Nepali Independent Filmmaker based in New York
This weekend was going to a special one! I borrowed my mother’s khasi ko maasu recipe and invited a few friends to watch a Nepali film over lunch. For those of us who have been lucky to enjoy good health, there have been a few good things about the otherwise devastating pandemic, among which was introducing Nepali films to my friends here in New York as my thing.
I decided that if I was finally going to watch this particular Nepali film that my filmmaker friends had so much to say about, I might as well make it an event. It was a warm Saturday afternoon and I cooked a proper meal of daal, bhaat and tarkaari. As we munched our way through the rayo ko saag (mustard greens in America), I excitedly translated the film to my mostly bideshi friends.
The plot is that of a guy from the village moving into the big city, he has dreams of starting a business and making something of himself. That’s nice I thought, isn’t that what we all want. I mean, all of us at the table had done the same thing. From Nepal to Turkey, Indonesia, and Columbia, we were here in America in pursuit of a better life.
The film moved ahead, and as any invested audience would I saw myself as the protagonist; he took a leap of faith, learned new ways of the city life and slowly adapted to make the city his own. As a filmmaker, the film reinstated my belief that representation is necessary. Audiences want an honest portrayal of people who are like us. It was all fine until this random character showed up. He was a middle-aged man dressed in a black suit; he wore dark glasses and carried a suitcase.
If you’re not happy about how people portray you, go write your own story!
Now in films, traditionally, the colour black is reserved for negativity. You’ll notice the bad guy wearing black while the pure is represented through white. This idea of white being pure and black being dirty is rooted in colonial, racist history but that’s an issue for another day.
Anyways, this guy in a black suit and a suitcase was supposed to be a Nepali American. His character arc was that he was a ruthless, selfish man for choosing to live in America. The film also suggests that he wanted to sell his property in Nepal so he could pay mortgage in the States and I wished it was that simple. This nameless character was not the hero; he’s in the film only to further the hero’s goal, to make him look good. And then it hit me, I was never the hero as a Nepali living in America. Instead this carelessly sketched half baked, evil, selfish, uncaring person was me; that was my representation on screen.
As I explained the idea behind this character to my friends, they had a good laugh. ‘You are not wanted back home’ they made a little joke of it, I knew that wasn’t true but I just couldn’t laugh it off. Is that what our families living in Nepal think of us? Are we, the Nepali diaspora the selfish opposite of our all loving, sacrificing families back home? Are we all judged through this particular lens? And more importantly, are we horrible humans for moving away from our homeland to live somewhere else?
Migration is hardly new. People have moved for centuries for various reasons. Some flee wars, some due to natural disasters, and most to generalise: in search of a better life. Today, three percent of the world’s population that is more than 258 million people live outside their home country. In America alone, more than 50 million people are immigrant population. Migration has been a part of Nepali history too. Right from Muna Madan to folk songs – we talk about leaving home in hopes of a better life. Who hasn’t shed a tear listening to songs about not making it home during Dashain? Today, Nepal’s largest export is labour; more than 30% of the country’s GDP comes from the remittance.
Now I don’t have an in-depth research or understanding that can provide insight on what causes Nepalis to come to America or move anywhere else; we all have different reasons. But whatever those reasons might be, it’s definitely not because we don’t love our families or we are inherently bad people like the film seemed to suggest.
Here, I know families who deliberately speak only Nepali while at home; I know of people sending their kids to Nepali schools on weekends and I know we are more than excited about sizzling a sel-roti at every opportunity we get. You’ll see homes with kalash at the entryway and find us dancing away to the madal and bhailo during Tihar. We Nepali’s in America, and I am sure everywhere else in the world take great pride in our culture and do everything within our means to preserve our Nepaliness, whatever that might be!
We completed the film regardless. And thankfully there were no other references to that particular character, but it made me restless and during one of our routine calls, I asked my mother back in Nepal what she thought about this. First of all, she said, who set the criteria for what makes you Nepali enough and second, who said physical proximity determines love but most importantly she added, you’re a storyteller yourself, and if you’re not happy about how people portray you, go write your own story!