Lights, Camera, Action in Nepal

Nepal as a prime location for international movies

Director Bernardo Bertolucci and producer Jeremy Thomas, with photographer Lynn Davis (behind) and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer on the Little Buddha recce in Chitwan, 1992. Photo: LISA CHOEGYAL

In 2005, Hollywood actress Cameron Diaz, hosted a documentary series for MTV called Trippin’. The show had celebrities visit ecological locales around the world to educate young viewers about nature.

The first episode was filmed in Nepal, featuring Diaz with actress Eva Mendes, rapper Redman and Mark Hoppus of the hit rock band Blink-182. The film was shot on location in Kathmandu and Chitwan.

Carolyn Syangbo was a production liaison for the show in Nepal, and recalls the producers being concerned about paparazzi in Chitwan. In Honduras, the shoot was nearly ruined because fans and media recognised Diaz and Mendes.

“In the end, I said, look, I am going to be really honest and burst your bubble, no one knows who Diaz is here,” Syangbo says. “It took me ages to convince them that we did not need a security protocol to control paparazzi in Chitwan.”

When Michael Palin was in Pokhara in 2004 to shoot his BBC series Himalaya, he was pleasantly surprised not to be recognised at all by Nepalis — until he was mobbed by a British tour group while filming in Boudha.

In 2015, Benedict Cumberbatch was being filmed near Pashupati dressed in a frayed overcoat followed by a camera crew and a microphone attached to a pole overhead.

Marvel’s Doctor Strange was being shot in Kathmandu, but after the first photo went viral, crowds gathered in Thamel, Indra Chok, Swayambhu and Patan to catch a glimpse of the actor.

Director Scott Derrickson decided to film Doctor Strange in Nepal to feature an “Eastern city" that would not be familiar to audiences. In the original comic, Strange travels to Tibet, but that was cancelled because of fears of Chinese censorship.

Cumberbatch and Derrickson came to Nepal despite the 2015 earthquake so the film could potentially boost tourism here.

On top of that, any Nepali watching the film would have felt a connection to see the title card ‘Kathmandu, Nepal’ about 21 minutes in, followed by a minute-long montage of Strange walking around the familiar historical and cultural sites in the Valley.

Bollywood has also chosen Nepal as a location for its many films, starring major stars like Dev Anand in Haré Rama Haré Krishna in 1971 and Amitabh Bachchan in Uunchai last year. Finding one’s country represented in a Hollywood or Bollywood blockbuster, that too as an important piece in the story, is a moment of instant recognition and special delight.

Philippe de Broca’s 1965 adventure-comedy Les Tribulations d'un Chinois en Chine (later retitled Up to His Ears) starring the French screen idol Jean-Paul Belmondo features 15 minutes of Kathmandu landmarks and the Himalayan backdrop.

Several scenes of the 1986 fantasy martial arts film The Golden Child with Eddie Murphy were also filmed around Asan and Indra Chok with some Nepali extras.

Éric Valli’s Oscar-nominated 1999 adventure film Himalaya (also titled Caravan), was shot in widescreen over nine months on location in remote Upper Dolpo.

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1974 fantasy adventure Arabian Nights includes a sequence with a character named Yunan whose story begins and ends in Nepal. In one scene, he plays hide and seek with his friends in and around the Jaisi Deval Temple in Kathmandu, and in another he runs to his father's palace on Kathmandu Darbar Square to tell him he wants to go to the sea. He finds his father in the sunken bath of Patan’s Sundari Chowk. After his return home from his adventures he says farewell to his royal life on Bhelukhel Square in Bhaktapur. Other places to feature in the film are the Kumari Baha, Ashok Binayak Temple in Kathmandu, the Golden Gate, the courtyard of Pujari Math in Bhaktapur, and Saraswati Hiti in Patan.

The Hong Kong supernatural film Witch from Nepal and the British film To the North of Katmandu, were both shot on location in Nepal  in 1986.

Then there is Bernardo Bertolucci’s ambitious drama Little Buddha, filmed in 1992 and released a year later, starring the pre-Matrix Keanu Reeves as Siddhartha Gautam. The film follows three children, one American and two Nepali, who might be the reincarnation of a Buddhist spiritual teacher Lama Dorje, and their story is told in parallel with the story of Gautam Buddha.

Lisa Choegyal, who was a production liaison for Little Buddha in Nepal, remembers how the Bhaktapur Darbar Square had been transformed with fibre-glass sculptures and wood trellises to stand in for Siddhartha’s Kapilvastu palace.

