Soap brings message of change to rural Nepal


June 18, 2010 Updated Jun 29, 2009 at 3:11 PM EDT

When the power cuts that frequently plague Nepal were at their worst this winter, one of the biggest frustrations for many people was missing their favourite television soap opera.

Every Sunday night for a year, entire villages across the country have gathered around a single television for the latest instalment of "Dalan," or "Exploitation," a historical saga set in Nepal's rural west.

In a nation more attuned to the noisy glamour of Bollywood movies from neighbouring India, the popularity of the slow-paced serial about a family of Dalits -- the lowest social caste -- has taken everyone by surprise, not least its makers.

"'Dalan' is a very simple show and we really didn't expect it to be the huge success it has become," said producer Purna Singh Baraily of the soap, which has fans as far away as Dubai, Hong Kong and the United States, where it is shown via satellite.

"The fans say they love the characters and the fact that the show deals with its subject matter realistically," said Baraily, himself a member of the caste once known as "untouchables."

"I have had people say to me that they don't feel like they are watching a television programme, they feel like they are there."

Baraily wanted to make a show that would highlight the problems facing Dalits in Hindu-majority Nepal, where being born into a low caste is still a huge disadvantage.

Discrimination against Dalits, who make up around 13 percent of Nepal's population, was outlawed in the 1960s.

But the tradition of "untouchability" survives, particularly in rural areas, where Dalits are frequently banned from entering temples or drinking from communal wells.

Even in the capital Kathmandu, they are often unable to find accommodation, with some landlords refusing to rent to people with Dalit names.

Baraily initially won a 50,000-dollar grant from the European Union to shoot a documentary, but opted instead to make a soap opera, believing its message would be more likely to reach the rural communities where Dalits suffer most.

He persuaded a well-known Dalit poet to write the script, and the result was a drama that follows three generations of Dalits and the changing attitudes towards them.

Shooting began at the height of the Maoist insurgency in 2003, posing huge problems for the production team, who faced suspicion from both sides in Nepal's decade-long civil war.

"The Maoists were convinced we were spying for the army. And because of the subject matter, the army thought we must be on the side of the Maoists," said Nabin Subba, the show's director.

To make things even more difficult, "Dalan" was shot mainly on location in a remote village with no electricity and no road access during the monsoon months.

The show's cast ran into the hundreds and many of the actors had no experience, having been recruited from local villages to keep costs down.

Even once shooting was over, Baraily and Subba faced scepticism from national broadcaster NTV, which didn't think viewers would want to watch a show about Dalits.

A year later, their simple tale of a high-caste Brahmin who is rejected by his community after falling in love with a Dalit woman has proved a hit, and won a nomination for Britain's prestigious One World Media Awards.

Although Nepal does not measure viewing figures, the show appears regularly in the local papers and has an army of loyal fans who have been spurred into action by the drama.

Subba tells how fans in one town near Kathmandu launched a successful campaign to have Dalits allowed into local teashops whose owners had previously insisted they remain outside.

"Dalan" broadcast its final episode on Sunday, but its makers are planning a series of reruns so viewers can watch the shows they missed during the power outages, and are even considering a feature film.

Subba says they plan to organise a meeting of the 400 fan clubs that "Dalan" has spawned to decide how to keep the momentum going.

"We came to the conclusion through the show that Dalit problems can only be solved by Dalits," he says. "Dalit people have to become politically active."

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