Sweet and Sour
ONLINE, 31 January 2015
After completing his Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in film at SUNY, Buffalo, in the US, Tashi Wangchuk returned to India in 2005 to report to the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamshala. Tashi was informed by the then Secretary of the Department of Education that they did not have any specific job to offer. Given that CTA is an administrative body and not a filmmaking unit, that was completely understandable. The Secretary then asked Tashi if he had any project that she could count as service for his Fulbright scholarship. (Recipients of the Fulbright scholarships must return to serve the community for a minimum of two years.) Fortunately, he had projects: To make films. While attending film school, Tashi had written two scripts for feature films (although he made considerable changes to them later). By then his cousin, Tsultrim Dorjee, had also completed his filmmaking course from Bhartiya Vidya Bhawan in Bangalore, India. They decided to team up and established Tibet Motion Pictures and Arts (now Seykhar Films) at Dekyling Tibetan Settlement, Northern India, in August 2005.
Their first project, Phun Anu Thanu, a Tibetan feature film, was a story about two brothers and their love for two sisters. Since they did not have any money, filming on digital format was the only option (and they still do this). The total budget for their project was around US $15,000, but they were determined to do it frugally, and completed it under $12,000. One of their relatives, Kunsang Thenley, a well-off merchant in Dimapur, India, loaned them the major portion of their budget without charging any interest.
At the same time, several talents responded to their casting calls on various Tibetan media, and in all they were around 60 people working on the project. Sonam Wangdu, who had acted in We’re No Monks (starring Gulshin Grover) and Dreaming Lhasa, was chosen for the role of Anu. Sonam is in fact one of the few Tibetan actors who had studied acting formally. Sonam Tshering, a college graduate from Sikkim, was selected for Thanu’s role.
Tashi and Tsultrim then approached Pa Tsering, the well-known Tibetan standup comedian, who lived in a nearby Tibetan settlement (Poanta) to act in their film, and to their great excitement he agreed. Unfortunately, before the shooting even began, Pa Tsering while cleaning his room fell off a stool and had to have several stitches in his lips. Being a pious person, Pa Tsering felt that the unnecessary buzz about their filmmaking was inviting much negative implication (meykha) to his health. Fortunately, over time, his lips healed, although the marks remain visible to this day.
Only a few days away from the actual shooting they were still looking for the female lead, as no one had applied for the role. One day, Sonam Yangzom, the lady who did the mother’s role in the film, suggested that one of her friends in Delhi, Tenzin Choedon, might be interested in doing the role. Without giving it a second thought, they begged her to come and join their team. “Every one of us were excited to see the leading lady of their film. Tenzin, a tall and good-looking lady, arriving at Dekyling the very next day,” says Tashi.
Dechen Yangzom, who also acted in the film, took charge of makeup and costumes.
The equipment rentals in Delhi were far more expensive than in their hometown Dehradun. They luckily ran into a gentleman named Negi who supplied professional equipment and technicians at a reasonable price in Dehradun. He rented them a Sony PD150 camera, a fluid tripod, lighting kits and a directional boom mike. Above all, he introduced them to a reliable and experienced cameraman, Narinder.
One major challenge before them was that, other than student projects in college, neither of them had directed any feature film before. But they knew the basic concepts to make a film watchable, so they decided to do it anyway. Moreover, their cameraman Narinder was a good one, although as Tashi says, “His style of filming was pretty much of an Indian soap opera type where there were too many long shots and only a few closeups. They were crying their lungs out for more closeups since we were trying to make a movie and not a TV serial, but he wouldn’t listen at all. ‘You guys are in good hands, trust me,’ was his signature response. Having said that, Narinder’s input was immense and we are grateful to him.”
