Cinema and Tibet: A brief historical overview

By Jamyang Norbu

September 2004

Jamyang Norbu in library Hollywood, more than anyone else, could perhaps be held responsible for foisting the "magic and mystery" image of Tibet on the world public. As early as 1937, Frank Capra's great Tibet classic, Lost Horizon, was released to critical and box office success, winning two Academy Awards and transforming Columbia, a minor Poverty Row production company, to a major Hollywood player. Although followed occasionally by such fairly forgettable films as Storm Over Tibet (1952), Hammer Film's Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas (1957), the dreadful musical remake of Lost Horizon (1973) and Golden Child (1986), among others, Hollywood has in recent years provided us and more satisfying and big budget fare as in Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun.

Besides movies actually claiming to be about Tibet (in no matter how fantastic a sense) clichéd references to Tibet often occur in films having little to do with that country. For instance Tibet makes "cameo" spiritual appearances in Kim (1945), The Millionairess (1960), The Road to Hongkong (1962), The Razor's Edge (1984), Little Buddha (1993), The Shadow (1994), Omaha (1995), Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls (1995), and most recently in Bullet Proof Monk (2003).

British India and the Introduction of Cinema to Tibet

Apart from merely serving as a subject or a jockey aside for some Hollywood films, Tibet does have its own special history, albeit a modest one, of encounter and interaction with this revolutionary invention from the West. The earliest reference to a film screening in Tibet is an unusual one, where the stereotype of the white sahib displaying Western scientific magic to awe-struck natives, is stood on its head. British records inform us that "as early as 1920-21 Charles Bell watched films in Tsarong's (the commander in chief of the Tibetan army) private screening room." 1

Following the Bell mission of 1920 subsequent British missions to Lhasa appear to have used cinema as "a little mild propaganda" and a means of creating a friendly and informal atmosphere in their dealings with the Tibetans. F.M. Bailey showed films in Lhasa in 1924, as did Frederick Williamson in 1936. The latter even entertained the Thirteenth Dalai Lama with Charlie Chaplin. The Gould Mission of 1936 not only brought with them a number of Charlie Chaplin early one-reelers but also Rin-Tin-Tin in The Night Cry (1926), which became a big hit in Lhasa. Newsreels of military parades, royal pageants, and (during the war) such Pathé news reviews as Victory in the Desert, seem to have gone down well with the local audience. Tibetans also reportedly enjoyed films about Tibet, shot by British visitors, of local landmarks, religious ceremonies, dances, and dignitaries.

After the departure of the British from the sub continent, the Indian mission took up this publicity task and showed appropriate Indian documentary and feature films to Tibetans.

The first commercial cinema hall in Tibet appears to have opened in Lhasa in the early thirties by two Ladakhis of the Radhu mercantile family, Mohamed Ashgar and Sirajuddin. Their small cinema in the Barkor area near Shatra house screened such Indian classics as Anarkali (1935), thereby initiating the process of turning Tibetans (especially Tibetan women) into devoted Hindi movie fans. Hollywood films as Tarzan, Jungle Jim and Lassie Come Home (1943), were also popular. A larger cinema hall, Happy Light (Deki Wolnang), was built in 1958 by a Tibetan government official, Liushar, and a Muslim merchant, Ramzan, but the Lhasa Uprising of March 1959 spelled its end, especially as a contingent of Tibetan fighters held out at the cinema and it suffered much damage.

The Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1950 brought with it Communist propaganda films initially shown outdoors at Wondoe Shinga grounds in Lhasa. A large cloth screen hung on the back wall of the old Trimon mansion, initially served as screen but an auditorium was constructed soon after. The Chinese not only screened their own propaganda feature films as The White Haired Girl (Bai Mao Nu) and Communist documentaries, but also such films by Marxist Indian filmmaker Bimal Roy, Do Bigha Zamin (1953), and even Raj Kapoor's Awara (1951), which was dubbed, songs and all, in Chinese, and which became hugely popular not only in Tibet but also in East Turkestan (Xinjiang). When Vikram Seth visited East Turkestan in the 1980s, people there, noting he was an Indian, would enquire about Raj and Rita, the protagonists of the film.

The Chinese also made a few propaganda features in the sixties and seventies about the evils of the "feudal man-eating system", two of the most well-known releases being Serf (1963, a.k.a Nongnu, Chinese, Shingdren, Tibetan) also titled Jampa, and Gangri Mikchu (Tears of the Mountain). With Deng's liberalisation came somewhat less propagandistic films as The Horsethief (Tien Zhuangzhuang, 1986, 88 min). But propaganda still remains the raison dêtre of Chinese filmmaking on Tibet, as such later releases as Red River Valley (a.k.a Yizizhuoma, Feng Ziaoning, 1996 120 min) and Song of Tibet (Xie Fei, 2000, 104 min) demonstrates. These two films on Tibet are regularly screened at official Chinese "Tibetan Cultural Festivals", as recently as 2004 in Toronto, Canada. Though these movies employed Tibetan actors and extras, there has, so far been no major feature film actually directed or produced by a Tibetan.

