Red Monsoon (2014) – When it Rains, it Pours

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2014 is shaping up to be a solid year for Nepali Cinema—in relative terms, of course. After the much-appreciated Jhola, here comes another movie, Red Monsoon, arresting the spirit of Nepali foibles and fluttering the panache of local cinema. Eelum Dixit’s Red Monsoon, already screened internationally in film festivals and in the latest edition of KIMFF in 2013, comes as a riveting original motion picture carrying a typical story at its heart told in a one-off style for Nepali Cinema—contrasting to any other kind from the prodigious élan of New Wave Cinema hailing in Nepal. The movie certainly stands out amongst various other Nepali movies released in 2014, and is a movie true to the quirks of Nepali Culture, especially coming from the vision of Nepali filmmaker who uses the stage of cinema for the first time after gaining reputation as a dramatist.

As a story, written by Karuna Sharma, Red Monsoon is a simple drama about people. I say people because that is precisely what you’d feel watching this saga unfold—anecdotes about everyday people written and filmed in a visceral manner. Featuring multiple characters, tangled in their own mini universe, Red Monsoon is reminiscent to the scenario of the 80s and 90s exhibiting the social capital of the era in the modern age of Nepal that is today. These real people in the movie carry along their own backstories, all of them ridden in Maya, if you will; challenging the cores of their sociological existence from the predicaments, they find themselves a healthy part of. Working as a no-nonsense, gritty drama, Red Monsoon engages people brought together by the distant proximity of Patan—an oxymoron presented exquisitely in the movie.

We have Karuna (Shristi Ghimire), a woman eloping norms and boundaries to be with her chosen person, Krishna Bahadur (Sandip Chhetri). On one disturbing night, Krishna stumbles upon a woman in peril, Chetana (Himali Dixit) with whom he forms a mutual bond. Simple stories, right? It just happens to be that simple… Going to back to Karuna, her abrupt decision to elope haunts her parents. Karuna’s younger brother, Babu, called as in the movie (played by Sudam CK), takes the Lion’s share of the floating assault exerted to him for all the mishaps occurring to Karuna’s family by their father. Thus, shaping this drama about trifles in a cross-hooked and interconnected complexion—each step relying on the previous for reaction and on the next for retribution…

These tangled webs of nobility define much beyond normal, flimsy conflicts. The story stems from a ruptured backbone taking each persona in the movie from the start to a breaking point, all with an unnerving discomfort and an enchanting immersion into the lives of the complicated ordinary beings. Almost like an anecdotal rendering of various people related to one another in peculiar light, Red Monsoon is ever too close to peering into these very lives—perhaps the reason for the extreme close-up shots giving the viewers a feel of unwarranted proximity and a sighing sense of awkwardness.

The story of Red Monsoon is nothing but a simple, pluralistic take on the lives of these dense characters. The manner in which Dixit has presented the story—offering a cold, disenchanting look makes it a powerful interpretation of an otherwise beautiful, yet very common series of events. Not without transmitting the essence of social realities confined to our society—even today, as stark as it may appear in the movie. This hypnotizing delivery would provoke any film enthusiast, buff, or critic to applaud the unique presentation that Eelum Dixit manages to instill into this artsy cinema.

What aids the movie in its expression, the most, is the atmospheric circle revolving around the characters; hence, the story—showing faraway ethers that are made utterly complicated by the photography (Bryan Emery) and the scenic contrast between the internal affairs of the characters and the external projection of the place they find themselves fighting against for acceptance. The timely usage of found-footage-esque cinematography along with the hand-held kinetic movement of the camera and, not to ignore, the proximity of the shots to the screen builds an aura of depleted emotions ailing the viewer deeper into the story and the ambience of the arena. That said; the extreme close-up shots become unbearable at times and downright annoying—almost to the point of repulsion. Despite those bothersome instances, the atmospheric charm might be the best accomplishment of the movie. It provides the stage for a still, calm motion that is almost haunting. The serene, striking visual representation creates an urgency and an experience that cannot be undiluted easily for it is catchy and mysterious, whilst the constant evolution of the characters keep the dynamics changing—almost like a flux.

