27 May 2016
10 min read
1330 words
VMAG talks to Tsering Rhitar Sherpa, whose critically acclaimed films and documentaries show that he is among the brightest stars in the Nepali film firmament

What got you interested in making films?

When I was a kid, movies were my main source of entertainment. I didn’t realise I could be filmmaker until I was in college. During my college days, the teachers would compare movies to Shakespeare’s dramas, so I started viewing films with a renewed perspective. My defining moment happened when I came across the Robert De Niro starrer Raging Bull at a Martin Scorsese Film Festival. When I walked out of the theatre I knew that I wanted to be a filmmaker.

Can you describe your early years in the industry?

When I started out, movies were being made on 16mm, and it was a capital-intensive industry tightly controlled by a small group of people. For a young entrant with no connection, it was quite a challenge to break into this closely guarded industry. But then Sony came out with the DV format compact camera, which I feel democratised filmmaking. The camera was quite affordable and its quality was very good. I bought the camera with the help of a relative, and started making my own films. One of my first projects The Spirit Doesn’t Come Anymore went on to win the Best Film Award at Film South Asia 1997.

What’s been your experience with directing documentaries, feature films and television series?

I’m a trained documentary filmmaker, but my real passion is making feature films. I still make documentaries because that is something I know, but the satisfaction I get from feature films is on a different level. Last year, we made the television series Singha Durbar, and it was a wonderful experience, but it was completely different from making a film. In a film, you have a single narrative that ends within a couple of hours, but in TV, the storytelling happens in an episodic manner. Personally, I found making the TV series more challenging than directing feature films. I have also made music videos and promotional films, but my primary interest is still drama films.

Does your documentary background help you in filmmaking?

Documentary enables me to portray things in a very realistic way; it sort of helps me bring out a real texture and context to my films. My aptitude is to show things in their reality, and this somehow always inspires me to make feature films in a very realistic way. In that sense, documentary has helped me a lot. Furthermore, documentary making needs a lot of pre-production research, and in life as in filmmaking, the more prepared you are, the better the final product.

Most of your recent projects (even Kalo Pothi) portray the insurgency period in Nepal. Is that a conscious choice?

I want to touch upon every subject as a filmmaker, but when you make a film, it’s actually an expression of how you’re feeling during a certain time. The insurgency and political situation have been a big part of my psyche, so maybe that’s the reason that most of my recent works have interwoven various political issues with a mainstream narrative. I won’t call it a conscious decision; it’s something that came naturally to me because it’s such a big part of my thinking. While I was going through a personal spiritual crisis, I ended up making movies like The Spirit Doesn’t Come Anymore, Mukundo and Karma, which explore the idea of spirituality in the modern context. I get involved with films that resonate with my experiences, and through them I try to raise questions.

How did you get involved with Kalo Pothi?

Kalo Pothi is Min Bahadur Bham’s idea; it’s his own story and experience. While he was working on the script, he asked me to be the producer. I went through the script and immediately fell in love with the story. It’s a very simple, personal story, which is a rarity in Nepali cinema. In many ways, he reminded me of my own experience of making my first feature film, Mukundo; it was quite a challenge to wear both the producer and director hats. My role in Kalo Pothi was to basically help create the right environment—financial and creative—so that Min could realise his vision.

Has the role of producers changed in the last decade?

Definitely. Producers these days are more proactive and are not just there to cut cheques. In the US, producers are placed much higher than directors because they bring the vision and also hire the crew. But in Europe it’s just the opposite; the director is the captain of the ship, and everybody else assists him in realising the vision.

The industry standard might be different from region to region, but the main role of a producer remains the same: to help a director focus on his or her creative process. In Nepal, there are many directors playing the role of producers, and in many cases that stems from their own hardships and past experiences.

What makes a Nepali director creatively different from other directors?

I think Nepali directors are very adaptive and creative in working within a very constrained budget. When we have to hire people from donor countries, it’s very interesting to see them work alongside locals. The non-Nepali crewmembers can’t even imagine doing the things we do for the bare minimum costs and without proper safety standards.

If you had to do a do over, what would you do differently?

After Mukundo, a lot of things happened in my personal life, so I couldn’t give time to movie making. I did a lot of things that took me away from making feature films that I would have enjoyed creating. If I could go back, I would make a lot of films and not be distracted. My suggestion to all the newcomers is this: don’t get sidetracked from your goals. Your dream is your responsibility!