Akash Adhikari is one of the foremost directors and producers of the country. He is the president of Nepal Film Producers’ Association (NFPA) and a central member of the Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FNCCI) representing the commodity groups. Adhikari is also an executive member of the Asia-Pacific chapter of the International Federation of Film Producers Associations. Besides, he has his own production house The Sky Movies Pvt. Ltd. A graduate in filmmaking from the Madhumati Academy in Mumbai, India, Adhikari has been continuously involved in Nepali film industry for the last two and a half decades in various capacities, most notably as a director, producer and actor. He is also considered one of the actors behind modernisation of Nepali films. The Rising Nepal’s Renuka Dhakal and Aashish Mishra caught up with him on Tuesday and talked about how the pandemic has impacted the film sector and the assistance it requires from the government to recover. Excerpts:
Considering that the cinema theatres have opened and new films have been released, do you feel that the Nepali movie industry is starting to return to the pre-pandemic state?
When the earthquake hit in 2015, the only thing the film industry had to worry about was aftershocks the possibility of more tremors. This time, with COVID-19, we have to worry about its contagious nature. The disease can spread. In that sense, it is larger and more dangerous crisis compared to the 2015 quake. It took a year for the industry to fully recover from the earthquake. It might take longer to come back from this pandemic adopting all the necessary precautions. But we have to start someday and if not today, then when? We have to fight hard to get the cinema sector back to its previous state.
In your opinion, how long will it take for the Nepali cinema to return to its earlier state?
In addition to revival, the pandemic has given us the opportunity to revitalise the sector. We must collectively move forward to advance this field. We must now focus on original indigenous stories told in a way that caters to the smart audience of today. They are exposed to international cinema and know the global standards. So, Nepali films have to deliver that. The belief is that the COVID-19 vaccine will arrive in Nepal by April or May. After that, we can be hopeful that the industry will return to its old state.
How much has the cinema industry lost in the past 10 months?
At the start of the lockdown in March, Nepal Film Producers’ Association looked at the state of under-production films and found that 15 were in pre-production, 25 were being produced and 28 were ready for release. The total investment in all those films was Rs. 1.60 billion; an investment that came to a complete standstill for 10 months. A large portion of this investment came from bank loans. And since the movie sector does not get project loans, many filmmakers take out loans through other medium such as home loans. Filmmakers have to pay interest on these loans at a time when the industry is motionless. We had some experiences too. I met the Governor of the Nepal Rastra Bank (NRB) on July 16 and handed over a letter asking for the cinema field to be categorised as one of the worst affected industries. And in a matter of days, the bank included the film sector, including filmmakers, exhibitors and distributors, in the worst affected category. But now the question is, what about those filmmakers operating outside of the companies? Moreover, cinema is a very time-bound industry and a movie releasing after 10 months risks losing its relevancy. All in all, the industry has suffered a loss of Rs. 6 to 8 million loss in the last 10 months.
How many people have lost their jobs in the film industry due to pandemic?
About 35,000 people are directly involved in the film industry and a further 175,000 people are indirectly dependent on it. And in these 10 months, all their livelihoods were jeopardised. Furthermore, many talented technicians and actors may exit the industry and leave a huge dent. We face a challenge in retaining them too. You and the FNCCI worked hard to reopen the film industry which was ultimately successful. But why did the government still acted slow? We repeatedly requested the government to open the film sector. We clarified that keeping the industry would cause unemployment and force capable people to leave. But the government did not consider entertainment as an essential service. We endeavoured to make it understand that cinema was a mirror of the society, reflecting our art, culture and civilization. So not tending to this sector during the present crisis risks total collapse. Tomorrow, this sector might disappear like in Pakistan. Pakistan's film industry vanished for many years and is only now recovering. If the government does not prioritise this sector, Nepali cinema may face the same fate.
Why was the government hesitant to reopen this sector?
In the case of cinema theatres, the government believed that since the screening rooms do not have ventilation fans, it would increase the transmission of the coronavirus. Also, it was concerned about what kinds of precautions we would follow while shooting and especially when there were specific kissing and intimate scenes between the actors. We convinced the authorities that we would conducting Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests of the entire crew and work in a closed environment with minimal outside contact. We also informed them that it was mandatory for all people working behind the camera to wear face masks. Theatre operators also expressed their willingness to sanitise their hall. They stated that they would leave one seat vacant and follow the government’s health protocols when showing movies.
The Maoist insurgency was another time of crisis for the cinema halls. Many were converted into warehouses or party venues. Has COVID-19 led to a similar situation?
Let me just say that many such halls converted back to theatres with my film Kohinoor. The halls may have closed now too but we must remember that not all closures were because of COVID-19. Also, the thing is, we need to evolve with the time. The audience has become very advanced and have high expectations. We need to meet those expectations and transform ourselves to lure people into our halls.
What kind of support should the government give?
We need support from both within the industry as well as from the Government of Nepal. Filmmakers have to come together as a group. We should emphasise quality films rather than quantity. Our duty is to turn stories into movies and promote them at national and international levels. From the government’s side, we need the state to manage the PCR testing of the shooting crew. We have also requested it to subsidise 20 per cent of the total budget of the film. We have also met the Finance Minister for this purpose and he assured us that the film industry would receive some relief. It must be mentioned that the government has extended some help. The NFPA brought the ‘project insurance’ concept in which, the government will cover one per cent of the insurance premium of the films made with an investment of up to Rs. 15 million through Film Development Board(FDB). Additionally, we also wanted some help with the films’ publicity. A producer pays anything from Rs. 250,000 to Rs 1,200,000 for virtual printing and encoding. There are a few companies that provide this service and the government has said that if the producers work with the company providing the cheapest, the government is ready to pay these costs through the Film Development Board (FDB). Likewise, up to Rs. 150,000 will be provided for the promotion of new films through the FDB as well.
Many film-related organisations and individuals have criticised the government. What do you feel? Has the government really ignored this industry?
Everyone is allowed to voice their opinions. It is some that some understand the realities before voicing and some don’t. It is not that the government does not love this industry, but our predecessors were not able to convey the importance of films to the authorities. Before, our industry was categorised as a service sector, but now, we have succeeded in turning it into a national-priority enterprise. Now we are in the process of drafting a policy for the film industry.
You have been continuously working in Nepali films for more than two and a half decades. What changes have you observed in this time?
In the past, many Nepali movies copied Indian and other cinema. They could do it too because there was no technology that enabled the people to access global content. That is not the case now. Today’s audience watches international films and can notice if something has been copied or lifted from somewhere else. They are more aware. Also, many motivated and passionate youth equipped with practical and theoretical knowledge have entered this sector. Nevertheless, some filmmakers are still copying. Also, now we can harness the potential of digital platforms because the citizens can now make dollar payments of up to 500 dollars. We went to NRB and requested them to make arrangements for 2,000 dollars but 500 dollars is also better than nothing. The NRB has responded positively about increasing the ceiling to 1,000 dollars.
How do you see the Nepali film industry as a whole? I have been in the film industry for 26 years. I started with celluloid movies. In 2008, I went to Hollywood and obtained training and brought a RED camera. I also contributed to digitising Nepali films. But it has become difficult for me to survive in this industry as well. Investments in this sector are not safe. I request the government to prioritise this industry and coordinate with Nepali embassies around the world to promote Nepali films.