Dubai,” says one friend.
…The next moment the lights go out. “Damn blackout.”
Much of contemporary Nepal is encompassed in these initial images: the dominance of religion and political protest, of infrastructural inadequacy, of the necessity of flight to make a proper living and, most importantly, the overbearing connections between personal and political frustrations.
The cast of characters is befitting of a film from this region: there’s the promiscuous, trouble-making middle-aged neighbor, the abusive father, the comic servant (named Buddha), the abused daughter-in-law, the loving and over-protective father, the disgraced daughter who eloped with a man of her choice.
Dramatic and abrupt zoom-ins and the actors’ often stilted line delivery give away the film’s low-budget production, yet throughout Red Monsoon, beautiful, searingly-accurate depictions of Kathmandu’s beauty and its squalor are intertwined with charming yet melodramatic, soap operatic-style love entanglements. Rose-tinted flashbacks of an upper-caste wedding at Nepal’s holiest Hindu site, Pashupatinath, are matched with an unforgiving depiction of the extreme pollution of the Bagmati River, which runs through the temple.
I am reluctant to give away spoilers, though the chance of viewers outside Nepal—or the South Asian film festival circuit—seeing Red Monsoon is slim. But a surprising and refreshing twist to this film is that the woman who ends up jilted (who that is? you will have to watch to find out!) is not ruined. She is certainly heart-broken, left without family support, and there’s a strong suggestion that her life will be difficult in patriarchal Kathmandu society.
But she is not on the brink of suicide, as may be expected in a film of this genre from anywhere in the South Asian region. She has enough integrity and spirit to pick herself up, and this aspect of the story was, to me and to others who attended the preview, easily the most interesting part of Red Monsoon.
The juxtaposition of the artistic and the crassly mainstream in Red Monsoon suggest that Eelum Dixit and the production team were firmly in control of the work of mixed genre that they were creating. In order to be even somewhat commercially successful, a Nepali film should adhere to certain well-loved tropes.. Eschewing song-and-dance numbers was perhaps risky enough already for a film aiming to attract a mainstream audience; the melodrama had to stay. I had a chat with Eelum Dixit about these issues, as well as his filmmaking career and the state of the industry in Nepal.
Elen Turner: When did you start filmmaking?
Eelum Dixit: I started working on Red Monsoon about three years ago. Since then, the making of this film (from the first draft to the distribution) has reconnected me with college professors and colleagues, it has given me the opportunity to get guidance from such greats as [Canadian filmmaker and screenwriter] Mary Harron, and to get feedback from people like [Indian actress and director] Nandita Das… I am currently working on making sure that all the input from these great people does not go to waste, and that three years of hard work pays off by having our film screened in Nepal.
ET: Could you tell me about the challenges, as a small Nepali filmmaker, of getting your film screened in Kathmandu, and what you’re doing to promote Red Monsoon?
ED: I think that the social media world has not been used to its full capacity, and most of the time it has been used badly. What we can do with our film is to put out honest promos (trailers, posters and so on) and hope that enough people see these. Once they have seen what we have to offer, the audiences will make up their own mind as to whether or not they want to see it. I think, in fact, that Nepali halls and distributors are willing to try more indie films. The amount of time that a film runs will depend upon the size of the audience it draws—the halls will not give you time slots if another film can fill the halls better. It is really up to us to draw the audience and give the halls a reason to keep the films there.
ET: What are your feelings about the state of Nepali cinema at present?
ED: I think that Nepali cinema is at a point now where if people at the top work together, we can really create a proper industry. There are enough young producers, directors, distributors joining the game and willing to try out new things. The mainstream will always be there to some extent, but there is a growing space for independent films. I have not heard of any films making it into the multiplexes and really running in Indian halls in recent times, but there is a possibility. I think that we are really missing out by not making connections in Sikkim and Darjeeling [areas of north-eastern India where Nepali is widely spoken]. Instead, our films are going to the diaspora in different countries—Australia, America, UK—but these are also yet to find proper channeled distribution, relying on the restaurant charity show tradition. For our film, I am focusing on Kathmandu, and seeing if anyone else gets excited.
ET: What influences and inspires you creatively?
ED: Nepal inspires! In this film, Patan, Kathmandu, inner-city stories inspire. The need to portray things for what they are inspires me. The need to find our own culture, our own realities in our films also inspires me.
ET: It seemed to me that you had crafted Red Monsoon carefully so that it adheres to certain South Asian tropes of melodrama and the soap opera, yet you subverted these somewhat. This seemed like a clever way of positioning your film as appealing to a ‘mainstream’ audience, as well as making it a bit more intelligent so as to appeal to people who may just dismiss the melodramatic genre. What are your thoughts on this?
ED: It is what it is. I like this question so much that I don’t want to answer it. I really think that this is for the audience to see and to decide on. I am hoping that it does exactly what you suggest when the film hits the halls.
For more on Red Monsoon, visit the film’s Facebook page here.
Elen Turner is Asymptote’s Nepal editor-at-large.