'Draupadi' in tinsel town?
According to a legend in the freezing, mountainous region of northern Nepal, the five Pandava brothers, the heroes of the Indian epic Mahabharat, had passed through Tibet on their way to climbing up to heaven.
They were accompanied by their common wife Draupadi and that is how the custom of polyandry took root in the ancient Tibetan kingdom. It still survives in some of the northernmost districts of Nepal - Dolpo, Mustang and Manang - that were once included in the Tibetan kingdom and still retain the Tibetan language and way of life.
Traditionally part of the ancient caravan serais that plied between Nepal and Tibet, the people of these districts still follow the trade, leading yak and mule packs that bring salt from Tibet and rice from Terai.
When Nepalese film director Akash Adhikari went up trekking to Dolpo in 1996, he had no idea that such a strange custom still existed. "We were staying with a family where the wife had two husbands, both brothers," the 33-year-old recounts his first brush with polyandry. "It gave me a shock. Good god, I thought. Such things still exist in Nepal!" Eight years later, the culture shock has worn off but not the interest in an unfamiliar way of life. Now Adhikari wants to showcase this exotic culture and its triumphs and tragedies in his next film that he plans to show outside Nepal as well.
The Sunrise is a full-length feature film that Adhikari hopes will have the authenticity of a documentary.
"The plot is based on a real incident, so are all the characters," says the director who learnt his art at Mumbai's Madhumati Institute and from watching Bollywood director Mahesh Bhatt at work. The love story is woven round the dilemma of a Dolpo girl, Sonam, who finds herself married to three brothers. The eldest is 29, the second one 25 and the youngest just five. Though in her heart Sonam accepts only Karma, the eldest, as her husband, she has to obey her father-in-law's diktat and the custom of her land.
When Karma dies in an accident, her heart breaks but she has to still go on being the wife of the second brother. However, when he too dies, her father-in-law wants her to start conjugal life with her youngest husband, who is 25 to her 42.
But both of them revolt and the village finds itself divided in the battle between tradition and modernity.
Besides the plot, Adhikari, who has researched his subject for eight years, will also include vignettes from the Dolpo way of life. These include a death ritual when the corpse is cut to pieces and scattered in the mountains to feed vultures, and mule races.
The film, to be made in Nepalese but with English subtitles, would be shot for a year in the upper slopes of the Himalayas, making it the third Nepalese film to be shot in such high altitude. Adhikari's predecessors are French photographer Eric Valli, whose film Himalaya was shot in Dolpo, and Muktidaata, a western shot by Nepalese film director Bijaya Chalise in Mustang, where the average altitude is around 4500m.
While Valli's film won an Oscar nomination, last year Muktidata was awarded the best feature film in Kollywood, the Nepalese film industry. Adhikari too has set high targets. To start with, he is getting his film registered for copyright in Hollywood.
"Polyandry is an thrilling subject," he says. "If my film inspires a spate of films on the subject, I would like people to remember that a Nepalese was among those too."