Interview With Deepak Rauniyar, Nepal’s Rising Star Director

A conversation on Nepali cinema and the role of film in helping the country heal.

Interview With Deepak Rauniyar, Nepal’s Rising Star Director

Deepak Rauniyar with Asha Magrati at the 2017 Festival International de Films de Fribourg.

Credit: FIFF picture by Nicolas Brodard

Deepak Rauniyar is Nepal’s internationally-acclaimed, promising cinema director. He earned a mention by The New York Times as one of “The 9 New Directors You Need to Watch” for his second move White Sun, which premiered at the 2016 Venice and Toronto Film Festivals. The movie won the Interfilm Award at Venice and Silver Screen Award for Best Film at the Singapore International Film Festival, as well as the New Voices/new Visions Grand Jury Prize at Palm Spring Film Festival.

Rauniyar is an alumnus of TIFF and Talent Labs. His first film, Highway, garnered both national and international success as it became the first Nepali movie to be screened at a major international festival, with its premier at the 2012 Berlin International Film Festival.

Prior to Highway, Rauniyar worked as a writer and producer for the BBC Media Action in Nepal, for which he wrote, directed, and produced radio dramas and short films.  In 2010, Rauniyar co-founded Aadi Productions in Kathmandu along with his wife, actor Asha Magrati, to develop and produce original and socially conscious films in Nepal. Their second feature, White Sun (directed by Rauniyar) premiered at the 2016 Venice International Film Festival to rave reviews, with the Hollywood Reporter calling it “a standout, delicately-observed, multi-generational story which could go a fair distance in the Oscar Foreign Language category.” White Sun has screened in over 50 international film festivals since its premiere.

Rauniyar spoke to Kathmandu-based journalist Arun Budhathoki from New York, where he is busy with his movie. In the interview, he discussed his journey in cinema so far, the struggles of being a Nepali director, the future of Nepali films, and his upcoming ventures. (This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)

Arun Budhathoki: How did you start your movie career?

Deepak Rauniyar: It was 2005. I used to write film reviews for a national daily in Kathmandu. One morning, I was rushing to a routine editorial meeting, but entered the office building to find a riot! About a dozen angry men and women were chanting and demanding a reporter be delivered to their custody. Security guards had hardly control over the scene. It was very frustrating. But soon, I realized that the very person they wanted to “drink blood off” or “teach filmmaking” wasn’t someone else, but me!

I was lucky; they didn’t recognize me. A colleague quietly pulled me out and I was saved! However, the events that happened led me into deep contemplation. Although it wasn’t the first time someone was angry about my film reviews — I often had arguments with filmmakers who furiously called about the bad reviews their films got, as they normally were bad copies of Bollywood films — these conversations often ended with them challenging me to make films myself. This was extreme. It forced me into a realization that “the change” I was looking for wasn’t possible through reviews.

Did you undertake any kind of training for movie production?

There was no film school in the country at that time and there was no way I could afford to study abroad. Tsering Rhitar Sherpa, one of the filmmakers I really respected, was shooting his second feature. I asked him and he kindly hired me as his assistant director. And that was that, my entry to filmmaking.

What led you to produce Highway?

In 2009, I happened to be on a road trip from east Nepal to the capital, Kathmandu. Our journey was obstructed by three different bandhs [strikes], organized by three different groups in three different parts of the country. This was when my colleagues Kedar Sharma, Khagendra Lamichhane [who worked on the story], and I started talking about the idea for this film, Highway.

This wasn’t the first time that I experienced a bandh. As you know, recently, in post-war Nepal, we have seen a new trend emerge in the country — if a group, an organization or a party is “unhappy” and wants to demand something from the government, the first thing they try to do is to shut down the major highways which connect the capital or a road or a city or the whole country!

I have experienced several bandhs. One of these was 57 hours long with no food or water. I even witnessed two people being killed — when vehicles could leave around midnight of the third day, they drove over the people sleeping on the road in a rush to escape. Since that traumatic experience, I have wanted to express my feelings through a full-length film. This journey in 2009 triggered the story, I was looking for.

Highway begins with a bus journey in a small town of eastern Nepal headed for the capital Kathmandu. When I thought of a bus, I thought of the country. The country means people from diverse strata of the 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.

The Nepali movie industry has come a long way. What was your experience while starting? What challenges did you face?

Our film industry is still very young! We only started to make films freely after 1990, when democracy was reinstated in the country. We don’t yet have a co-production treaty with any other country, not even with neighbor India, with whom we share open borders. No funding support is available. No cinematheque or museum or art-house cinema exhibition chain is available in the country. So, challenges remain the same, in the all sectors: financing, distribution, exhibition.

The only difference from 2011, when I shot my first feature, and now, [is that] I’ve bit of knowledge in international co-production and sales, and how to find support outside the country. My second feature White Sun is a co-production between Nepal, the United States, the Netherlands, and Qatar. It received support from various organizations like the Tribeca Film Institute, Jerome Foundation, Hubert Bals Fund of International Film Festival of Rotterdam, Netherland Film Fund, Doha Film Institute, and Bertha Foundation etc. And in the last five years, audience for conscious cinema has significantly grown at home.

What inspired you to make White Sun?

I was 17 when the Maoist-led war started. Twenty-two years later, the country is still going through a political process because of that war which continues to affect all our lives.  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. My aim in making White Sun was to encourage the difficult conversations which we otherwise have been avoiding.

White Sun is a story about the weight of the past in Nepali present, of tradition vs. modernity, of young vs. old, a story of men vs. women, where three generations of Nepalis with very different beliefs, thoughts, and roots are forced to be together and interact due to the death of the former village chief.

The title refers to the white sun on our national flag, since the film takes place at the time of the announcement of a Constitution in late 2015.

You have co-founded film company, Aadi Productions, along with your wife Asha Maya Magrati. How has your spouse helped you in your directing career?

We’re collaborators in life and in our profession. From story selections to all major decisions, we make [them] together.

We were both frustrated with the state of Nepali cinema. We couldn’t see ourselves or society around us in our films. We wanted to wait no more. We wanted to give a fresh perspective and voice to home grown Nepali cinema.

Both of your movies are based on the civil war period. What made you decide to focus on it?

From dictatorship of King Panchayat to the powerful people’s revolt of 1990, reinstatement of democracy, into the decade-long civil war from 1996-2006, the abolition of the monarchy, the republic, secular state, Madhesi movements for federalism, still ongoing protests — Nepali society is evolving every day. As a filmmaker, I feel, it’s my responsibility to bring the story into the film, to also spotlight the silver lining of the war and get people talking about the trauma of those years.

You spend time between New York and Kathmandu. How has it influenced you in move making?

Living in New York has expanded my horizons of cinema knowledge. I got to see so many films that I wouldn’t have had access to in Kathmandu. Also, I could collaborate with beautiful, talented people like David Barker, Joslyn Barnes, and Danny Glover. Being away from Kathmandu, it also has helped me see things objectively, from a distance, which was valuable in writing White Sun.

Can you tell us about your upcoming movie, Raja?

Raja is a socially-rooted police procedural, a race-against-time thriller. It also a portrait of Nepal, a complex society on the threshold of a new future.

We plan to shoot it next year. The film won development support from Hubert Bals Fund of International Film Festival of Rotterdam.

Arun Budhathoki is a Kathmandu-based freelance journalist, poet, and writer. He’s the founding editor of Kathmandu Tribune. His works have appeared in India Today, Huff Post India, DailyO, and The Citizen (India). He tweets at @arunbudhathoki.