Cover Bipin Karma talks about his acting debut in 'Hand Rolled Cigarette', his short film and representation (Photo: Affa Chan/Tatler Hong Kong; Karma in Zegna turtleneck and blazer)

Eyes were on Bipin Karma when he broke barriers and became one of the first ethnic minority actors to land a lead role in a Hong Kong movie. While he never intended to become an actor, in the end, it said that it was fate

Ever since I saw him in Hand Rolled Cigarette, I knew I had to talk to Bipin Karma. But the Hong Kong Nepali actor is a bit hard to get hold of. He admits, “I’m not active on social media” and if my messages to him say anything, it’s a plead to get a date set to chat. On the day of the interview, I had to change it online. But it’s not a problem for Karma, who’s all smiles as soon as I greeted him through the video call.

A smiling Karma is very different from his role as Mani in the neo-noir drama, Hand Rolled Cigarette, where he made his acting debut. But his smile means many things, after all, Karma is one of the first actors of South Asian descent to land a lead role in a Hong Kong movie and for an ethnic minority like me, I can’t help but smile too—especially to see someone that looks at you on screen. Karma claims, “I never wanted to be an actor” yet as soon as he’s settled for our photoshoot, our photographer exclaims that he got the shoot he needed within the first two minutes. The actor has a certain grace in front of the camera as if he’s destined for it, even if he’s shy to admit it.

While this breakout role was deeply personal, it also served as a sense of pride for Hong Kong’s ethnic minority community, who lacked representation in the media and if any, were mostly based on stereotypes or told through a different lens. In this interview with Tatler, rising Hong Kong actor Bipin Karma gets candid about his foray into acting for Hand Rolled Cigarette, his own short film Melting Pot and the importance of telling authentic stories, especially for the ethnic minority community.

While he never intended to act in the first place, it all came down to fate, as he calls it. Now, eyes are on the actor to see where he’s going next and regardless of where, he’s already made his mark.

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You’ve mentioned during your press appearances that you never planned to be an actor. What made you say yes to the role in the end?

I asked director Chan Kin-long, “Why did you pick me?” And I just got the answer, “Because of [my] intuition.” That’s it. It was said so dramatically that I started to think about whether I should do it in the first place because it was too demanding of a role as I never acted, I don’t speak fluent Cantonese and the time was tight since I was still in my final year of college. I had a lot of rational reasons to say no, but in the end, it came down to just intuition.

Around a year before I signed on for the film, I was like I was going to make a short film about two brothers and if I can’t find an actor for the older brother then I’ll do it. Then this role came along. Somehow, when director Chan said that picking me was based on his intuition, I felt like I just had to go for it. I’ve been looking for so many reasons to stay away from acting because I was too nervous to do it. But right then, it made sense. It was fate and it just connected everything together. In the end, I was like, “You know what, I’m just going to go for it because it seems right.” I was doing videography so I always wanted to be in this field. It’s just that I never expected it to be through acting.

How did director Chan end up picking you?

I did audition but the director watched a short film that I was in called The Bench. I was writing that short film but I ended up playing the lead part because we couldn’t find another ethnic minority actor for the role. Director Chan saw that film and he called me in to audition. I was reluctant at first because there are so many other actors that speak Cantonese better and can act better than me. I thought I was just going to waste the director’s time. But I don’t know, he saw something in me.

You’ve been open about the language difficulty in doing the film. But there were also some physically demanding scenes. How did you prepare for all that?

For the action scenes, we didn’t talk too much about it, because I didn’t even think it was a challenge. But speaking in Cantonese was really a big challenge. If I’m not wrong, Daniel Wu (a Hong Kong American actor) had a similar way of going through the script because he couldn’t read Chinese so he’d get his script translated into English. So I approached it in a similar way. Joey, who was doing the translation, helped me with the script and translated my whole part from Chinese into English.

You know when you have to say a certain Cantonese word and then there are different tones? I would say a certain word but what I’d actually say isn’t the way it’s meant to be pronounced? Or how would I make it feel authentic? So I compared what was on the Chinese script and I tried to find a good balance of how authentically I would say it and how it was meant to be said. It was not an orthodox way of doing it but it worked for me.

