The sizzle of a jeri in hot oil. I don’t mean just the delightful sound it makes when the wavy, off-white mixture suddenly turns orange after being plopped into the pot. I mean the way that shot—those few seconds that the makers of Suntali crafted—invoke a sensation of crisp sweetness, successfully mixing actions, sounds, and visuals to create a striking vignette. This is only one example out of many wonderful vignettes that are woven together by the filmmakers, under the direction of Bhaskar Dhungana, to create memorable montages, a rarely seen technique in Nepali movies.
Suntali is Dhungana’s debut as a director of feature film, although he has considerable experience in the film industry. He co-produced Kagbeni and Sano Sansar and completed a film course in Prague in 2011. It was while collaborating on a short film project in Prague that Dhungana developed a friendship with cinematographer Ondra Belica and was able to bring him on board as Suntali’s director of photography.
Whether one is watching the opening scenes—the film is shot entirely in bucolic Bandipur—or the more intimate details of a character’s inner life, Suntali is a vibrant, visual treat. A teardrop on a tailor’s textile, the quiet longing in a character’s eyes, red chilies spread to dry in the sun, the aura emanating from a central character, Chinmaya Suberdani (played superbly by Suryamala Khanal), who is always surrounded by her bright, fiery cabal of red-sari-clad women. These details are framed and sequenced by Belica so gracefully that the film unfolds visually as much as it does with dialogue and plot.
The story is a straightforward tale of a girl returning to her village. That, along with the title, is a hint to viewers that the filmmakers have chosen simplicity as an artistic vehicle to explore the intangible yet profound subtleties that are often discovered if one pays attention to this simple life. The filmmakers have taken a risk in presenting this familiar story in a new and exciting way. Writer Prawin Adhikari, very much on aboard this vehicle, manages to do just that.
Adhikari deftly breaks the colorful, romantic mood at the very beginning to introduce a mysterious tension. Yes, Suntali is back in town. But she has a companion. All is not well. This uncomfortable subplot is interspersed with humorous breaks when the village policeman falls into regular Rajesh Hamal reveries, but the main narrative arc—Why is Suntali back? What happened between her and Suberdani? How will this story end?—has already been established and its subplots are seamlessly linked. To that end, the film is remarkably well paced. Though at times toward the end, scenes appear drawn out, unable to contain the inherent drama, and the acting jumps out of the screen. The musical score, at first clever, becomes cloying. But these minor distractions don’t detract from the overall experience of watching Suntali. Because it is evident that this is a film put together by a team who have studied their craft and learned from their experiences, foreign and local.
In that sense, Suntali is a successful product of a global conscience. Who knows what kind of mental and emotional recesses one goes to in order to realize a work of art? Who knows what kind of magical connections happen when passionate people sit down to collaborate? On its surface, Suntali is a film set in a Nepali village, but it contains allusions— intentionally or not—to films made in India, Europe, America, and elsewhere.
While sitting through Suntali, I couldn’t help but recall the director Yash Chopra. When Chopra made Chandni at the end of the eighties, it changed the course of the Hindi film industry. There were several elements that made the film noteworthy: foreign locations (one of the first directors to launch that trend), a romantic story line marred by tragedy, and a title named after the film’s central female character (a role played masterfully by Sridevi, which turned her into an instant cultural icon). Chopra is known for making films that had strong female characters whom he presented with alluring glamor.
In Suntali, Priyanka Karki, with Dhungana’s tutelage, behind Belico’s lens, shines in this lead role. She is able to balance her character’s village-girl roots with the grown woman who has been influenced by the modern world outside. She never goes overboard, doesn’t underplay the complexities. For the most part, her expressions hold the mystery that the role demands. In one scene, Suntali gazes over the village while thinking about her past. The brief moment offers a glimpse into Suntali’s story: it shows her as a young, plain girl, then just as quickly brings us back to the more worldly Suntali and her ravishing beauty. The scene, which doesn’t end there at the surface, lingers for a few moments and invites us to go deeper, giving us an option to enter Suntali’s mind and think about her character. The film excels in sequences like these, moments that are so packed with historical and societal complexities that the viewer has no choice but to delve into them, because there is work to be done. We must unpack the moment and unearth the mystery. Suntali is a simple, yet beautiful film. And it’s the simplest beauty that can be the most powerful.
Watch the trailer:
Film by Blue Poppy Films Pvt. Ltd. on December 19, 2014.