Usha Rajak is a prominent Nepali actress who has garnered several awards over the years. With a theater acting background, Rajak has appeared in films like “One Day” (2008), “Iku: The Jungle Man” (2009), “Kusume Rumal 2” (2009), “Kathaa” (2013), and “Kathputali” (2019).
Rajak was also the World Miss University 2006 winner and won the national award in theater for best actress at the age of 18. She’s involved in a number of women empowerment projects and animal rights activism, apart from her career in theater and movies.
The Diplomat’s Arun Budhathoki spoke with Usha Rajak about her journey in the Nepali movie industry and what it means to be an actress in the changing times.
Can you tell us about your journey in the Nepali movie industry?
I saw an advert in a newspaper for a beauty pageant in 2004. I saw it as a challenge to be seen as a feminine person wearing heels, since I was quite a tomboy and a very conservative student. I took part in the beauty pageant and got accepted. Alok Nembang, a prominent music video director noticed me and I acted in [videos for] songs like Anil Singh’s “I Love You,” Himal Sagar’s “Dherai Dherai Le,” etc. I further got approached by theater directors. Unconfident as I was, I won the “Best Actress” award in the National Theater Competition the same year. It was the first time I had stepped in a theater.
Dazzled with my own achievements, I further took acting trainings, as I believe in perfecting and polishing skills in everything I do. Having watched one of my theater shows, film director Nirak Poudel casted me in “Kusume Rumal 2.” Further on, I did the comedy-adventure film “Iku: The Jungle Man.” I also lead an HIV-AIDS and drug abuse awareness film called “One Day” for which I won the Best Digital-Film Actress [award] in 2009.
I took a short break after my daughter’s arrival and later in 2013 got casted in Prashant Rasaily’s “Kathaa,” which premiered in Mumbai Film Festival 2013. I recently returned back to Nepal to pursue my career in acting again. Ever since, I have acted in Veemsen Lama’s horror feature film “Kathputali,” which is due to release after the pandemic finishes.
You moved to Kyrgyzstan and returned after seven years. What made you make those changes?
I moved to Kyrgyzstan in 2011. It was a decision I made for my family. While there, I worked as an innovative chef in a leading bakery, studied and practiced journalism, [and] worked in communication with the UNDP in the Kyrgyz Republic. Also, I enjoyed the nature, adventure, and beauty Kyrgyzstan had to offer.
After having lived there for eight years, things started to get stagnant, and everything was “well-settled.” Challenges excite me. At this point, the most challenging thing for me to do was to take a second chance at my acting adventures. Just as I was considering it, I was offered a movie back home. I couldn’t be happier. I wanted to come home anyway, so I moved here permanently in 2019.
How do you see the current status of Nepal’s movie sector?
We’ve come a long way since a Pariyar (so called Dalit) man’s “Satya Harischandra,” [in 1951] the first Nepali language film, was produced in India, given the dictatorship in those days in Nepal. Today, Nepali films win prestigious awards in international stages and they address various issues. The manpower in this sector is much more skilled now [compared to what] I knew of it 10 years earlier when I left. As per the economy of it, it is fair to call it an industry now, for the massive income it generates, even if that is a reality for only a few movies among the hundreds produced in a year.
Do you think the Nepali movie industry is lagging because of talent or financial resources?
The main problem here is communication. In a micro scale, I see a huge gap between art and business. The artistic people barely know business skills to sell their creativity. We need efficient talent and business managers here. In a macro sense, a lack of communication exists in selling movies to the audience. We need to research well on what it is that our audience demands, and what it is about international movies that sell in Nepal, and what we can learn from them. Few movies market their products well, and often vanity gets in the way when marketing the films. For example, the trailers are far more promising than the actual movies. That misleads the audience and defames their faith towards Nepali films. As for the finances, there couldn’t be a problem to enhance a lucrative business from an art-loving population of 30 million (and more).
You are also involved in the theater scene. Does theater support the Nepali movie industry?
Theater provides a base for movies. In the recent years, due to the effective delivery by theater actors, a demand for their talent is mushrooming in the film industry. Thanks to the humble ways to theater, the vanity of movies gets balanced. I get approached for intensive and substantial roles in movies, and my background in the theater is to be credited for them. There are many stances when people hire beautiful models and Instagram influencers as actors and the failure of those movies can be closely associated with the lack of training in those actors. Theater provides other technical assistance to the movies too.
You’ve seen the ins and outs of the Nepali movie industry. Do you wish to see any changes in the sector?
Earlier, I used to object to the popularity and success of comedy content in Nepal. As I get acquainted with the almost tyrannical grasp of the political web at different levels — ranging from education quality to freedom of expression — I’ve succumbed to the idea that comedy is the best way to express art in given circumstances. The change in the industry will come from a much needed change in the ways our country is run. It is laudable that the Nepali film industry is doing this well despite many hurdles.
What challenges do Nepali actress face compared to their male actors?
The pay gap. The intensity of cyberbullying. Reprimanding: the basic mentality of people thinking a woman can’t do a good job on her own.
Is there a gender pay gap and discrimination in the Nepali movie industry?
There is. Also, the career span of a female actor is generally shorter than that of a male’s. There is the “Godfather Syndrome”: Female actors get their achievements claimed by the men who “gave them a break.” Older men in the industry, without any hesitation take credits for younger female actors’ successes at first chances. I’ve never heard that happen to a man.
“The man makes himself, whereas the woman needs to be made.”
Also, there are other visible effects of social and economic discrimination, like you barely see a Madheshi person or a (so-called) lower caste person in a leading or substantial role. I’m one of the few: a minority Rajak.
What are the areas would you like to change in Nepal’s entertainment business?
Every artistic and creative person needs to educate themselves about what they’re getting into. Acquiring necessary education and training in the related field, which is thankfully being valued now, is important. To have a deeper sense of providing conscious content with an attitude to bring about necessary change by using one’s platform and resources
What are your upcoming projects?
I’m doing the necessary research by visiting handicraft factories to prepare for my role in a music video with Subrat Acharya, which emphasizes on financial independence and leadership powered by women entrepreneurship. “Asha,” a film by Saruk Tamrakar which addresses mental health, is to release soon. My daughter Luna plays a beautiful role in the short film. My fifth film “Kathputali,” a horror movie by Veemsen Lama, where my role fights against tyranny and injustice is one the pipeline. My theater show where I’ve written the script and am co-directing, a Sushila Arts Academy production — “Rhythm and Soul 2020 With Usha Rajak” — is currently on hold because of the COVID-19 crisis. I hope we find a solution to it soon and the entertainment industry all over the world would thrive brighter than ever!