The newly-built Lhodak Donyenling monastery at Dekyling was converted into their shooting base for the next month, where they would gather, discuss story, practice scenes, and eat. Later the monk-in-charge was a little worried when he heard some conservatives gossiping about the monastery being used for what they called “unholy purposes”. However, he had no more time to dwell on gossip when he was offered a role in the film. He had now become an active member, who would not only act but also give many important suggestions on the set. Sonam Wangdu and Pa Tsering were also given a nice room each at the monastery. Then a dedicated cook was hired to feed their entire team for the next month. Soon they were criss-crossing Dekyiling and the vicinity to shoot their film with their reliable PD-150.
Since they were all inexperienced first-timers, many of the decisions were made on the set collectively. They were fully aware of the narrative thread, and didn’t compromise in making the right choices. While filming a flashback sequence in Mussoorie, a large crowd had gathered and disrupted traffic altogether. Soon Tsultrim and Tashi were taken to a nearby police station, as they didn’t have the necessary permissions to block traffic. After repeated requests and paying some kickbacks, they were finally allowed to leave. But it was a good lesson, and securing police clearance was on the top of their list during the making of their second project, Richard Gere is My Hero.
In all, it took 24 days to shoot the film. They were happy that in the end they were able to pay a nominal fee to their cast and crew. After spending a month or so together, finally they bid farewell to their team with much sadness and pain in their hearts. “But this is life and we must move on, right?” says Tashi.
Pa Tsering returned to his settlement with ugly flip-flops, as he had donated his nice pair of shoes to one of the poor monks at the monastery. Sonam Wangdu received an urgent call from his sister asking for money, and sent most of his fees to her. Sonam Tshering who played Thanu’s role, along with a few others, chose to donate their money back to the filmmakers.
After finishing the shoot, the next big task was editing. They had no idea where to edit now. Again Mr Negi would come to their rescue by introducing them to one of the well-known studios in the region, Aaks, which produces many well-known regional films in the area. Soon they were being taken care of by the seasoned editor, Mohit Kumar. For the next two and a half months, they were cutting and joining footage at the editing table from 8 in the morning until late into the night. Tashi says, “seeing loose chunks of footage being shaped into a narrative thread was in fact one of the most gratifying experiences of all.” By the time they were to record music, they ran out of budget, as music was not part of their deal. But Arun Sharma, the musician, had been kind enough to compose some light music for their film at a minimal price. Arun now lives in Mumbai working on various Hindi film projects. They were also grateful to their friend and schoolmate Jamphel Tenzin, who jumped in as a Tibetan traditional musician, and did it for free.
Soon Tashi and Tsultrim were busy designing posters for their film. They made two 12-foot-high Bollywood-style posters. Both of these were colorful, attractive, and easily visible when hung on the wall. Even their Indian graphic designer was impressed by these two Tibetan’s typical Bollywood taste, as his style of graphics was actually more subtle than theirs. Later, one of their posters would be stolen by miscreants during the film screening in Mundgod.
On 1 December 2005, they left for Dharamshala to present their maiden show to the officials of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile as a tribute. Both of them were excited, as many high officials, friends, and media were invited to Gangkyi’s Chethap hall. Tashi remembers, “our joy knew no bounds when Prof Samdhong Rinpoche, the then Prime Minister of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, agreed to be the chief guest of our event.” He also cut the ribbon for the premiere. Rinpoche spoke highly about their initiative as filmmakers.
They now feel that their film was not even near the mark when it comes to a standard professional film. Looking back, they see the story line as redundant, the editing rather sloppy, and many of the scenes as totally unnecessary. But at the time, they were in a total state of denial. They were easily offended when someone spoke badly or reviewed their work harshly, “pretty much like a mother dog desparately defending her newly-born puppies.” In fact, Tashi had a heated exchange of words with one of their critics that went on for over a month. Yet, many of the important persons at Dharamshala were impressed by their mediocre work and gave great reviews. They later used these for promotional purposes and they were of great help. One of their dear friends also suggested that they send their film to various film festivals, but from the beginning their target audience were Tibetans, whom they would not be reaching through film festivals.
