A long way from Shangri-la

By Gargi Gupta

NEW DELHI, India, 16 February 2008 — Young Tibetans in India are increasingly turning to film as a medium to explore their identity and tell the world their story.

Two years separate the release of Pema Dhondup's We're No Monks (2004) and Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's Rang De Basanti (2006), but the similarities between the two films are striking.

Both are films about boys growing into men; both have four "heroes" and both have plots that hinge around how a combination of alienation and political circumstances leads them to a public act of violence.

But whereas the Bollywood blockbuster was somewhat unrealistic and needed the Bhagat Singh-sub plot to give structure and meaning to the protagonists' revolutionary angst, in the Tibetan film, the plot to assassinate a Chinese official arises more naturally, the result, perhaps, of the fact that the Tibetans' history of injustices is much more recent and that most of them are still living with the effects of the 1949 Chinese invasion of their homeland.

In the film, which was screened at the recent Festival of Tibetan Films organised in the capital by the Foundation for Universal Responsibility of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, it is Pasang, recently arrived in McLeodganj from Tibet, who is the most obviously scarred.

But the others are affected too — Tenzin, the unemployed graduate with vague ideas about emigrating and very definite ones about not following his father into a government job; the happy-go-lucky Tsering, who's always prepared for any adventure with a condom in his pocket; and the inscrutable, and not just because he's mute, Damdul, following his friends everywhere with his camcorder.

Each of the protagonists presents a facet of the reality of Tibetan society, especially where it touches the youth. There's unemployment; the dichotomy between modern technology and magic/superstition, so integral to the Buddhist religion; the gap between the first generation émigrés and their children who grew up in India; the influx of Western tourists, especially the backpacking kind, ready with cash for sex and drugs; the need to reconcile a religion that preaches pacifism with the violence they see all around.

Indeed, McLeod Ganj and Dharamshala, the two towns where most of the 150,000-strong Tibetan population in India live, is no Shangri-la. And it is this impression of a society buffeted by crosswinds that one gets from most of the films at the festival.

Look at Tsampa to Pizza, Sonam Tseten's 2007 film, which uses the food analogy (Tsampa is roasted barley flour, the staple diet of Tibetans) to drive home the point that traditional values need to be preserved, no matter how much life's outward circumstances may change.

Metse makes much the same point through the stories of two brothers, one of whom does not do well academically, and consequently financially, disrespects his parents and does not look after them.

The other, in contrast, scores on all these but he too offends his parents by impregnating a girl friend in engineering college and then marrying her without their knowledge or approval.

History and religion/myth are the other broad concerns one can detect. Primary among these is Dreaming Lhasa (2005) by Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, which was adjudged best film at the Human Rights Watch International Festival, London, and which goes back to territory the husband-wife duo had first explored in the 1998 documentary, The Shadow Circus: The CIA in Tibet. (It has had a rough time at film festivals, however, with the Chinese government pressuring organisers to stop its screening, pushing instead for The Silent Holy Stones, made by a filmmaker from within Tibet.) Sarin and Sonam have also made a series of Rinpoche films, of which A Day in the Life of Rinpoche, on 20-year-old Phara Khenchen Rinpoche, was screened at the festival, as was Milarepa, on the life of one of Tibet's best-known saints.

However absorbing the films, it is a wonder, however, that they got made at all. Without any infrastructure — production firms, post-production facilities, cinema halls or distribution channels to show their films — it is hardly surprising that all the films, with the possible exception of The Cup by Khyentse Norbu, have not even recovered costs, let alone make profits.

"It's passion, yes, and the search for an identity that's driving these filmmakers," says Lobsang Wangyal, who's been organising the Free Spirit Festival of Tibetan films since 2004. "It's a way for them to live their dreams," quite like the protagonist of Richard Gere is My Hero who wants to become a Hollywood star so he can help his homeland.

Wangyal's festival is, in reality, the only formal platform for Tibetan films, the rest being projectors put up in makeshift theatres, paid screenings of DVDs. And then there's piracy, says the impresario.

Indeed, even a seasoned hand like Pema Dhondup, who made news videos and documentaries for nearly six years, before joining the USC School of Cinema and Television in Los Angeles on a Fullbright Scholarship, and now runs a production house in California, has found it difficult to start on another feature project, says Rupin Dang of Wilderness Films India, who co-produced We're No Monks.

Strangely however, more and more Tibetans are discovering the joys of filmmaking. Wangyal says he is quite "annoyed" with the rash of Tibetans who feel that camcorder in hand, they can can all be filmmakers, and that too "not shorts or documentaries, but features. I tell them that they should aim for quality, and even if it is five minutes long, I will screen it at my festival."

Not all, of course, are amateurs. Geleck Pasang, who's made Prayers Unanswered on a school set up by the Dalai Lama, is already trained at the Asian School of Media Studies and will leave for the US for more experience in a few months. Hopefully, there'll be more like him.

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