As the world woke up on Sunday to horrific images of death and destruction in Nepal, Kiran Joshi sat in a hotel room in Beijing feeling sick to his stomach. Joshi had just been in Kathmandu 12 hours earlier. Now he watched his home town burn on the TV news.
But there was another reason Joshi was so sickened by the scenes from Kathmandu. He had seen them all before — in his own movie.
“We thought we were exaggerating the damage when we made our documentary, but now I watch the news, and the devastation is even worse,” Joshi told The Washington Post on Monday. “It’s chilling.”
Joshi is a Hollywood insider turned Nepalese innovator. He helped create classics including “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King” during an 18-year career with Walt Disney but left in 2008 to found Nepal’s first special effects and animation studio.
Now, however, he has the disturbing distinction of having foreshadowed his own home town’s collapse on film.
Joshi was born in Kathmandu, a computer nerd who struggled to get the latest equipment in Nepal. He left the country when he was 19 to study in the United States and then joined Disney, where he helped program complex animation sequences in “Aladdin,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Atlantis.”
But even though he married and had a child in the United States, Joshi felt pulled back to Nepal.
“The year 2007 was the turning point in his life,” according to a 2010 profile. “When he had come to Nepal for the funeral of a relative, his friend Sanjeev Rajbhandari suggested opening a studio in Nepal. He then spent three weeks in small animation boutiques and was impressed to see the portfolios of skilled and passionate young artists. He met a 19-year-old boy who showed his portfolio and said that his passion was animation but due to pressure from his parents, he had been studying management. He asked Kiran for help, so realizing the level of this boy’s passion, he decided it was time to open an animation studio in Nepal.”
In 2008, he founded Incessant Rain Animation Studios, the first of its kind in Kathmandu. Initially, the company focused on animating films for Hollywood. But in 2010, when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake leveled Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Joshi realized there was important work to be done about Nepal, which sits on a seismic fault line.
The United Nations, Red Cross and other development agencies poured money and resources into Nepal in order to raise awareness about disaster preparation and rescue procedures. But Joshi didn’t think the message was reaching everyone.
“There was a lot of preparation done in terms of educating people at a higher level,” he said, “but due to circumstances in Nepal, which is very poor, it hasn’t reached everybody.”
So Joshi teamed with the Red Cross and the U.S. Embassy to produce a series of animated public service announcements. In the videos, a heroic red panda — a local animal — teaches people how to prepare for an earthquake as well as what to do during and after a disaster.
“The red panda is like our version of Smokey the Bear,” Joshi explained. “We’re trying to teach people about safety.”
In January, Joshi debuted a different project: a documentary called “Moving Mountains.” The film featured interviews with the few remaining survivors from Nepal’s last devastating earthquake, an 8.2 magnitude temblor on Jan. 15, 1934 (Magh 2, 1990 on the Nepalese calendar). More than 10,000 people died in Nepal — mostly in Kathmandu — with nearly as many perishing across the border in Bihar, India.
But Joshi wanted to do more than remind the Nepalese of the previous earthquake. He wanted to stir them to take action to prevent another disaster. (“Their past could become our future” is the movie’s tagline.) So he enlisted his animators in creating dramatic scenes of the potential ruin another powerful earthquake could cause modern-day Kathmandu.
“Basically, through animation, we destroyed many of Kathmandu’s most famous monuments, including the Dharahara Tower, our number one monument,” he said. “In our documentary, we leveled that off. We were trying to say, ‘This is how bad the devastation could be.'”
Joshi said he and his team debated long and hard about just how graphic to make the scenes in the movie.
“That was the biggest thing we discussed: to what level do we portray those visuals?” he said. “On one level, you don’t want people to panic, but on another level, you want to wake them up. If you show just a few houses getting knocked down, people won’t care unless it is their house. But if you are showing some significant landmarks of the country, it will send a very strong message.”
Joshi’s digitally animated film didn’t prepare him for the destruction that Kathmandu suffered on Sunday, however.
“That was the most devastating part,” he said. “When I saw the news and I saw that the tower was completely knocked off.”
From his hotel room in Beijing, Joshi was eventually able to contact several of his co-workers in Kathmandu. None of his employees was seriously injured in the earthquake, but large cracks appeared in the office walls.
“We were very lucky,” he said. “One artist comes from the epicenter area. He said his whole village is pretty much leveled off.”
As of early Monday morning, the death toll stood at roughly 3,200. But Joshi said there are other costs.
“It’s very sad,” Joshi added. “I think Nepal and Kathmandu will never be what they were before. Besides losing so many lives, lots of our culture is in our buildings and monuments. They are completely damaged. What I love about Nepal is its rich culture. Every one of those temples and monuments has a history why they were built. I know they will build back the city, but some of the charm about these old, antique buildings will be gone.”
From 1996 until 2006, Nepal was gripped by conflicts between government forces and Maoist insurgents. Since then, political squabbling has often shut down the government and stymied progress, Joshi said. He hoped the solidarity he had seen since the earthquake would push the poor Himalayan country past such problems.
“The political structure is really messed up,” he said. “The parties are always fighting and trying to create ethnic divides, but dividing the country along ethnic lines is not good for the country.
“Now we are coming together and rebuilding our lives after the earthquake,” Joshi said. “I hope politicians realize the value of being one nation. I hope that something good comes out of this tragedy and Nepal rebuilds itself, not just from an infrastructure standpoint but also pulling itself together as a people.”
Joshi said he couldn’t be sure that his public service announcements or even his apocalyptic movie helped save anyone’s life in Nepal. But he felt that his movies might be able to play a role in rebuilding Kathmandu by reminding people of what has been lost.
“The good thing about animation is that whatever you have in your mind you can create,” he said. “So many World Heritage Sites have been destroyed. I hope we can re-create them three-dimensionally.
“If we reconstruct those temples on film,” he said, “maybe that can be a way of getting the stakeholders to realize what could be in the future.”