So they started touring Tibetan settlements, schools, monasteries, and institutes in India with a DVD player and a rental digital projector to screen their film on a ticket basis. They didn’t make any money, given that the touring expenses were high. About the time they were running out of money as well as patience, one day when Tsultrim and Tashi were in one of the cyber cafes in McLeod Ganj, they received an email from the Washington DC-based International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) informing them that they had been chosen among the year’s Rowell grant winners. This was a much-needed relief. “Our dear friend”, Lobsang Wangyal, the director of the Miss Tibet Pageant, then suggested that they screen their film at the upcoming 2006 Amravati Kalachakra initiation by HH the Dalai Lama. After a few days, Tsultrim left for Amravati, and Tashi followed soon after.
In Amravati, Tsultrim arranged an old cinema theater that had been lying vacant for many years. It was full of rodents, pigeon nests, spider webs, mosquitos, and ants. But they were happy that it had all the necessary components of a standard cinema hall, including a box office window, a big silver screen, chairs, and a sound system. They hired two dedicated local youths, Ahmad and Vikram, to help them during the ten-day screening in Amravati. Both of them were very hardworking, and would soon become like their own family members.
During the day, everyone was cutting down the ugly weeds that surrounded the hall, and washing the premises thoroughly. During the night, they were scouting all over Amravati town to put up posters and banners for their film. They hardly got any sleep during those days. Tashi remembers one evening, after finishing their hectic work, they bought a couple of chilled beers as reward, only to have them stolen by the watchman of the premises. After a few days’ hard work, their venue had been dramatically transformed into a fresh and new one. Even the owner of the theater was very much impressed by their hard work (although he was not ready to reduce the rent). Moreover, neither did he speak Hindi nor English, only Telugu. Ahmad, their staff, would translate between them.
Screening the movie at Amravati was a nightmare. First, power was not reliable at all, constantly going on and off. Second, the hall’s sound system, an old aluminum bullhorn type located behind the huge silver screen, broke down when it got vibrated. Tsultrim would then run and press it firmly with bricks and boulders, but the dampening effect would last only for a few minutes. And then there was the booing from the audience. Sometimes a pair of pigeons would sneak into the auditorium out of nowhere and disturb the already agitated crowd. Mosquito bites were the worst. The result was, many of their good audience would leave in the middle of the show disgruntled.
“We must be the only filmmakers who would not only sit and sell tickets at the box office window, but also run the projector ourselves,” says Tashi. But they were in fact following in the footsteps of the pioneers of the motion picture industry who would make their films as well as project their work themselves. Overall they remember it as great fun at Amravati. And they recovered around 25% of their investment in this holy city.
They then requested Rinchen Dharlo of The Tibet Fund to help them screen their film in the US. He graciously agreed and soon Tsultrim left for the USA. They teamed up with the Tibet Fund and various Tibetan Associations on a profit-sharing basis. They were glad that they could also raise some funds for these organisations. After touring much of the US for month or so, Tsultrim returned to India with decent funds, although money was never their top priority. But as Tashi says, “we had to survive, right?”
Finally they sold DVD rights to one of the merchants, another die-hard fan of their film in Delhi. Ultimately they were able to reimburse the money they owed to their cousin Kunsang, and soon they were readying for their next film Richard Gere is My Hero, the shooting of which took place in Dharamshala.
The making of Phun Anu Thanu was a great learning experience. Tashi feels the film taught them far more than what they had learnt at their film schools. He says “The journey of the process itself was a beautiful narrative in its own way, with so many sweet and sour moments to cherish. Sweet and Sour II about the making of Richard Gere is My Hero is next!”
As told to Tibet Sun by Tashi Wangchuk. Tashi is a TV Producer at the Voice of America in Washington DC. He has been a filmmaker and the co-founder of Tibet Motion Pictures and Arts, now Seykhar Films, and co-director of the film Phun Anu Thanu.