For me, the winner in all of this, obviously, is how the story manages to engross the spectator into the whole drama, feeling for some, sympathizing with others, and loathing the guts of some. As they say, a perfect story is always the one that makes the receptor empathize with the characters, and involves them in the story in a shared mental assembly. That is what the persona of Karuna managed. Her predicament evokes feelings of sympathy taking us to a stage of mutual understanding—feeling for her sighs. Amongst the array of characters, Karuna accomplished in bringing that karuna out of me, seeing and sensing her plight. At the same time, her brother, Babu, has the depths and a nerve-wracking arc—travelling from youthful awe to silent contempt, his expression dictating his transition slow, yet steady. These two characters add a powerful punch to the movie. What the viewers’ interpret from these complex personas only strengthen the movie’s claim to genuineness—culminating into a provoking climax that feels just right.

Red Monsoon can be uncomfortable to watch at times, mainly due to the energetic camerawork, which ranges from infuriating at moments to absorbing at other times, but mostly it’s absorbing. The performances are apt, especially the piercing quandary of Karuna essayed by Shristi Ghimire. Most of the actors are impressive, yet when it comes to Himali Dixit, she is fine as long as she had her dialogs to a minimum. During the times she had to speak, it was a bit hilarious, to put it nicely. Minor flaws aside, Red Monsoon is refreshing to watch and a proud moment for Nepali film enthusiasts in watching a movie that tells a potent story of the fluidity of life and the undercurrent influence society has in dictating and shaping our lives. As cinema, it’s inspiring and wonderfully presented; as an experience, it’s a touching tale and a movie worth spending your time engrossed in appreciating this cinematic journey.

Make sure you watch Red Monsoon. It’s unlike your Nepali movie, with a firm telling of a world around you in an artistic and purposeful light akin to classic musical notes clutching your imagination. Speaking of which, excellent composition by Lochan Rijal—adding soul to this movie rich in artistry and beautiful in demonstration. Red Monsoon is just that.

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Swapna Mahal – A Streetcar Named Desire (2013)

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A direct translation of the Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire, Swapna Mahal (Dream Castle) is the Nepali representation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning (1948) drama that comprised an assembled cast of Marlon Brando, Jessica Tandy, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden. Translated in Nepali by Samuna KC, directed by Eelum Dixit, and playing at Mandala Theaters in Annamnagar (Kathmandu, Nepal), Swapna Mahal is set, in what appears to be early to mid-90s, during the era of Bikram tempos, 555 cigarettes, the eternal proximity of Bag Bazar, and the coveted ISD age of phones that only found home in the affluent parts of Nepal. The plot serves the exact emotion as in the original; the tweaks lie in the social context, communal discrimination, and the contextual heart of the story, the romance between the primary character and the rest of the world.

The Characters

  • Bely Basnet ala Blanche DeBois (Samuna KC)
  • Tara Kalwar ala Stella Kowalski (Sarita Giri)
  • Shankar Pratap Kalwar ala Stanley Kowalski (Pramod Agrahari)
  • Jason ala Mitch (Shayad Ashok)
  • Yogita Maharjan ala Eunice (Junu Bista)
  • Sante aka Steve (Sudam CK)
  • Gajju ala Pablo (Mohammed Najir Husain)

Plot summary

Bely—the fashionable, charming, and glamorous resident of Gangtok, Sikkim—arrives to her sister, Tara’s residence in Bag Bazar (Kathmandu) without prior notice of the exact date. The two sisters unite after, what seems a long time. Bely is first acquainted to the house by the landlady Yogita, and subsequently, Bely meets her sister’s husband, Shankar Pratap Kalwar for the first time since their marriage. Shankar is a brute, aggressive, and rash individual, with a love for football, cards, drinks, and his wife. Soon Bely meets Shankar’s gang, the landlord Sante, the young sidekick Gajju, and the man who would become an object of love for Bely, Jason. Bely lies to everybody about the purpose of her actual visit stating that she is an English teacher and is on a holiday to visit her lovely sister.

