A Data Scientist’s Foray into a Film
timer Published Date:6th Mar, 2019

I currently live in Madison, Wisconsin and work as a data scientist at a local utility company. A data scientist may not strike one as a filmmaker but I have always had an interest in films. Here I present a candid story of how I tackled an ostensibly impossible endeavor of making and marketing a film. However, I must warn the readers that I also wrote this for shameless self-promotion.

In April of 2014 when I was visiting back my homeland, Nepal, I had an opportunity to re-connect with a middle school friend of mine, Navin Awal. While I came to the U.S. for my bachelor’s degree in engineering and then eventually pursued energy policy for my graduate school, Navin pursued filmmaking career after high school. Navin is passionate about films, is a dreamer, a pioneer, and one of those rare species of youth who wanted to create opportunities in Nepal rather than go abroad. He had already made hundreds of ad films, a short film, and was ready for his first feature film.

It was then when Navin approached me with a unique story to make an entertaining science film with a social message. Hundreds of films are made in Nepal every year, only about ten percent of them recoup investments, and 90 percent of them are usually formulaic films on frivolity. Based on my taste, only five percent of films are good, and good films don’t necessarily recoup investments. So, I kind of knew the risks.

Navin had already written the first draft of the film script and he would direct the film. While Navin knew that I did not have deep pockets, he had already concluded that funding the film via a few like-minded people was his only chance to keep the purity of his vision. Traditional producers tried to tamper with his idea and suggested to add elements that would make the film formulaic, stifling the innovative style and authenticity of the film.

The proposed film, Bijuli Machine (Electricity Machine) would be a pioneer science film in Nepal. It had an inspirational story of two responsible citizens who would use science to solve the electricity shortage problem that was causing frustrations. Nepal is rich in water resources, with 82,000 megawatts of hydroelectricity potential but the country had scheduled power cuts that had reached 84 hours per week. This irony was not lost on the story Navin wrote. The story had a focus on human curiosity and the pursuit of excellence. It portrayed the power of thinking outside of the box, optimism, and perseverance against unfavorable odds by showing how two young innovative minds face the society, government, and their own issues among their peers.
 
Bijuli Machine/Electricity Machine (2016) Poster
The idea connected well with me as the story was also related to the energy industry, the industry of my education and profession. Although the scientific premise, converting sound to electricity, wasn’t that strong, I saw it as a metaphor. So, I pledged to be one of the four investors in the film as well as the scientific consultant for the film. Navin and I worked together to ensure that the story did not have logic gaps, and the artwork and dialogues were sensible. Now, filmmaking isn’t cheap in the west. But, in Nepal, at the time, $75,000 would be enough to complete the film. A four-way split was something I could manage.

Most of the actors in the film were new and recruited from auditions. We put them in weeks of workshops to prepare them for their roles. The movie was shot amid natural disaster and political turmoil. In late April and early May of 2015, two massive earthquakes devastated Nepal. Within months of the natural disaster, politically-motivated blockades obstructed the importing of medicines, oil and gas, and other supplies from India. Our shooting budget got doubled due to the fuel crisis and we had a few weeks hiatus because of the earthquakes. Eventually, the production and post-production got completed; teasers and trailers looked great. The final product was well made, and I consider it to be one of the best films that have come out of Nepal. The film released in December 2016 all over Nepal.

Our young marketing team had made the film well known to the social media audience. By the time the film had released, the film’s page had about 100 thousand likes on Facebook. However, Nepal’s audience had to be reached beyond social media. The film needed a premiere with broad participation of high profile people and mainstream media and more strategic marketing across the nation. Our marketing did not do well in Nepal’s film market.

It was hard for me to accept that such a well-made film failed commercially but much more painful was to take the fact that such a positive, innovative, and inspirational film somehow went unnoticed in the actual film market. The movie offered much more than the scientific subject it undertook. It truly lifted Nepali cinema from conventional formulae films by bringing a well acted and directed authentic story with good production value, entertainment and satire.

My foray into the film had already become somewhat of a financial folly but the failure made me own the responsibility of marketing the film to the international audience. In the beginning, it was difficult to come out of a complacent life and dive deep into something where I had no domain expertise. I decided I had to. I had made a film that encouraged others to own the problems and overcome the challenges and if I did not do that myself I would have fallen short of my own expectations.

I began with reaching out to reasonable film awards in Nepal that year. We won the Most Commendable Film of 2016 at the LG Cine Circle Award, a prestigious award in Nepal. Followed by being the 1st runner up for entry to 2017 Academy Awards from Nepal.

To raise some funds for more marketing efforts, we began screening abroad starting from a showing at Madison, Wisconsin followed by showings in Germany and Canada. As some money got raised, we started entering the film to international and South Asian film festivals. We were an official selection at the Chicago South Asian Film Festival, Seattle South Asian Film Festival (where we won the best narrative film), Singapore South Asian Film Festival and many other regional film festivals. Some of these festivals are the largest and most well-known festivals for South Asian films abroad.
I and my family attending 2017 Seattle South Asian Film Festival
It took some time and effort, but we got overwhelmingly positive reviews that made the making and marketing the film worthwhile and fulfilling. We still didn’t recover all our financial losses, but the gains are not always measured in just dollars. More than seeing it as a loss, I see it as a transfer of a few bucks from one set of hands to others. It is immensely satisfying to support a vision that we believe in, support art, and create something others love. The film brought together many creative individuals to create something special and meaningful.

I enjoyed seeing a full circle of a complex project from scratch to finish. I enjoyed networking with creative professionals, hearing various perspectives of people associated with the film industry, and advocating on behalf of innovative film that raises social issues. My kids especially enjoyed walking red-carpet during film festivals. Moreover, it feels cool to be called a filmmaker, especially of an award-winning film!

Starting September 2018, Bijuli Machine became one of the first few Nepali films available to be streamed via Amazon Prime (http://a.co/d/51VL1Cb) with English subtitles. If you do watch it, please do let me know how you find it.

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