It’s interesting that you say that because, for trilingual speakers like us, the way we talk in each language is different so to be able to deliver lines in a language that’s not your first or third is difficult.

There are so many times that I made myself look stupid. If I say it, it has to be right, it has to have the right tone. Sometimes, I think I’m saying it correctly but then everybody’s asking me to say it again so I did. That was a real challenge.

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Your character in the movie, Mani is Indian but you’re Nepali. How much of your own experiences are reflected in the film? Did you get any input in helping to shape the character?

It’s a fictional film so there are a lot of things that are quite unrealistic. My character, Mani is a second to third-generation Indian in Hong Kong. And both of his parents abandoned him so he’s left with his younger brother and he becomes this father figure. But realistically, when we think of it that, it’s different from reality especially for South Asians or Southeast Asians. Even if you’re married, your parents wouldn’t want you to leave. Having both parents abandon you is quite rare. That’s obviously added for an extra dramatic edge.

But what resonated with me about Mani is his identity crisis. In a way, he’s suppressing himself. It made me think about how our parents struggled so we could have a better life in Hong Kong. And Mani had to take that role and become a father for his younger brother. That’s why he’s been doing shady work but he’s trying to hide it. In society, there are times when you don’t get the job you want. We’re often told that if we speak Cantonese, you’re going to get the job we want but that’s not always the case. It’s not just about the language but I think, more about finding who you are.

In my personal experience, I realise that you can learn a language but you might not have found your identity but you found a language, just not your own self yet. That’s what I was going through too. I was born in Hong Kong but I was raised in Nepali until I was 8 years old and then I came back here to study and there was a lot of self-searching especially because I was surrounded by a lot of different cultures. So for Mani, he also questions where he is. He wants to fit in. And we see that when he talks to Kwan Chiu who’s played amazingly by Gordon Lam, he’s also looking for a father figure.

When Mani was being held up and in hiding in such a hostile environment, I had to downplay the father figure that I do with my brother and become more childish. I looked funny in that scene but I felt that was more authentic. There was a sort of transition that happens with Mani when he means Kwan Chiu. But then again, there’s a challenge because they have this language and cultural barrier.

Speaking of Gordon Lam, can you tell us what’s it like working with him?

Gordon Lam is such an experienced actor. It was personally hard to get intimidated because I didn’t grow up watching his films. But everybody else was different and I felt that they really respected him because they knew him better. I saw that as an advantage though because I wasn’t a big star. I knew right away that he was all about the craft. He told me right away, “You’re Mani. You’re not trying to be Mani but you are Mani.” Every time I come into a new experience, everything that happens or when I communicate with anybody, I’m very sensitive towards it so even that simple sentence he told me, I knew it had weight and I knew it was coming from someone so experienced. And I tried to just understand what he meant by that.

The experience, it’s been like a lesson in acting because I had no prior knowledge. He was very helpful. He gave me a few tips and I started to write and develop the character from the front to the back and honestly, I became too serious. I remember I was sitting in the staircase while they were doing another take and the crew came up to me and told me to calm down because I was so serious. But I could only feel that I was able to do it if I was serious and have the energy to take in the character. For me, it wasn’t just a job—it was an experience. The only way I’m going to understand acting is to try to make it more personal.

Gordon and I didn’t talk much. He kept his distance. He didn’t talk much in English but when we’re in the set, he’s just in the zone. I don’t know maybe it’s method acting but I could sense that he was in his character. It was great working with him. I learned a whole lot.

What about working with director Chan Kin-long who specifically picked you for this part?

There was this moment when we were going to shoot the running scene—which we did on the spot—he said “If you want to be an artist, you have to be a little naughty.” So we did that shot right away and I think it was one of my favourite shots. It was amazing.

