Tibetan cinema takes roots

By Saibal Chatterjee

New Delhi, 28 January 2006 (Hindustan Times) — Tibet as a theme has inspired filmmakers, especially documentary makers, for decades. Indigenously made Tibetan films were, however, a rarity. But the scenario has begun to change in the new millennium, with a steadily increasing number of Tibetans in exile going behind — and before — the movie cameras to craft films that tell their own stories and articulate their aspirations and frustrations.

Tibet's place on the world's mainstream movie map had hitherto hinged on two films — Jean-Jacques Annaud's Seven Years in Tibet, shot in Argentina of all places, and Martin Scorsese's widely applauded Kundun.

Although the current spurt in Tibetan filmmaking is still, at best, only an incipient phenomenon, the pointed manner in which these feature-length fiction films address the issues of an individual's cultural and ethnic identity, the plight of people deprived of their homeland and seeking a better life, and the larger question of the approaches that are available for those trying to further the Tibet cause has drawn the attention of the world.

Among the newer Tibetan feature films that are doing the rounds is Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam's Dreaming Lhasa. Like most such efforts, this debut feature film has come out of India. Sonam and Sarin, a husband-wife filmmaking duo, are both Delhi University grads and have a body of well-received documentaries behind them.

A still from Dreaming Lhasa. The film, directed by Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, revolves around a 30-year-old Tibetan filmmaker who flees from New York in search of her roots in McLeodganj.

Their first fiction film, shot primarily in the Tibetan settlements of Dharamshala and Dehradun and funded by Hollywood star Richard Gere and The Last Emperor producer Jeremy Thomas, premiered in Toronto late last year before travelling to numerous other festivals — San Sebastian, Singapore, Istanbul and Kerala (where it was in Competition).

Myth and contemporary reality seamlessly intermingle in the Dreaming Lhasa narrative, which revolves around a 30-year-old Tibetan filmmaker who, fleeing from an unhappy relationship in New York, heads for McLeodganj, near Dharamshala, in search of her roots. She plans a film about former political prisoners who have escaped from Tibet. Her encounters culminate in a quest for a long-lost man who may be able to unravel the secrets locked in a charm box that is in the possession of an erstwhile monk.

A couple of years ago, Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader and budding filmmaker Khyentse Norbu helmed a critically acclaimed film titled Travellers and Magicians, which was also funded in part by the UK-based Jeremy Thomas. The deceptively simple but consistently riveting film narrates the story of a university-educated Bhutanese official, Dhondup, who dreams of making it to the US of A.

As he waits for a bus to take him away from the remote village, he encounters several fellow voyagers, including a papermaker and his lovely young daughter and a perceptive but mischievous monk who tell Dhondup the mythical tale of Tashi, whose journey parallels that of the protagonist.

In 1999, Khyentse Norbu wrote and directed Bhutan's first-ever full-fledged feature, The Cup, a real-life account of a group of young, soccer-crazy monks desperate to acquire a television set in order to watch the football World Cup. Not only did The Cup go on to represent Bhutan in the race for the best foreign-language film Oscar, it earned enough by way of box office returns to facilitate the renovation of the monastery where it was filmed.

Tibetan cinema has been on a steady, if gradual, growth curve since then. Yet another Tibetan-made feature, Pema Dhondup's We Are No Monks, tells the story of four Tibetan friends who live in exile in Dharamshala. Dhondup, who trained in the film school of the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, probes the minds of young Tibetans grappling with the urge to balance their commitment to the cause and the need to get ahead in life as individuals.

The upcoming Milarepa: Revenge, directed by first-time Neten Chokling, is woven around the life of Milarepa, an 11th century Tibetan sage who saw life from close quarters before embarking upon a spiritual journey that led him to a rare revelation. Like Khyentse Norbu, Chokling is a spiritual leader and the abbot of the Bir monastery near Dharamshala.

Raymond Steiner, an American who migrated to Australia after spending over a decade in India, is the producer of Milarepa: Revenge, which, like Dreaming Lhasa, will be screened in the upcoming Bangkok International Film Festival (February 17-27). Steiner, incidentally, was also involved in the making of Khyentse Norbu's two films.

The steady trickle of Tibetan films represents a cinema in exile. Its importance stems from the very fact that it dares to exist when the land and the culture it springs from is still in fetters. The camera is a tool that knows no political subjugation and the faces, voices and stories it records acquire the power to take flight.

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