*** Three stars
Among the new crop of Nepali actors, Bipin Karki is someone who has made a giant leap in just few years. Starting with minor character roles, he has now established himself as a leading man in Nepali movies. He started off with a blink-and-miss role in ‘Loot’ (2012); the following year we saw him sink his teeth in a meatier role in the colossally disappointing ‘Chhadke’. But his breakout performance came in ‘Pashupati Prasad’ (2016), where he portrayed Bhasmey, a low-life gang leader operating inside the premises of Pashupatinath temple. If we sift through the characters he has played in his ten films so far, apart from Jatra (2016), he’s mostly played goofy delinquents.
In his latest film ‘Naaka’, his character is—no surprises for guessing—a smuggler named Goldie, donning a mohawk. Goldie ticks off every box in a stock Bipin Karki character: a small-time crook with a colorful name, a flamboyant sense of style and a speech impediment. Goldie is a menacing anti-hero in this black-crime comedy featuring Nepali smugglers and Tibetan refugees.
Goldie and his lackey Hanuman (Prakash Gandharva) agree to help two Tibetan refugees (Thinley Lhamo and Shiva Mukhiya) cross the Sino-Nepal border into Nepali. Goldie is making the delivery on behalf of Lata Bob (Robin Tamang) and his henchman Ganesh (Ram Bhajan Kamat), who have promised Goldie five lakh rupees in return.
But the seemingly easy task turns into a migraine for Goldie, as he has to “karate chop” his way through revenge seekers, bent cops and double-crossers.
Director Amit Shrestha has plucked the news pages to ground the story in a contemporary context. He takes up the issue of Tibetan refugee influx and the theft of dzi beads (highly prized Tibetan stones) that have led to the murder of many Tibetan refugees. Shrestha with the help of his cinematographer Chintan Raj Bhandari resourcefully captures the world of the protagonists. The film’s grungy and grimy look must not have come easy.
There are number of odd-ball characters here and only a few are good-natured. The bonding scenes between Hanuman and the refugee girl Sonam make up the film’s most poignant moments. In an early scene, Hanuman makes a puffed face to make Sonam understand he is named after the Hindu monkey god, not realizing that Sonam only speaks Tibetan and may not be familiar with any Hindu god.
Naaka largely stands on the broad shoulders of Bipin Karki, who gives the film everything in his acting arsenal. Karki’s blend of humor and menace is so compelling that movie-goers often end up rooting for a morally corrupt character. This is a clear sign that today’s audience is ready for bold, complex and nuanced roles in Nepali films.
But Naaka is also marred by problems. It relies on a plot that is wafer thin and highly inconsistent. The first half is slow while the second is filled with hackneyed plot twists, as if the makers were in a rush to get to the climax. Many viewers may also feel that overreliance on slapstick humor undercuts the film’s otherwise serious plot.
It’s not a perfect film and I must say its characters deserved a better plot. But Naaka is a welcome change amidst the cornucopia of terrible mainstream Nepali films that have come out in recent times.