Chan is a young director, this is his first film and he’s an actor himself. He wants to seek a deeper connection with his craft so he tried to do that with this. He also gave me the space to figure out how I will work on my character. He believed in me and I think he realised that we didn’t need to talk too much about it. He just lets me do all the work because I ought to do it anyway. We have this understanding and I was able to get into the mindset of what I could do and how much I could give.

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I realise that you can learn a language but you might not have found your identity but you found a language, just not your own self yet. That’s what I was going through too
Bipin Karma

Let’s talk about your short film, Melting Pot. Can you tell us more about it and what inspired you to write the story?

It’s a passion project that I did a few months ago. The issue of identity has been through my mind and perhaps most people’s minds these days. It’s not just an ethnic minority issue. I feel that most people are asking the question, “Who am I? Where do I fit in?” That’s why I wanted to make this film to talk about identity, specifically the crisis. So I thought about where I can find a lot of different people going through an identity crisis and the designated school, where many non-Chinese students are segregated into came to my mind. It felt like it’s just been that way to allow ethnic minorities to integrate into the society and make it easier for them to learn Cantonese but that’s not the reality. It actually pushed a lot of us away.

Instead, it created another culture, one where a lot of minorities embraced one another through different experiences, cultures and all live in harmony. In these schools, we always embrace harmony. We have multi-cultural festivals and all that so I felt that that was something special that’s not explored or seen much in Hong Kong, much less in Hong Kong movies. There’s always a local school and an international school but there’s never been a designated school. I really wanted to use this experience to shed some light there.

But I also wanted to make sure that it’s not just the identity crisis that I highlight but also identity disorder. Mental health is something that’s also very important at this moment. I tried to put it as a creative twist but a lot of it is the same things that people go through, and a lot of it comes from my own experience and essentially, it’s a Hong Kong experience. But it’s not something that we see. The short film was screened at the All About Us (AAU) Film Festival, and the AAU programme has been organised for more than a decade. They really try to embrace these stories because it’s not always given the opportunity to transfer to the screen.

How was it like shooting this short film?

It wasn’t easy. It was during the pandemic and we have 16 actors across seven different ethnicities and the setting was in a school. I was lucky that Sir Ellis Kadoorie allowed me to film there. It was also a challenge for the cast because they didn’t come from a professional acting background though they’re very talented people. One of them does graffiti while the other is a parkour coach, a stunt man and two real teachers. Then I saw all these faces on screen, it looks so beautiful because we’re looking at a Hong Kong story through different colours and stories. And it’s not just a dark-skinned minority in the film, there’s also a Taiwanese character and so many different cultures mixed together.

The film is called Melting Pot and in a sense, I wanted to bring people together, not just for a project but also to act and make a melting pot project where people can remember that a group of people from different backgrounds came together and made this film. I also wanted to give a chance to many non-Chinese students pursuing art but are not getting the light as much as our local Chinese counterparts. There’s not enough opportunity out there so I felt that it was not just important for me to create this film, but to also create an experience through the film.

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Were you always interested in filmmaking?

The All About Us (AAU) programme definitely helped me fall in love with filmmaking. I did parkour for quite a few years and it was a culture of exchanging videos just like skateboarding. You learn from each other by seeing how new tricks are done and how they’ve evolved. AAU has a similar culture where you put out videos in different places and then you share them. I used to film using this small camera that my father bought years ago. It was useful for that moment. But when it came to AAU, it’s when I actually learned the structure of filmmaking, from pre-production to production then post-production. I remember that a lot of times people think and wonder, how do you find your passion and for me, I think if something that should make you feel tired gives you energy, then that’s your passion.

When we did the short films in AAU, we stayed overnight for two days. Some of the team members left and we lacked crew members. We didn’t know how to do edit but we did anyway, somehow. And then, when I got out of the dark editing room after two cold nights, everything felt cinematic—the sun shining, the colour, the smell, everything. It was so dramatic but I realised that this is what I want to do and that was during high school. I said to myself that when I graduate from high school, I’m going to find a course that’s related to filmmaking because it’s something that’s tiring but doesn’t make me feel tired, it gives me energy. AAU opened my eyes that I wanted to pursue filmmaking.

