by Frankie Taggart
Kiran wanders aimlessly, oblivious to the traffic and wiping tears from her bloodshot eyes as struggles to take in the devastating news that the love of her life is about to marry someone else.
The poignant vignette is not real life but one of the final scenes to be filmed in a new love story due to hit cinema screens in Nepal next year. But this is no ordinary melodrama, for the object of Kiran’s desire is a woman.
The affair plays out in Snow Flowers, a breakthrough lesbian love story already being dubbed “Brokeback Everest” and set to be the first feature film to deal with the taboo subject of gay relationships in the 60-year history of Nepalese cinema.
With filming having wrapped on schedule in Kathmandu ahead of the international festivals circuit and a general release in spring, the only question is whether the public in the deeply-religious nation will be ready.
The movie, directed by Paris-based film-maker Subarna Thapa, stars two of Nepal’s leading actresses, Dia Maskey and Nisha Adhikari, in a story of two women tormented by their feelings for one another.
“It’s two individuals falling in love and facing all the controversy and restrictions, and mental, emotional and physical traumas of being a lesbian in Nepal,” Adhikari said.
“It’s a simple love story with a lot of complications.”
Local media have dubbed the film “Brokeback Everest” in a reference to Ang Lee‘s gay cowboy love story “Brokeback Mountain“, which grossed more than $178 million worldwide after its release in 2005.
Industry observers do not expect Snow Flowers to do that kind of business but are keenly awaiting the reaction of audiences in Nepal, a conservative, mainly Hindu country that nonetheless has some of the most progressive policies on homosexuality in Asia.
Adhikari, 25, says the film is a first as it deals with the turmoil experienced by same-sex couples in Nepal, whereas previously gay people have always been depicted in Nepalese cinema as figures of fun.
“The entire movie is based on the trauma — what it is like not being able to come out and live your life because there are so many restrictions,” she told AFP.
“There is no liberty in not living your life the way you want, irrespective of who you are attracted to sexually. This movie will be an eye-opener for a lot of people who have just viewed these issues very superficially and who think these are issues that can be easily ignored.”
Quite how the film will go down remains to be seen, although many argue that the signs are positive.
Three years ago, the country’s Supreme Court ordered the government to enact laws to guarantee the rights of gays and lesbians after a gay rights pressure group filed a petition.
Meanwhile the country’s new constitution, currently being drafted by lawmakers, is expected to define marriage as a union between two adult individuals, regardless of gender, and to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation.
For Sunil Pant, a Nepalese lawmaker and the only openly gay parliamentarian in south Asia, it is not a question of whether Nepal is ready for Snow Flowers but rather whether society has any hope of progress without a liberal film industry.
“Nepal always been tolerant and we are now really ready to treat each other equally,” he said.
“It’s also about freedom of expression and our right to be able to watch films about our lives and issues — at least occasionally. I am excited and can’t wait to see the film released in Nepal.”
Nepali films, said to have begun with D.B. Pariyar’s Satya Harishchandra in 1951, are seen mainly by cinemagoers from the poor working class, while the middle class and elites tend to watch Hindu and English-language movies.
Chaitanya Mishra, a sociology professor at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, is not optimistic about the mainstream reaction to Snow Flowers, which began shooting in August in Kathmandu and Pokhara.
“I think that news, films and other media on same-sex relationships will not be accepted or find many supporters as such if we are looking for acceptance and support from a majority of the adult population,” he told AFP.
But he added that the film could be a huge comfort to people already struggling with gay relationships, demonstrating that “they may not be alone and that there may be others like them out there”.
“That is bound to give them immense relief and unburden them of a huge ‘dirty secret’, he added. “It will start them on a journey to humanise such a relationship.”
The makers of Snow Flowers hope it will open Nepal up to a new genre of gay cinema and progress is already underway, with recent short films dealing with homosexuality and Nepali documentary Struggle Within being screened at the Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival last year.
“No, the Bagmati was not set fire in reaction to the film screenings,” said Basanta Thapa, the festival’s curator.
“Nepali society by and large is tolerant to such issues, unlike in India where the screening of Fire in 1998 caused a public stir fanned primarily by the right wing.
“The central theme of the film was lesbianism and was directed by Deepa Mehta, a film director of international repute… The same film, after many years of its release, was screened in Kathmandu and nothing happened here.
“So my own guess is that the film in the making will not attract any trouble from the audience.”
Snow Flowers director Suwarna Thapa says he is not interested in simply showing Nepal “what lesbians do”, but rather to tell a simple love story from an angle never approached before.
“It’s not a shocking film, like war movies or propaganda films, but there will be some impact in Nepali society,” he told AFP.
“Nepal is changing but it cannot be changed by the day after tomorrow. It takes time — it’s a long journey.
“Our Maoist revolution took 10 years to bring about change. Society and culture takes its time.”
Indeed, Snow Flowers is unlikely either to scandalise or titilate audiences expecting to see bared flesh as the relationship plays out through longing glances rather than explicit depictions of sex.
“This is an issue people would like to cover up in society. Maybe more than half the population can relate to the movie because people here totally ignore being bisexual,” said Adhikari, who shortened her long, carefully coiffeured hair for the role.
“Maybe people will go and see it just to see two women romancing — who knows?”