The relationship between Bely and Shankar is sour right from the onset, with Shankar despising Bely for her glamor and celebrity behavior, while Bely scorning him for his brute, abrasive, sensual, and obnoxious ways. As time moves on, Bely and Tara enjoy the company of each other, but thanks to the investigations carried out by Shankar, everybody around comes to know of her truth and all the lies, she uttered. Shankar reveals that Bely was sacked from her position as a teacher for having an affair with one of her students and he reveals about her sexual indignities and association with various men. Coming to know of this, Jason breaks off all ties with Bely.

During the final act, Shankar’s wife and Bely’s sister Tara enters labor and has to proceed to the hospital, and this leaves Shankar and Bely alone in their house. Here, Bely shows the height of her aggressive tendencies, which results in Shankar raping her and getting her enrolled into a mental asylum. Thus, the curtains drop, with Tara’s snivels and Shankar’s redemption.

The Psychology of the Play

A Streetcar Named Desire is a psychological play—containing subtle elements through which Tennessee Williams throws light on various recurring issues in American Society during the post-World War II era, and America’s subsequent social interests, taboos, issues, and the magnetic topic of a male dominance and the inferiority of women—treating women as primary sexual objects. In the Nepalese adaptation/translation, the translator (Samuna KC) and director (Eelum Dixit) hold honesty on these issues and present a play, with Nepal’s own idiosyncrasies and quirks blended into the characteristics of the major characters as well as using sequences signifying the vulnerability of women and dominance of males in a male-centric society.

For Bely (Blanche), a woman living in her dreams and illusion, the symbols around her signify her withdrawal from society—crawling into her own world, her dreamland, her Castle of Dreams. The Castle of Dreams where she is the Queen, the Superstar, the Enchanter of Hearts, the ageless, timeless beauty who remains eternal in the darkness of the Moon. Bely’s obsession with dim lights, darkness, alcohol, sexuality, physical luminosity, and the desire to remain “fresh,” symbolizes her fear for aging but most ethically, her willingness to live in what should be rather than what is. Having a dreadful past, Bely looks to alcohol as an escape from the pangs her life has offered, and through the need for constant reassurance of her beauty and radiance, she seeks acceptance, appreciation, and reverence through her male counterparts. The most astounding aspect is—despite the sexual exhibition that is Bely Basnet, she is hardly interested in raw sex, as opposed to her sexuality being a catalyzing proof of her charm, beauty, and ability to enchant male suitors and vindicate herself of her status as a bewitching queen.

Through the character of Bely and her obsession with darkness, as later Jason (Mitch) stresses, it also symbolizes her fear of aging. Willing to remain in her sweet 16 forever, Bely uses water as a source of freshness, along with her romantic ventures with men younger to her, as young as 16 if we realize, to keep her young and fresh, in her eyes and in the confused world she finds herself a part of. Also, the cries and moans symbolize her presence in the other world, where she wants herself to be, and not in this world—here and now, for that hardly matters for Bely who is lost in her own definition of life and living.

The character of Shankar (Stanley) represents the signature male-esque traits so common and worshipped during Second World War in America—rough, tough, athletic, and with an undying energy in sexuality, which becomes the main reason for Tara’s (Stella) infatuation towards the brusque man that Shankar is and prides himself in being. In one of the scenes, Shankar and his friends are playing cards, with Shankar drunk. He initiates a rogue behavior, especially towards Bely and when Tara (Stella) tries to calm him down and end the ordeal for the night, he slaps her, during her pregnancy, but later on he breaks down and cries her name. She comes towards him and the two have sex, as implied, which seemed to have solved everything between the two. This scene serves well in explaining the status of women during that era, whilst also relevant to Nepalese context—maybe not directly, but suggestively—as Tara and Shankar’s sexual bursts resolve the impending crisis and take them back to love, lust, and sexuality, with Tara adoring her man’s sexual prowess and that alone being the reason for their togetherness, as it seems.

