I’ve never used the word “Kafkaesque” to describe a Nepali feature film. But it is the only word I could find to sum up the experience of watching Safal KC and Pratik Gurung’s ‘Hari’. Just like Franz Kafka takes his mundane stories into strange and dreamy landscapes, Hari juxtaposes elements of realism and surrealism to give us a quirky and lighthearted fantasy about a man having an identity crisis. Thirty-year-old Hari (Bipin Karki) is a bachelor and a momma’s boy. His possessive and controlling mother (Sunita Thakur Shrestha) still packs him his lunch, picks what he should wear for office and makes him sit through her favorite TV serials. She’s indoctrinated the meek Hari to become a god-fearing vegetarian, the kind that considers garlic and onions unholy. At work, Hari’s tormented at the hands of his junior colleagues, mostly by the mean-spirited Akash (Kamal Mani Nepal). They make fun of him behind his back and take advantage of his submissive nature to dodge work.
Thus Hari’s life is unhurried and ordered, stretched between office and home, and between a dominating mother and disobeying colleagues. Nothing happens to him out of the ordinary. Then something almost insignificant upends Hari’s sedate life, thrusting him into a spiral of ups and downs. He finds himself doing things that he would rather not do, from being infatuated to a girl (Thinley Lhamo) to taking a stand against his office bullies.
KC and Gurung belong to the new crop of Nepali filmmakers who are daring enough to introduce nuanced cinematic style in their storytelling, to subvert established narrative norms and carve out a niche that is fresh and original. At a time when our cinema is thriving on big budgeted romantic musicals and ensemble comedies at one end and pretentious experimental misfires at the other, the Kafkaesque ‘Hari’ is in the sweet spot of the world cinema that is both accessible and inoffensive.
Chintan Raj Bhandari’s cinematography and Sajan Thapa Magar’s production design gives the film a distinctly original look. Much work has gone into the framing and lighting of the scenes to capture an overall modernistic European art house feel.
Its visually innovative sequences are glued together with Hari’s metamorphosis and ultimate explosion. And with what brilliance Bipin Karki pulls off this character! He’s the right cut for Hari, who often seems like a long lost sibling of the henpecked Phanindra of ‘Jatra’. Karki makes Hari’s struggles believable even when things become hazy and otherworldly.
A true cinephile will rejoice in KC and Gurung’s effort to create the atmosphere and aesthetics we are used to seeing and admiring in films of auteur directors like Wes Anderson, Terry Gilliam and Richard Ayoade. The two Nepali directors’ approach not only pays homage to the filmmakers they love but also displays the courage to achieve a grand visual design with limited budget, small crew and not a little determination.
In that regard ‘Hari’ is a total winner. But the film will polarize audience. The story progresses without an obvious causality of events and intentionally conceals layers of ambiguity. So viewers will not get an ending that neatly ties up everything.
I don’t know if this stylistically crafted yet off-kilter comedy will rake in profit for its makers but I’m confident that ‘Hari’ is an ideal representation of the changing face of Nepali cinema. This is a movie that will age well and wouldn’t be dismissed or undervalued because of its poor theatrical run.