How important is it that more opportunities like these are available for ethnic minorities?

I was wondering if we had more of these programs and forums, it would really help to tell a lot of stories. A lot of the things that were done for ethnic minorities—I don’t want to say it’s not human—but it lacks in some way, the human aspect. Stories connect us together because we’re human. But if it’s just a very bureaucratic program that’s out there for the sake of it, it won’t really connect. I want us to be doing it for something. If there are more stories being shared then I feel that we can actually understand each other.

For me, if I want to connect with Hong Kong, I look at Hong Kong cinema. I don’t study about it or take a class but I watch the movies like Shaolin Soccer and Infernal Affairs and I try to watch stories that are human. So if there are more programs to help our community—regardless of being non-Chinese or Chinese—we can build a bridge through storytelling and we can create more things, not just for noise but also something so uniquely for Hong Kong.

In recent years, we do see more ethnic minority representation in Hong Kong media. What else can be done?

Cinema is representation. You represent people that are in a society. And if Hong Kong cinema wants to be reflective of Hong Kong society then it has to tell authentic stories. A story about a Hong Kong Nepali like me could be one story but there are also so many layers to it. And it’s also really about the filmmakers. I’m just an actor right now so there’s no way that I can turn into a full-fledged director or writer and do all that. As an actor, I can only act out the content which is a great thing because creating content inspires more people and gives them an idea that “Oh, he can look like that or she is able to play that” but that’s all we can do around that barrier.

I do think that we need to have more people embrace filmmakers, not just the filmmakers we know but other filmmakers that are willing to create. They have a vision and we have a story. A lot of non-Chinese people like myself are hungry to express themselves in different ways and we don’t have many chances to do so.

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If Hong Kong cinema wants to be reflective of Hong Kong society then it has to tell authentic stories
Bipin Karma

As one of the first Hong Kong Nepali actors to gain a leading role in a Hong Kong movie, was there pressure?

Yes, so much. I told you how serious I was. I had to figure out how to calm down because there was a lot of pressure because I have to get the portrayal right. We all know that there’s still a long way to go in terms of representing different ethnicities which usually come out as stereotypical. There’s a specific word that I used with director Chan to describe this entire experience, it’s some sort of revelation. In the end, I wasn’t just going to be a tool to add colour to the film. It’s also about involving another Hongkonger but with a different background in the film. Yes, it’s the first time that an ethnic minority actor gained a leading role so this was already very different in the first place.

When I spoke to director Chan, he didn’t want to dive into the cultural aspects too much because Mani was already in the situation where he exists as an Indian person. He’s been living in Hong Kong for a long time and he has his own struggles. The pressure also came because we had limited time, my limited language skills and my limited acting skills, but all I said to myself is that I’m going to try to be as authentic as I can. If there are flaws, then it happens and we’re all learning. This is one of the few times that Hong Kong is trying to tell a different story so no matter how imperfect it is, we’re trying to make it so that it can be better in the future.

You’ve been asked how you feel about your acting debut and you mentioned you’re still figuring it out? Have you wrapped your head around it by now?

I’ve always wanted to be a director. I always loved being behind the camera and I never really wanted to be an actor. I never chased that so for me, I’m just really happy to be able to do this. It’s a start. It was quite overwhelming because I was really just focusing on getting it done right and seeing if I could do more things. I only realised that it became such a big deal when I saw the reactions not only from the Nepali community but also other members of the non-Chinese community. But I never thought of, “Oh, I’m the first this and that”, I was just going to try to do this as much as I can. For me, it’s all about learning and growing.

What kind of stories or roles do you want to do in the future?

Oh, I like action. For over 10 years, I’ve been psyched to do action. But as an actor, you’re open to everything and anything that comes especially since there’s not much. I’m open to anything, any genres and especially since I’m just a newcomer. I just feel very lucky to be able to have my first experience as an actor and enjoyed doing it.

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  • PhotographyAffa Chan
  • OutfitZegna
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