"In each and every house in Kathmandu, you might find a Radhika," Deepak Rauniyar, the director of Highway, says of one of his characters. "A woman whose husband has been working out of the country for two or three years, a woman left alone. How can we blame her for needing love?"
Highway follows a bus full of strangers across Nepal to Kathmandu. The characters are unusual: a young gay man, an unfaithful wife, a transgender victim of sexual violence, a wealthy divorced doctor slowly losing his mind. These are not the airbrushed clichés of Bollywood-style movies. The fragmentary narrative of Rauniyar's film plunges the audience into deeply personal vignettes of each character aboard the bus.
"Each character is a window into a hidden facet of Nepali society," Rauniyar says. The viewer gets vulnerable portraits of these outsiders, reel after reel of secrets. A woman gyrating on stage at a dance club as her eyes fill with tears, a young girl about to become a bride smoking a cigarette alone in a locked bathroom. These visceral glimpses into the secret lives of the passengers are performed with the same violence with which the film attempts to redefine Nepali cinematic identity, against the overwhelming, homogenous presence of imported cinematic formulas from South Korea and India.
Highway embodies the changes that Rauniyar wishes to see in contemporary Nepali films. "First and foremost, we have to start telling our story," he says. "So many directors are watching Bollywood or Korean movies and using those formulas to make movies for Nepalis, but we need our own stories."
This is not supposed to be an easy film to watch, said Rauniyar, acknowledging his intention to frustrate viewers accustomed to smooth plots with the interruptions of one banda after another, and repeated recordings of failed cell phone network messages as a secondary soundtrack for the film.
"A banda is a great example of selfishness, of forgetting the rights of others," explained Rauniyar. Highway's realism extends to its cinematography. Jump cuts stitched together create jolting exchanges between characters, and the camera bounces with the uneven road. "The road is not smooth, just as life is not smooth in Nepal," says the director.
Rauniyar was surprised about the censors excising the part with Limbuwan activists. "Why censor in films something present in everyone's lives? Nepali people hear this stuff on the radio, on the TV, everyday, so why can't they see it in a movie?" Rauniyar quoted one explanation he received from a bureaucrat in defense of the censorship: "He told me: 'Why should a film be real?'"
There is a unique freedom that the bus ride provides, away from the constraints of society, bringing together a cross-section of individuals with diverse economic and cultural backgrounds. During their journey the passengers transcend shortcomings and inertia through collective imagination. When the bus arrives in Kathmandu, they are cut off from each other, disappearing into the dark, urban sprawl, each drawn back into the solitary enclosures of their private lives.
There are no happy endings. The young gay man pulls back the rubber sheet to identify the dead body of his transgender friend. The army lieutenant tracks down his wife run down by a car and finds she has lost a baby not his own. The band is left, unpaid, in full wedding dress in the rain.
"This lack of a resolution reflects the betrayal our society is experiencing," explained Rauniyar, "I wanted the viewer to feel as lost and alone as each of the characters, if we are not together, we are nowhere." And yet the viewer is left with the sensation of hope, a memory of all that was possible within the bus.
Highway has encountered anger and criticism on its Facebook page. 'This is the worst movie of all time', says one. Another commentator accuses the film of being un-Nepali because it was shot by an Indian cinematographer and produced by an American, even claiming that Rauniyar intended his film to cater to a European audience rather than a Nepali one. There are also strong arguments in support of the film's innovations.