Movies are an important tool for cultural conservation. Through their employment of sound and visuals, they can contextualise a culture, present its vibrancy and give the audience a reference point to decide what and how an ethnic group is. They preserve and promote a community’s language and lifestyle and, when used strategically and tastefully, can attract outsiders towards the depicted community’s structures. That is why cultural movements around the world have utilised movies as an effective conservation tool.
In Nepal too, the Nepal Bhasa movement, beginning from the 1980s declared that it would “produce films in the Newa language to preserve the culture.” This led to the production of the first Nepal Bhasa film Silu in 1987 followed by the second Rajamati in 1995. Rajamati is particularly pertinent because it came out at a time when the restoration of democracy had breathed new life into the linguistic movement. There was great eagerness among the Newa communities residing in various parts of the country to revive their language following a long period of decline brought by the hostile attitude of the state. After the success of the People’s Movement and the constitutional restriction on indigenous languages lifted in 1990, films became viewed as an ideal medium for this.
Rajamati reflects this perfectly with its adoption of an ancient ballad of the same name as the source material, use of traditional folk music and songs and its efforts in trying to portray images of the “regular” Newa society. Silu also did this but because it came out during the Panchayat years, its efforts were undermined by the larger repression going on around it. While its efforts were commendable and it most certainly deserves credit as the initiator of Nepal Bhasa movies, Silu felt more like a bucket of water being poured on a forest fire. Rajamati, because of the changed socio-political environment, was at least a fire hose.
The involvement of Neer Shah and Hari Bansha Acharya, both prominent figures from outside the Newa ethnicity, in Rajamati served to counter the arguments raised by the likes of Lal Bahadur Thapa, Yagya Nidhi Dahal, Hari Prasad Pokharel, Achyut Raman Adhikari and Dhruba Raj Thebe who petitioned the Supreme Court to limit the public usage of Nepal Bhasa calling it a language of a minority community which would cause exclusion of other groups of the society. The involvement of such mainstream personalities along with Shree Krishna Shrestha and Madan Krishna Shrestha and the already widespread popularity of the tale and song of Rajamati itself served to bring the audiences to the theatres.
Rajamati also gave a means for young Newas to learn their mother tongue. The movie and especially its songs were massively popular and in singing them, many people started picking up the meanings of the words. As is often the case with film stars, people began mimicking Shree Krishna Shrestha’s dialogues too, which helped many pick up Nepal Bhasa. There is an entire generation of Newa and non-Newa people alike who credit Rajamati as being their first exposure to the Nepal Bhasa and the thing that ignited their interest in the language.
Rajamati also established the commercial viability of the non-Nepali movie industry, with the film finding huge success not just in Nepal but also in India, Bhutan and the UK. In a way, the film set a precedent for all indigenous media products to come. The Nepal Bhasa movement is still not over and its revival is still something we must focus on. Conservation of the language is a national duty because it is the language that Nepal registered with the United Nations to show it was an independent nation (Nepali language and Devanagari script were too similar to India).