Nepali film Highway

by AFP/Frankie Taggart, Sep 11, 2012 | Destinations: Nepal

As the curtain comes down on the most divisive and talked-about film in Nepali cinema history, half the audience stands to applaud while the rest slump bemused in their seats.

The split reaction has been common among packed theatres watching "Highway", a sweeping social commentary hailed by many as a new benchmark for the domestic film industry but dismissed by others as complicated and boring.

"This is a terrible film. There are too many confusing strands and no action. It makes no sense," Prashant Thapa, 27, told AFP during the interval of a showing this week in a Kathmandu multiplex.

Fellow cinema-goer Ujjwal Acharya, 32, disagreed, saying "it's a brilliant movie... really creative".

Since Highway -- co-produced by "Lethal Weapon" star Danny Glover -- opened to packed houses across Nepal it has polarised audiences, prompting more than 10,000 tweets, provoking contempt in some corners and adulation in others.

"Seventy percent of people are saying it's the worst movie they ever watched," its first-time director Deepak Rauniyar, 33, cheerfully told AFP as viewers filed out of one cinema.

"People are talking about it a lot and they are angry. If you look on the Facebook page there are two separate groups -- one who say they really love it and the other who really don't. There are none in the middle."

Set amid the breathtaking landscapes of eastern Nepal, Highway follows the journey of nine passengers stranded on an ill-fated bus to Kathmandu trying to get through three illegal road blockades, known locally as "bandhas".

Its jumpy storytelling style makes it unique in Nepali cinema, which normally follows the familiar Bollywood narratives that are often copied scene for scene in Nepali movies.

With a third of its measly $100,000 budget funded by public donations raised via the Internet, almost everything about the making of the film bucked the prevalent movie trends in Nepal.

The country's fledgling film industry peaked in 2000 with "Himalaya", an acclaimed story of salt traders, but directors have since been unwilling to get away from the tried-and-tested formula of romantic plots with song-and-dance numbers.

"I wanted to break the stereotypical thinking about Nepal -- everyone seeing it as just a mountain country where it snows -- and I also wanted to show the life can be no more different than in London or New York," Rauniyar said.

"We can make films on a low budget and have an industry that is recognised around the world. We should start making horror films, really commercial films, art-house cinema and start telling our stories."

The film's dialogue, improvised by a relatively unknown cast, was inspired by a bus journey in 2009 in which Rauniyar was stranded by blockades as he tried to make it to Kathmandu.

A former teacher, Rauniyar also used to work on a national newspaper in Kathmandu and says he would often argue with movie directors who complained about unfavourable reviews for their "bad copies of Hindi films".

"A lot of our cinemas were getting stuff frame for frame from Indian cinema. We opposed this and argued against it," he told AFP.

"I always said we could make films that were world-class. I said we should go beyond Bollywood and think about our way of telling a story."

Rauniyar said Glover had backed the film through his New York company Louverture Films, which promotes movies which have a social purpose, and that the star was also involved in the editing.

"He wanted to come to the Nepal premiere but he couldn't make it so he sent a video message to everyone," Rauniyar said.

"Highway" got off to a promising start ahead of its July 20 release in Nepal, becoming the first Nepali film to qualify for the Berlin International Film Festival's Panorama category for new directors.

But Rauniyar believes he knows why "Highway" is not loved by all his audiences.

"You have to think, you need to work, and you need to pay attention. They hated that," he said.

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