Upstart Nepali cinema challenges Bollywood domination

Set against the backdrop of Nepal's deadly Maoist insurgency, "Kalo Pothi" (The Black Hen) opened to packed cinemas in Kathmandu at the weekend, signalling a growing fondness for gritty domestic films over Bollywood extravaganzas.

For decades, Nepali filmmakers churned out copies of India's famously glamorous movies, blending chaste love songs with action sequences in a bid to grab eyeballs.

But after years of losing ground to Hindi films, Nepali cinema is casting off the song-and-dance format with storylines that seek to capture the reality of life in the Himalayan nation.

"Kalo Pothi" follows two boys living in a remote, impoverished hamlet and is based on debut filmmaker Min Bahadur Bam's own experiences growing up during the country's decade-long civil war.

"We often underestimate the Nepali audience, but they are very intelligent. As filmmakers, it is about time we respect them and take risks," said Bam.

Bam is the latest young Nepali director to win awards overseas -- including at the Venice Film Festival -- and find fans at home, with viewers lining up for 8:00 am screenings in Kathmandu.

Dwarfed by Bollywood budgets, local films rarely struck gold until 2012, when a fast-paced flick about a bank robbery in Kathmandu captivated viewers with its streetwise dialogue and realism.

Made on a shoestring budget, "Loot" became a cult film and spawned a sequel, scheduled for release this year.

Its commercial success opened doors for a new generation of filmmakers, armed with access to digital technology which allowed them to experiment with fresh storylines at low cost.

Recent releases include "Highway", which follows passengers stranded on an ill-fated bus trying to get past illegal road blockades, and "Talakjung vs Tulke", about the ten-year insurgency, which became Nepal's entry to the 2016 Oscars.

"There's a recognition among newer filmmakers... that there is a demand, albeit limited, for concepts that go beyond the kind of contrived action or romance formula," said film critic Preena Shrestha of the Kathmandu Post.

Nepali actor Dayahang Rai, who shot to stardom after playing a burglar in "Loot", told AFP young viewers raised on world cinema are setting the agenda.

"If we want to catch their attention we have to tell our native stories, stories that are unique to Nepal," he said.

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