It was like an old-fashioned circus sideshow-a hand-painted banner proclaiming the name of the attraction-and in front, a barker on a battery-powered mike trying to sell tickets to the show. This is a movie called Melong (Tibetan for "Clear Light"). Curious bystanders stop to look at the posters, some pay IRs 100 for the ticket to watch the 60 minute screening.
A Tibetan-Nepali from Kathmandu named Seshi is the movie's director and people recognise his face on the glossy poster as also the star. Seshi got some experience in filming with Eric Vallei when he shot Honey Hunters in Nepal. "We tried to keep costs down," Seshi explains. The movie cost NRs 50,000 and the actors were paid Rs 2,500 every day.
I'm in Dharamsala not only to watch movies, but also act in one. Having answered a full-page ad in the Tibet Review, I was chosen to play the role of an American reporter in The Four Harmonious Friends directed by a University of Southern California graduate, 38 year-old Tibeta- American, Pema Dhondup.
Already, the Tibet Review in Dharmasala has another full-page ad for another Tibetan feature film, this one called Poison Charm and directed by Tenzing Sonam and his Indian wife, Ritu Sarin. The film-maker couple had previously made the TV Documentary, The Shadow Circus about the CIA involvement in the Khampa rebellion in the 1960s.
Judging from the description of characters including "an unemployed McLeod Ganj youngster" and an elderly Tibetan man, "a former resistance fighter", both The Four Harmonious Friends and Poison Charm seem likely to treat similar themes in depicting the inter-generational conflicts within the disenfranchised diaspora community, between the first escapees from Chinese-occupied Tibet and the second-generation of Tibetans born in exile who have never seen Tibet and wonder what it means to be "Tibetan".
This conflict of interest is already quite apparent on the streets of Dharamsala, Kathmandu or wherever Tibetans live in exile. One can see the wrinkled and weathered oldsters in traditional dress counting their rosaries or spinning prayer-wheels, and the younger generation spinning CDs and looking as fashionably hip (and rebellious) as any Harlem hip-hopster or Bollywood brat.
On a recent evening, Seshi screened his video Melong to a young sympathetic audience at Dharamsala's TIPA (Tibet Institute of Performing Arts) auditorium. Despite the experimental film's home-movie amateurishness with an implausible, predictable plot, the story of an unemployed Tibetan graduate unable to find a job in Kathmandu and the troubles he falls into-bad company, drinking and disco brawls-the movie struck a chord with the cheering audience of Tibetan youth who face similar predicament in real life.
There was hardly a dry eye in the audience when the hero laments that his loving parents sacrificed everything to educate him for 20 years and now he can't even find a job. Despite the hero's waywardness, the film evokes traditional values of filial duty, religious values-the hero's friend is a pious thangka painter-and in the end he decides to abandon Kathmandu's corruption to return to his native India with his schoolmate sweetheart.
Pema Dhondup, director of The Four Harmonious Friends introduces himself as having gone to the USA on a Fullbright scholarship to study filmmaking so that he could "tell our story, of our community, of our lost generation". Dhondup says he shot the film on a "zero budget", and everything was donated, nobody was paid, and much of the funding came through benefactors such as Rupin Dang of Wilderness Films, a production company in Delhi that makes documentaries for National Geographic and Discovery channels.
"This is the generation that has grown up, but never seen our own country," Dhondup tells us. "We grew up with images of torture, occupation, insult. The story is not fiction, this is our life experience, what has happened to us, it is a reality weaved into a fictitious story."
Like Dhondup, both Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin also received their film-making training in California, with degrees in broadcasting and an MFA in film and video. The film-maker couple's internationally acclaimed documentary The Reincarnation of Kensur Rinpoche is said to have been an inspiration for Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha (1994). Bertolucci invited Tenzing and Ritu to Kathmandu for the shoots.
Khyentse Norbu Rinpoche, a Bhutanese reincarnate lama himself, was also an advisor to Bertolucci, and went on to make his own film, The Cup (1999) which, although shot in India, was an Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language film from Bhutan. The quirky film tells the tale of Tibetan-exile monks who secretly try to watch the football World Cup on a rented television in their remote monastery.
However, having organized a Tibetan Film Festival in Delhi a few years ago, Tenzing and Ritu insist Hollywood was defintely not their inspiration. "It was in fact to counter such rosy, spiritual-laden descriptions of Tibet in mainstream Western cinema, that we were driven to make our film," says Tenzing.
Their $2 million Poison Charm is being supported partly by actor and Tibetan activist, Richard Gere, and Bertolucci's UK-based producer, Jeremy Thomas. Shooting in digital video will begin in November at Dharmasala.