Tibetans from Lhasa television and official performing arts organisations have made a few tele-films. In 1990 (?) the Lhasa Theatre Troupe produced a full length feature (probably shot on video), Potala'i Sangdam (Secrets of the Potala). After some initial screenings the movie was officially banned, because it reportedly showed the 5th Dalai Lama meeting the Chinese Emperor Shunzhi in 1652 without performing a kow-tow. In point of fact most historians agree that the Dalai Lama was received as an independent sovereign. In 1996 the Lhasa Theatre Troupe reworked their film-script into a play and toured China until the authorities banned it late in the year, citing unspecified "political reasons".

Tibetan Filmmakers

Since their encounter with the modern world, by way of British India, Tibetans enthusiastically took to such inventions as photography and we first hear of a Tibetan using a camera around 1908. The cinema came a bit later. As mentioned earlier, the Tibetan aristocrat Tsarong was screening films in his house in Lhasa as early as 1912. Tsarong also acquired a cine-camera, and Heinrich Harrer tells us in Seven Years in Tibet that in Lhasa he saw some films shot by Tsarong's son Dundul Namgyal (George) and he was impressed at the professional quality of the work. Harrer also tells us that the young 14th Dalai Lama was a keen cinematographer and that in fact he commissioned Harrer to build him a private cinema hall.

The first Tibetan to actually make a feature film could quite possibly have been the late Gungthang Tsultrim, head of the Tibetan refugee settlement at Clement town in Dehra Dun district, India. Tsultrim was the founder/director of the Amdo Dance and Drama Society and had written and produced a play in the early sixties on the life of the Tibetan Emperor, Songtsen Gampo. Tsultrim hired equipment and technicians from Bombay and shot his film partly in Clement town and partly in Ladakh. This film was made in the mid-seventies, and though having a story line largely recreated scenes of life in old Tibet, particularly Amdo. Unfortunately, because of Tsultrim's political differences with Gyalo Thondup the Dalai Lama's brother and the government-in-exile, this pioneering example of Tibetan film-making has been largely unknown to Tibetan society, and the negative and prints of this film appear to have been lost after Tsultrim's murder in 1977. The Illustrated Weekly of India did a write-up on this film with photographs of scenes from the film.

So in lieu of definite information about Tsultrim's film we would have to consider Khyentse Norbu's Phorpa (The Cup) to be the first proper full-length Tibetan feature film. The work of an eminent lama (Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rimpoche, to give his full name), Phorpa was a tremendously successful first film, winning a prize at Cannes and receiving awards and accolades world wide. Rimpoche, who is Tibetan/Bhutanese, has made Bhutan the subject of his second film Travellers and Magicians which was released in 2004.

1998 saw the release of Lungta (Windhorse) which, though directed by the American filmmaker Paul Wagner, had considerable Tibetan input into its creation. With a Tibetan screenwriter, Thupten Tsering, and other young Tibetans participating, this was one of the only feature-films that addressed the political repression in Communist-occupied Tibet. A number of sequences were covertly shot in Lhasa city, in a kind of guerilla film-making, which gave the film a realistic edge. Overall Windhorse has a very indigenous feel to it — "a smell of tsampa", as Tibetans might say. A video-film Tsampai Shenkhok (Loyalty), produced by the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, and directed by Jamyang Dorjee, was released in 1999. It tells the story of young Tibetans in Lhasa city defying the Chinese occupation forces. The story was adapted from the Indian film Shaheed.

In We Are No Monks (2004), filmmaker Pema Dhondup tells the story of four friends living in Dharamshala. The film deals with the dichotomy of young refugees attempting to create a normal life in their exile world, but feeling their patriotism and idealism pulling them in another direction. Bollywood actor, Gulshan Grover, is cast as a local police officer who, in the course of his duties, encounters these confused, angry and hard-drinking young men.

Dreaming Lhasa directed and produced by Tenzin Sonam and Ritu Sarin, will be released at the end of 2004. It tells the story of a young Tibetan woman, a filmmaker from the United States, finding friendship and at times frustration and sorrow in the refugee community in India. In Dharamshala she is drawn into the strange search of a new arrival from Tibet for a long-vanished resistance fighter.

The husband/wife team of Tenzin Sonam and Ritu Sarin are successful documentary film makers. Four of these are about Tibet: The Reincarnation of Khentse Rimpoche (1991), The Trials of Telo Rimpoche (1994), A Stranger in My Native Land (1998), and The Shadow Circus: The CIA in Tibet (1998).

Tsering Rhitar, a resident of Kathmandu, won a major South Asian documentary film award with The Spirit Doesn't Come Anymore (1997). He has also made a feature film Mukundo (1999) about a female shaman of Nepal.

Another Kathmandu-based Tibetan filmmaker, Kesang Tseten, has two documentaries to his credit: We Homes Chaps (2001), and On the Road With the Red God (2004).

(This is a preliminary draft outline of a more extensive essay on Tibetan cinema, and some of the information requires rechecking. Anyone intending to cite any information or quote any passage from this work should first get in touch with Jamyang Norbu at

1. Hansen, Peter H. "Tibetan Horizon: Tibet and the Cinema in the Early 20th Century", Imagining Tibet: Perceptions, Projections and Fantasies, Thierry Dodin & Heinz Rather (eds.), Wisdom Publications, Boston, 2001, p. 96.

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