Finally after seven years of delays and wranglings, Nepal’s beloved literary classic Shirishko Phool is now a film, directed by a Japanese national, Toshiaki Itoh. While the residents of the Valley took a look at the finished product in May last year, the rest of the nation will get to compare the novel and the cinema throughout 2014. Producers plan to screen the movie at selected theatres in Pokhara, Butwal and Dharan, cities favoured by lahures, before branching out to other major cities. An apt decision given that the book is about a British Gurkha who returns after fighting in Burma during the Second World War.
Published in 1965, Shirishko Phool is feted for its lyrical portrayal of a man haunted by his past in the jungles of Burma. Unable to love and still unmarried at the age of forty five, Suyog Bir is deeply ashamed of his age, his loneliness and of the fact that he was only a sipahi who killed no enemy but a helpless Burmese woman for rejecting his advances. Once back in Kathmandu, his encounter with a stick-thin, cynical, chain-smoking, 24-year-old Sakambari does nothing to abate this mortification. As he becomes increasingly besotted with her, self-effacement gives way to meaninglessness only to engulf him whole. The novel went on to win the prestigious Madan Purashkar in the same year it was published, making Parijat the first and the only other woman to bag that honour.
Converting a titan of a novel into a film is tricky. Especially when the trend never took root as such forays in the past bore little or no commercial success. Directors did start adapting literary works into celluloid early on in 1971 with Parivartan, based on a play called ‘Chetana’ by Janardan Sama. But less than 30 of around 1000 movies released since 1951, when the first Nepali movie came out, are such literary adaptations. And only a handful have been deemed ‘hit’ with the audience, including Paralko Aago (1971), Basudev (1985), Prem Pinda (1995) and Basanti (2000). The latest film adaptation to do well in theatres was Muna Madan ten years ago. Even Shirishko Phool picked up less than fifteen percent of its budget of around Rs 7 million during its showing in the Capital, lasting at most three weeks in one theatre at Chabahil.
Slim pickings, however, are not the only limiting forces. Even commercial, masala movies do not fare well in box office, with not more than two or three movies reaping profits in a year. Yet, the period post-2010 has seen more than 100 Nepali films jostling for screens in cinema halls each year. Difficulties for film adaptations, in fact, begin way before the first shot is taken. Laxmi Mali, a noted poet and chairperson of Parijat Memorial Centre, does not want to go into details, but the Centre and filmmakers fought over the ‘right way’ to depict Shirishko Phool on screen right from the onset, even before Mali led the Centre five years ago.
Before Itoh took over the directing reins, Bipin Jung Rana had already begun shooting the film in 2007. But two years later, with increasing ‘creative differences’, Rana and the Centre parted ways, leaving behind reels Itoh would not use. The only constants were the two lead actors, Ganesh Man Lama as Suyog and Sharmila Gurung as Sakambari.
Even after Itoh, in collaboration with Ullar author Nayan Raj Pandey, rewrote the script, it took two more years to pack up shootings. Assistant director of the film, Bijay Ratna Tuladhar, blames the fleeting season when jacaranda come into bloom for the extra year. As the blossoming blue flowers form the backdrop of the story, standing in as metaphors for Suyog’s transient love for Bari, they had to be there and the timing had to be right. Two more years later, and despite some reservations from the Centre, the film was now ready for theatre goers.
Those who have managed to watch the movie grouse that it has failed to provide justice to the book. Mali found the last scene featuring gods especially objectionable, going directly against the nihilistic ideology propounded by the book. Others have found the presentation too slow and the lead actors’ performance too exaggerated — the fine balance between soppy and tortured destroyed. Yet, for devoted fans of the novel and for lovers of literature in general, it is time to celebrate. An exemplary novel is now a film as well; another petal to add to the volume’s enduring charm. Itoh, whose only other venture in Nepali is a short psychological drama called Kathputali, has to be given due credit for daring to live up to the book’s fierce reputation. So what if this film fails to create magic for some. This is only the beginning; there will be other renditions that will finally tick.
For those who missed out on screenings in May, besides viewings outside the Vallley, charity and educational shows of Shirishko Phool will continue throughout 2014. For Parijat buffs, the New Year brings one more ladoo. The writer’s short story, Salgiko Balatkrit Aansu, is now a movie directed by Badri Adhikary. After two years in the shelf, it will finally make non-commercial appearances nationwide.