In the case of Tara, she remains loyal and completely dependent on Shankar—very much in love—with no aspirations of her own and accepting of her duty of a wife, a woman figure in the Kingdom of Shankar. The character of Tara symbolizes the typical woman in our society—our Mothers, Sisters, Wives, and Daughters—remaining content with what life offers and standing as the strongest pillars of society. Her relationship with her husband remains that of respect and obedience; her relationship with her sister of love, fun, sensitivity, and honor. Her relationship with her landlady Yogita (Eunice) the one of friendship and mutual understanding; yet, with all relationships, one term shines in glory, the term of submission. Tara isn’t afraid of submitting to anybody because her nature is that of Nature!

Bely’s love interest, Jason, represents the typified characteristic prevailing, with Jason unable to accept a woman with so much history and corruption, in his eyes. No longer pure, fresh, young, and dignified, if we use the social barometers, Jason is the symbol of that society—unable to accept women in their actuality, and bent on judging them based on their societal excursions. Also, the relationship between Jason and Bely signifies the selfish nature of humans, as Jason looks for a wife material and a girl that he is able to present to his parents, which he doesn’t find in Bely due to her past. Whilst, Bely seeks a man to take refuge in, and despite Jason not being the “type” of her kind, she has no option with her cells dying every day, her years growing every moment, and her beauty evaporating every summer. When later, Jason dumps Bely after hearing about her biography from Shankar, the very famous American slang notion, “Bros before Hoes,” works with full motivation, as one has to remember the context of the original play, A Streetcar Named Desire, and the society where males are the power of Nature and females are mere subordinates.

On the core of this drama lies the inherent selfish nature of both sexes. Men seem interested in the sexuality of women and intend to keep them under their toes, while women seem to be attracted to the power quotient in men, and are willing to accomplish whatever necessary to associate them with the power, with the solitary figure representing power. With great power comes great responsibility, and in the case of Swapna Mahal, with great power came greater benefits and with greater benefits came great power. The inconsistencies of males and females and the relationship built on the base of usage and gratification is the central idea of this grand play, and Tennessee Williams has done an impeccable job in reflecting a social issue in form of a reflective play.

The Execution of Swapna Mahal

The Director of the Play, Eelum Dixit, carries forward this play in a Nepali spirit based on the reality of Nepal and the present-day scenario of social inclusion and diversity. Nonetheless, the time frame of the play leaves a lot to be desired as the play seems to be set in the 90s, and the issue of social inclusion and equity raised through the play caught fire long after the demise of Bikram tempos and Triple 5 cigarettes. There are many positive aspects in the play, with the messages and the ways the messages come out is commendable and worth applauding. The performances rank from good to cheesy, and even at times, very corny. The scenes between Bely and Tara are warm at times, often very stereotypical, and downright embarrassing at others. The same could be said for the scenes between Bely and Jason, where viewers would feel akin to watching an overly romantic Bollywood clichéd movie than feel the spike of attraction between the two aspiring couples. The performance and characterization of Shankar had ample amounts of realism injected into it, which is why—despite overdoing the aggressive ventures—the conflict scenes between Shnakar and his wife come off realistic and common to Nepali society. The exchanges between Bely and Shankar are too much at times, but not entirely unknown to Nepalese living at bay of such inhumane barters. Yet, the romantic wooing of Shankar and his wife, well, how much pragmatism would one expect?

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Analyzing the original play, A Streetcar Named Desire, and reviewing Swapna Mahal, during much of the play, Swapna Mahal seems to be lost in translation. Picking up an American Play, with cent percent contextual originality of America and transforming, or merely translating into Nepali wouldn’t do justice to the original foundation of the play—neither the social circumstances of Nepal, nor the intelligences of informed audiences seeking for much depth in this wonderful play. Somewhere in between, the anthropological and sociological interventions seemed thin in vapor, and the mere translation didn’t reflect the message this play could have attached in the minds of Nepali Drama Lovers. Having said all of that, there are many bright and lively scenes throughout the acts, and as a gesture of appreciation and in support of Nepali Theater Groups and Mandala Theater, the play is worthy of watch—if not for the execution, but the essence of the play, the love of drama, and the artistic superiority of the real drama to the visual one.

Swapna Mahal will find home at Mandala Theaters until August 18, 2013 and is showing at 17:15 every day, except for Mondays. Visit www.mandalatheatre.com.np for more details.

Images not from the Nepali adaptation, Swapna Mahal.