Rekha – Malāi thāha chha timi malāi sānchchai māyā garchhau. Tyesaile ma aru ko hāt bāta hoina, timrai hāt bāta marna chāhanchhu!
Writer-director Rekha Thapa’s Himmatwali is a tribute to Rekha Thapa, the actress. Sudarshan Gautam, starring opposite Rekha Thapa, is an interesting accessory to the hallucinogenic landscape she has created. Like an origami figure, the persona of Rekha Thapa repeatedly folds in onto itself, with herself as its core, its kernel of truth from which the shape for everything else unfolds. Himmatwali is an exercise in unabashed narcissism: Rekha Thapa, the manufactured ideal, is its object and its subject. Rekha Thapa, the individual, is perhaps not even aware of the kaleidoscopic implications of her intense but cross-eyed navel-gazing. It appears at once graspable and eel-like in its electric ability to elude.
In a review elsewhere, an annoyed reviewer asked: must Rekha Thapa make her character more masculine than feminine in order to portray a strong woman? The de-feminization was problematic, it seemed – for a woman to be strong, she had to be a “strong woman”, rather than a masculine woman. But men have always decided what counts as strength for the ideal woman, haven’t they? Sacrifice, honour, chastity, humility, blah, blah, blah. While watching Himmatwali in a theatre in the Gopi Krishna complex, I realized that – Yes, Rekha Thapa must make her characters manlier to show a strong woman, for her women are also strong in the literal sense. A woman’s strength and her acquiescence to male expectations are antithetical.
What Rajesh Hamal is to the men in Nepali movies, Rekha Thapa is to the women: a star complete unto herself. No other actress in Nepal has created a persona so strong that it can point to itself, where that mere gesture becomes commodity. The cojones required for that necessitates the de-feminization of her characters. She can’t continue to play within boundaries set by male insecurities. Because the women in Thapa’s movies are forced to live in two distinct contexts: the imagined world of local cinematic aesthetic – which has a long history, and where every woman is the product of a lineage of womanhood layered one atop another; and in the very real world of the women who come to the theatre to watch her. To expect her on-screen personae to remain feminine is to utterly mistake the phenomenon that is Rekha Thapa: she just doesn’t correspond to the onscreen clichés of Nepali womanhood.
Himmatwali shows able-bodied men mired in vices who are no better than a disabled man. The only person shown as a capable antagonist is another woman. A butch woman at that, wearing spikes for a bracelet, itching for a fight, and duking it out with Rekha Thapa when the moment calls for it. The only man who is consistent in character without being servile or unthinking is Satya – played by the Canadian adventurer Sudarshan Gautam – who doesn’t have either of his hands. It is natural then that a man might squirm with unease to see how little men are of use to Rekha Thapa’s vision for an entertaining movie. In the closed universe of Himmatwali, there isn’t a single man who isn’t in thrall of her, and who won’t do her bidding. Thus, Rekha Thapa gives us a version of Nepali womanhood hitherto unseen in Nepali movies.
Sudarshan Gautam’s absent limbs are the second idea to be fetishized in Himmatwali, leading sometimes to wince-inducing remarks on the very practical act of ass-wiping, etc., that reveal a none-too-sympathetic attitude towards the state of being differently-abled. But there is something quite quixotic about the “Smoking is Injurious to Health” sign flashing onscreen when Satya, under stress, lights up a cigarette and puffs away. In close-up, the toes of his foot seem like only very slightly misshapen fingers. Remarkably, within half an hour into the movie, Satya registers no longer as Gautam the amputee-adventurer-actor, but as a fictional character. The distance between the grotesque and the mundane is effectively bridged, so that it no longer seems strange that Gautam sips tea on a charpoy in a Terai village, the steam from the cup mingling with the morning fog.
Of course, Himmatwali is very self-indulgent on Rekha Thapa’s part. The character is named Rekha Thapa, after all! But I came out of the theatre admiring her all the more for the blatant, in-your-face show of confidence. It would be hypocritical to force her to find a new tune to perform to, just in order to please us. At the least, she has the sort of courage that Nepali filmmakers rarely – if ever – show. She does whatever the eff she wants, and in the process, makes a strangely picaresque cinema in the Nepali Terai.
A longer version of this review appeared in Fr!day