Kathmandu, Sep 15 ,At Kedarnath Road in Muzaffarpur town of India’s Bihar state, the Sarafs are still remembered as a family of jewellers. But in Nepal, the family business has undergone a sea change, striking gold in the Nepali silver screen.
For five decades now, since Garibnath Saraf came to Kathmandu for a darshan of Pashupatinath and stayed back to explore new business, the family has been running one of the oldest theatres in the capital.
Now his son, Mohan Saraf, honoured at the National Film Awards ceremony this month for screening only Nepali films in his Biswajyoti theatre, is expanding the family business.
The 60-year-old remembers the birth of Biswajyoti Cinema Bhavan Pvt Ltd as vividly as if it happened yesterday.
“My father was also a distributor of Hindi films in Muzaffarpur,” Saraf told IANS. “After arriving in Kathmandu in 1956, he thought of acquiring a cinema on lease.”
Biswajyoti was part of a historic building – the Seto Durbar or white palace built in the 19th century by the 17th Rana prime minister of Nepal, Bir Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana.
During the Sarafs’ arrival, it had become decrepit and was on auction.
Garibnath obtained permission from then king Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah to run the theatre on lease and reopened it in 1960 after intensive renovation.
The 1,111-seater theatre saw its best time in the early 1990s when director Tulsi Ghimire, who began his career as a spot boy in Bollywood, made the superhit film “Chino” that ran for six months.
The first setback came during the pro-democracy movement of 1990 that saw Mahendra’s son King Birendra lose his absolute powers and be forced to lift the ban on political parties.
“Arsonists set fire to Biswajyoti,” says Saraf. “We were targeted because we were perceived as Indians.”
It was ironic because the Sarafs had long acquired Nepali citizenship.
“It was impossible to do business in Nepal otherwise,” says Saraf. “You could not buy land, own property or business if you were non-Nepali.”
From the late 1990s, Nepal’s film industry began to feel the heat as the Maoist party began an armed insurrection that lasted for 10 years.
“It wrecked the film industry,” Saraf says. “Even today, four years after the civil war ended, we are just breaking even.”
Despite the setbacks, Saraf counts as his blessings the people he came to know.
“I was about 14 when Raj Kapoor visited Kathmandu to offer his prayers at Pashupatinath and see if he could distribute his films in the city’s theatres,” he reminisces. “At a felicitation programme, he noticed my father as Garibnath was the only one wearing a dhoti.
“A rapport sprung up between them and we still have links with the Kapoor family.”
The 1980s hit mystery film “Khoj”, starring Raj Kapoor’s youngest son Rishi Kapoor, Naseeruddin Shah, Kimi Katkar and Danny Denzongpa, was partly shot in Nepal with the Sarafs acting as facilitator.
“My father sent rudraksha beads through Rishiji for Raj Kapoor, who was ill,” Saraf says. “Many other Bollywood greats came to Nepal to pray at Pashupatinath, including Jeetendra.”
Though Ramesh Sippy’s blockbuster “Sholay” was banned in Nepal, the distributor sent a reel of the film to be taken to Pashupatinath where a puja was performed praying for the film’s success.
Now Saraf is ready to expand. Next to Biswajyoti, he is building a shopping mall that will also have two new boutique theatres. The construction has started and he hopes the project will be completed in two years.
Then it is time for Biswajyoti to get a facelift. It will be split up into three smaller auditoriums with the smallest meant for 3D films.
He has also been a producer, making two Nepali films – “Rako” and the hit “Chino”.
“You have to adapt to the place where you decide to settle down,” he says.
“Moreover, though I am a Nepali citizen now, many things still remain the same, like the language and the culture.”