Set designs showing the transformation of the Kathmandu Valley World Heritage Sites for the 1992 production of Little Buddha that starred Keanu Reeves. Photos: LISA CHOEGYAL

Choegyal wrote in her Nepali Times column in 2017 that local residents were confused because the recreated sets could not be differentiated from the real thing.

“It was the most elaborate, ambitious movie to be filmed in Nepal then,” recalls Choegyal. “This was after the 1990 People’s Movement and Girija Prasad Koirala was prime minister. The Tourism Ministry really got behind us because it was the same crew who had done The Last Emperor in Beijing.”

The Last Emperor went on to win 13 Oscars, and after its release visitors to China increased by 25%. And that is why the production of Little Buddha was backed by Koirala’s cousin Niranjan who was adviser to the Ministry of Tourism. The Prime Minister’s Office also assigned a special official to iron out any problems while filming.

“So, in the 10 months of preparation and three months of filming, we didn’t lose a single day,” recalls Choegyal.

Little Buddha was very successful in France, and made around $48 million globally. It also featured in several Year-end lists, including The Washington Post and The New York Times. This kind of exposure, Choegyal says, is valuable to Nepal because it boosts tourism and the economy.

Little Buddha’s production contributed one-tenth of 1992’s tourism revenue in Nepal. Doctor Strange employed around 70 Nepalis in the production side of things and 500 extras.

But lavish productions like Little Buddha are no longer possible on the same scale. The cost of filming on location has gone up, as has the development of CGI and visual effects. For instance, BBC’s Black Narcissus, a 2022 three-episode series based on Rumer Godden's novel of the same name partly filmed in Jomsom, was made almost entirely in studios with only a handful of scenes filmed in Mustang.

Unlike the 1998 IMAX documentary Everest, the 2015 movie Everest starring Jason ClarkeJake GyllenhaalJosh Brolin and about the 1996 deaths on the mountain, was shot only till Base Camp. The rest of the climb was recreated in the Italian Alps and Pinewood Studios in the UK with real-life pilot Vijay Lama playing the character of the helicopter rescue pilot, Madan KC.

Producers are also avoiding location shooting because of more expensive and stricter insurance and liability laws in the US and UK. Kathmandu’s notorious pollution could also be another reason.

Bertolucci had clear blue skies and stretches of green hills, but Syangbo recalls filming for the upcoming film Tiger’s Nest in Chitwan and Surkhet: “The footage was just thick and murky. We were down there filming, and we couldn’t breathe and sometimes we couldn’t even see well.”

She says it is not cheap to film in Nepal, and poor infrastructure adds to the risk.

Ram Krishna Pokhrel of Icefall Productions helps with location scouting for NatGeo, BBC, HBO and others. Among the projects he has worked on are the 2015 Japanese film Everest: The Summit of the Gods and the 2017 adventure comedy L'Ascension.

“Our government doesn’t fully understand filmmaking and there has been no change in its attitude towards films,” Pokhrel laments. “They celebrate when a film comes out but are not supportive during production. Policies are not clear and there are too many restrictions.”

Pokhrel believes that Nepal needs to keep up with international developments in filmmaking techniques to boost the country’s tourism. Nepal could also give tax incentives, like New Zealand, UK and Iceland, for international producers who were to shoot on location here.

“It is not surprising why not many feature films which require large crews are shot in Nepal these days,” says Pokhrel. Documentaries and short films, by contrast, are smaller productions.

When foreign filmmakers come to Nepal to shoot, it is also an opportunity for the local crew to learn and be familiar with what is happening in the industry outside Nepal.

Kiran Bhakta Joshi of Incessant Rain, wants to promote Nepal as a location destination to create jobs and generate foreign exchange income. Right now, mountains remain the most popular subject, but Joshi believes we also need to explore our arts and culture in our films, whether narrative or documentary.

“A step to take in that direction would be to create content ourselves and export abroad,” he adds. “In addition, the system right now does not allow for open competition and works almost like a syndicate. We see the same names making films in Nepal, and even though there are young, talented artists, they haven’t been able to enter the mainstream. This needs to change.”

Joshi previously worked for Disney and co-developed the herding system for the wildebeest stampede sequence in The Lion King. He left the company in 2017 to establish Incessant Rain in Kathmandu, and has worked on visual effects and set extension for Stranger ThingsHouse of the Dragon and A Series of Unfortunate Events.

“We can even create a studio hub here, with a proper sound stage, green screen room,” adds Joshi. “Filmmakers from the US, Italy, even India will want to come here and make films in Nepal. We should think about promoting Nepal not just as a shooting location, but a filmmaking destination.”

Ashish Dhakal