Dreaming about Lhasa

By Utpal Borpujari

Utpal Borpujari meets Tibetan couple whose first feature film, Dreaming Lhasa explores the psyche of young Tibetans juxtaposing it with the older generation's passion for the Tibet cause.

26 March 2006 (Deccan Herald) — Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam besides being wedded to each other are also wedded to a cause — the cause of Tibet. So, it is no surprise that when they make their first feature film, it should be an extension of their belief in the cause of Tibet — something that has recurred again and again in their highly-acclaimed documentaries made in the last two decades or so, including The Trials of Telo Rinpoche (1993), A Stranger in My Native Land (1997) and The Shadow Circus: The CIA in Tibet (1998).

Dreaming Lhasa, the first feature film by the director couple, is a gentle film told leisurely, but at the core of it lies the spirit of the continuing struggle for a free Tibet even as it tries to go into the psyche of the young Tibetans who have been born and brought up in India and have never seen their motherland.

The film has already been screened at a number of international film festivals, since its world premiere at the "discovery section" of the 30th Toronto International Film Festival in September last year, and received accolades for its delicate handling of the theme.

On the face of it, Dreaming Lhasa is a simple story about Karma, a young Tibetan-American woman, who comes to Dharamshala, the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile, to make a documentary on the experience of former political prisoners in Tibet who subsequently escaped to India.

Having grown up in the secure environment of the United States, Karma feels how alienated she is from the Tibetan cause as she interviews them and learns about the tough life they have had because of their belief in the cause of Tibet. It is during these interviews that she meets Dhondup, a Tibetan monk who has come to Dharamshala with a gahu (a charm box that Tibetans use as a protection amulet) for delivery to a man named Loga and thus fulfil his dying mother's last wish.

Existential search

As they search for the missing man, Karma gets drawn to Dhondup and his enigmatic nature.

If Karma represents the Tibetan diaspora that has got truly alienated from what her people believe in, Dhondup represents the never-say-die Tibetan community who are ready to undergo any hardship to take a step forward towards having their cherished homeland.

Somewhere in between them is Jigme, a young Tibetan aspiring to be a rock musician and dreaming alternately between doing something meaningful for the homeland he has never seen and going to America and its "good life".

The film, screened in film festivals like San Sebastian, International Meeting of Cinema and History in Istanbul, Victoria Independent Film and Video Festival in Canada, Amazonas at Manaus (Brazil), the International Film Festival of Kerala in Thiruvananthapuram, Bangkok, San Francisco and Asian Festival of First Films in Singapore, moves at a leisurely pace, like life in Tibetan settlements itself.

The directors have given a reality touch to it by interviewing actual former Tibetan political prisoners for the scenes purportedly showing Karma interviewing them.

The storyline in this 90-minute long English/Tibetan film is primarily of a few individuals and how they discover themselves, but at a more subtler level, it is also a story of the cultural alienation that the current generation of Tibetans are facing.

With National Award winning cinematographer Ranjan Palit effectively capturing the mood of the film — from the dank dwellings of the community in Dharamshala, Delhi and other settlements to the confused mood of the young generation — and Andy Spence with his interesting compositions mixing traditional Tibetan sounds with electronic music, and Paul Dosaj with his competent editing have added to the film's value. But more than that, it is the acting that is the surprise package of the film, more particularly that by Tenzin Jigme, a local Dharamshala boy who plays Jigme. Picked up through an auditioning process that included scores like him, it is hard to believe that it is his first and only acting experience till date, so confident is he in front of the camera.

Tenzin Chokyi Gyatso, a bank officer from Fairfax, Virginia near Washington, also plays Karma quite confidently despite this being her first acting experience, while Jampa Kalsang, the only professional actor in the cast, brings out the solitude of Dhondup well.

Funds crunch

With Hollywood star and known Dalai Lama disciple Richard Gere being one of the executive producers of the film, Sarin and Sonam can be assumed not to have the financial difficulties that first-time filmmakers face when they take a subject that does not fit into the "formula".

The film's technical standards suggests this too, though Sarin says that it took five years to raise the funds and find support for the film. As the filmmakers say, it was their long time desire to make a feature film that would tackle comprehensively the issues closest to their heart — the political and cultural reality of Tibet under Chinese occupation, the in-between world of the younger generation of refugees who have never seen their homeland, and the gradual dying out of the older generation whose memories of a free Tibet are the only living link to the past.

They have succeeded in capturing what they set out to do to a great extent, though the film does not have dramatic highs as one would usually expect with such a politically potent theme.

Sonam and Sarin, of course, have much more to say about their subject, which go beyond the film. "What is happening in Tibet is a huge influx of the Chinese. Already in the larger cities, there are more Chinese than Tibetans. A major demographic change is taking place there. If you go to Tibet today, you would see how it is, as opposed to what China would like you to believe. It is a colonised country," says Sonam.

"China is very powerful and the logical and practical look would be to think that Tibet is a lost cause. We have to keep alive with the hope that it would become free some day. See, even the former Soviet Union broke up, and all the countries became free even though that was unthinkable at one point of time," he says.

According to Sarin, their film is an effort to project the reality of Tibet as it looks like from here. "Enough films are being made in China that are portraying a totally different picture about Tibet, films like Mountain Patrol, which shows that there is not one Chinese in Tibet and that the Tibetans are going around shooting people and animals, giving a totally one-sided view," she says. The duo add,"Today, China rules Tibet with an iron hand and all forms of dissent are ruthlessly quashed.

The goal of regaining a free Tibet — the raison d'etre of the refugee community — seems further away than ever before. Inside Tibet, Tibetans have no voice, no way of expressing themselves freely. In exile, the Tibetan community is relatively tiny and it is only recently that a small band of film makers has begun to take the first hesitant steps towards looking at its own situation."

From real to reel

Interestingly, the storyline for the film emerged from the shadow of a real-life incident. Sonam's father, Lhamo Tsering, had been an important figure in the resistance movement against the Chinese, serving as a key liaison between the guerilla forces and the CIA, which helped to train, arm and fund them from the late 1950s to the end of the 1960s.

While researching on The Shadow Circus: The CIA in Tibet, the film commissioned to them by BBC that tackled the armed struggle, they heard the story of how one of the CIA-trained fighters had vanished without a trace some years after the end of the movement.

Thoughts on what could have happened to him laid the backbone of Dreaming Lhasa. In totality, the film is a fairly competent example of activism through a celluloid story, merging the real and the fictional to tell a story about an issue that continues to simmer.

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