Shooting Karma

Tsering Rhitar is a perfectionist who works his scenes meticulously, getting take after take until he's ready to move to the next scene

By Sushma Joshi

KATHMANDU, Nepal, 5 December 2004 (Nation Weekly) — Tsering Rhitar stands by the reception area in the Sherpa Hotel, directing his film. The film, titled Karma, is a story about a nun who walks down from Mustang to Pokhara to Kathmandu to track down a man who owes money to the monastery. The nuns need the money to do a puja. The film, says Rhitar, is about the paradox of the co-existence of materialism and spirituality.

"Use your own language," Rhitar urges his actor. The director is wearing a brightly coloured Nepali topi as he directs his multinational crew his cameraman Ranjan Pallit is from India, his actors are Nepali, and he himself has a partial Tibetan background. His shooting script is written in English, with scribbled notes in Tibetan. Little storyboards have been drawn in stick figures next to the script. The dialogue is being translated from the only shooting script.

"We don't have to be politically correct," says the director, as a discussion about the usage of the word "aimai" ensues. "We want to speak like people speak." The actor finally decides to use the colloquial word.

The actor, who has worked with the director before, translates the gist of the dialogue into his own words. The crew waits patiently for the director to finish. Then the grip and gaffer move in with lights and translucent paper that act as filters for the low-budget film.

Ranjan Pallit, the cameraman, says working with Rhitar is: "Very democratic. We can always make suggestions, and he will listen." Pallit says he loves Nepal and has been here 10 times already. A graduate of the Film and Television Institute of Pune, Pallit has also worked with other Nepali filmmakers.

The clapboard says: "scene 73, shot 12, take 1." By the end of the hour, the take will have increased to 7. The sign of a good director is perfection. Rhitar is a perfectionist who works his scenes meticulously, getting take after take until he's ready to move to the next scene. Pratap, the actor, is working on a comic scene where he leers at the nun and asks her for some Mustang apples. The line is said over and over again until the director is satisfied. In-between takes are long moments of lag-time as actors try their lines, check their postures and gestures, and listen to the feedback from the assistant director. The process could try the patience of a saint, but the crew, remarkably, seems to hold up well. "And by the way, give me some Mustang apples," the actor says, leering at the nun. The crew bursts out laughing the line, finally, has punch. "Don't cut me!" the actor jokes as the director finally says: "Cut."

Karma is being shot in digital video which allows for the flexibility of multiple re-takes. Unlike 35mm film, video is cheap to shoot. Film scripts have to be more tightly rehearsed in order to get maximum mileage out of the budget. For Rhitar's working process, which involves a lot of impromptu directing and rehearsing on the set, video allows the flexibility of making mistakes and correcting them on location, without a lot of expensive re-shooting. Digital video is becoming the medium of choice for many indie filmmakers who don't want to be tied down by commercial constraints and who can experiment without having to lug expensive and heavy equipment around in remote places.

Padam Subba, brother of Nabin Subba, who directed Numafung, is assisting on the set of Karma. "Tsering helped us a lot during Numafung," he says. This reciprocity between the small and tight-knit film community has worked to its advantage people share resources and networks, and this has allowed for better working relationships between the different directors.

Rhitar has been shooting for 25 days in Mustang. The crew lived and worked closely with the nuns at the Tharpa Choeling nunnery. The process, said Rhitar, was very moving, and the nuns made good friends with the crew. The nuns cried when the crew departed.

Like many independent films produced internationally, Rhitar's film is being personally funded by the filmmaker. The Rs. 3 million just covers the production and post-production costs. The rest of the funds, including the telecine transfer process, will be raised by the filmmaker later.

"I am not thinking about distribution at the moment," says Rhitar. "I want to make it first, and then think about it." He says he would like to have it widely distributed in the Nepali market, but he also wants it to be available to the international market. Rhitar is a rare breed — an indie filmmaker who follows his artistic vision and avoids the dictates of the market. Unlike many of his compatriots who spend their days hashing out virtual photocopies of Bollywood hits, Rhitar spins stories out of his own experiences and his community. This integrity has brought him international recognition.

Rhitar's previous films include The Spirits do not Come Anymore, about the dying tradition of shamanism, which won an award at Film South Asia. Mukundo, shot in 35mm by the same crew as the one shooting Karma, won international recognition in film festivals in Japan, France, Sweden, India and the United States. It also won an award for the script from the Producers Association of Nepal. Shown at such well-known festivals as the San Francisco film festival, the film garnered respect, although it was never formally distributed on a commercial scale.

In the Sherpa Hotel, the phone rings, a group of German tourists enter with huge backpacks, but the actor remains on his job. "Okay, another take!" he says enthusiastically. "Nice. Lights off," says the tired cameraman. "Get into emotion, Pratap-ji," says the director. "Don't talk, anybody," the actor says as he closes his eyes for a few seconds and allows the noise to fade out as he enters his private world. A few seconds later, he opens his eyes and nods. He is ready. "Rolling, and action," says the director. The actor says his line flawlessly. The last take goes fabulously well. The entire room of expectant spectators bursts into applause. A small miracle of filmmaking has just taken place. But there is no time for rest — it's time for the next scene.

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