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On the Trail of Poison Charm

Thursday 27 December 2007, by Topden Tsering

It was one Saturday afternoon, seven years ago, outside Tenzin Sonam and Ritu Sarin’s house in Norbu lingka in Dharamsala that I found myself flipping through the script for their film, Dreaming Lhasa (the title then was Poison Charm). The grassy field with its bristling green stalks cascaded in wide steps toward the Dolma Lingka Nunnery from whence rose a mixed murmur of chanting and laughter; and beyond it, the Kangra Valley stretched in haze-covered plains and sunlit hills. The filmmakers were inside their residence, tending to their two kids and trying to get some work done, and it was expected of me, as a friend, and as somebody who had actually lived my whole life in Mcleod Gunj, the central universe of their story, to offer them some feedback, a reaction.

Nothing could have prepared me for the experience. Reading the script, thumbing through the pages, as the nuns’ chatter rose and subsided, I saw coming alive on them characters that could have stepped right outside my own being, and whose variations, at that very moment, I knew walked the town’s narrow streets. Some smoking marijuana on a restaurant terrace; some courting tourist women outside stores selling trinkets and rugs; some just sitting or standing on the edge of the market square, with all the empty hours on their hands, as if waiting for one of the incoming buses to plop out for them a future, an opportunity, an action, a revolution.

The town’s narrow alleys, the Indian-owned restaurant which on occasional Friday nights doubled for night clubs where less dancing took place than fistfights, the pool places which had proliferated as if with a vengeance, the gravelly circumambulatory trail around the Dalai Lama’s palace where a vanishing generation prepared for death and worried for the living they were going to leave behind: all these found a place in the script, and buzzed with their usual mix of silence and noise, joy and dereliction, promise and superstition.

It was fantastic and it was flattering. And on behalf of myself and all my friends, and the town I called home, I asked the filmmaker friends, as a gratitude gesture and just so that they could unwind after all their hard work, if I could not bring them some hashish.

Then time rolled by.

Three years later, I caught up with the eclectic couple in New York and found them in a jubilant mood. They had found their Karma, the leading female character, the film’s anchor in love and longing, in a young Tibetan woman named Tenzin Choekyi who had grown up in Washington D.C and worked in a bank. Like Karma, Choekyi’s sensibilities and her ambitions had been shaped by her American upbringing, and like Karma, Choekyi had come to a crossroad where she felt it important to give resolution to the quagmires of her identity as a Tibetan expatriate. But the similarities stopped there. Where Karma was bohemian, a true child of New York’s East Village grungy culture, free in spirit and flowing in fashion, Choekyi was homebound, conservatively dressed and mannered. And there, we discussed and speculated, would come handy the magic of a makeover: revised wardrobe, hair highlights, an attitude.

Choosing the cast for male characters, especially that of the local drifter, Jigme, wasn’t going to be a problem. After all just about announce a project with long haired, leather jacket-clad, marijuana-smoking, foreign women-courting, languorous young renegades, and the next morning outside your door you would find having materialized a long line of very such people, leaning against the railings, twiddling their sunglasses, shaking off their hangovers, banter-slapping each other, adept at encountering chance and change. As for Dhondup’s character, the stoical man from Tibet visiting India to find the rightful owner of a Gawu, an amulet for luck and protection, that his deceased mother had given him, we suspected the role would be filled in by an actor from the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA).


Then two years later, the news came that Dreaming Lhasa had been officially selected for showcasing at the Toronto Film Festival. If anything, it was surreal.

A Tibetan film, set in my hometown, with characters based on the likeness of my own person and my friends, was going to be shown, of all the places, at the Toronto Film Festival. The prospect was utterly delicious that the ranks of world-class cinema had inducted as its own my friends’ first feature film and now alongside fares from America, France, Germany, China and Japan, the festival audience would be made privy to Mcleod Gunj’s narrow alleys, its night club, the pool halls, the circumambulatory trail, all of which bore traces of my own tramping and escapades and which I so much wished they knew. So it was that, what was erstwhile a far-away world of great films and brilliant actors and genius directors, something I had read about with reverence and envy, had begun to seem a little closer to home.

Dreaming Lhasa finally arrived in San Francisco last year. It was one of the main feature presentations, alongside such favorites as Deepa Mehta’s Water, at the Asian American Film Festival. The film’s screening at the fabulous historical movie palace, Castro, with a sitting capacity of 1,500 was an easy sold out. And it was shown twice thereafter, the second by popular demand, at the Berkeley Pacific Film Archive theatre, an experience that the filmmakers, in a recent IndieWIRE interview, described as a proud moment, "as this was the place where we had watched so many films as students and first hatched the dream of becoming filmmakers."

The film had come a long way from being a folder-bound 35-page script that I had read in another world and in another time. And it more than lived up to my expectations. And all sentimentality apart, I thought Dreaming Lhasa was one of the best Tibetan films ever.

Up until then Windhorse had been my favorite, but it cannot be called a purely Tibetan film as at its directorial helm was Paul Wagner, a non-Tibetan, and subject-wise, although The Cup generated a huge following, its story did not really reverberate with the contemporary urgency of the world we live in and know well, the dilemma of occupation from the standpoint of being an exile.

There had been much anticipation about Milarepa, but the film was a total dud despite its budget in whopping millions. The film’s storyline is no improvement from the Milarepa comic that used to circulate back in the early 1990s, each frame corresponding exactly to the book’s panels, and watching it one is left with a feeling if the filmmaker might not have made a wiser decision had he produced it as an animation; In the name of dialogue, you have mumbling; in the name of acting, you have eyes squinting in the sun; in the name of special effects, you have Photoshop montages, and as if that were not enough, there was going to be a Milarepa II. The only redeeming part about this celluloid disappointment is Choekyi Tethong, a singer/actor, who delivers a heartfelt performance and whose luminous work only serves to accentuate the feebleness of other actors.

Then there was Phun Anu Thanu which was the most brutal assault ever on the intellect. It is an exploitative film that is dangerously becoming a trend now, in which for wit and humor, one gets C-grade Bollywood slapstick and depravity, and yet one which boasts of a profound commentary on the exile Tibetans’ plight, an incongruity matched only by the high-flying reviews it supposedly garnered from Dharamsala’s officialdom, amongst who Chairman Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche called it "perfect".

If anything, the film is a stain on the potentials of Tibetan artistry, and it shreds to ribbons the power of cinema as a medium with which to tell a story, primarily because the filmmakers forget that one can’t simply make a film by pointing a camera at some people, and that for such amateurish indulgences we have, in this digital file sharing age, Youtube. Despite their backgrounds in film schools, the director duo shows a poor acumen in writing and vision, and one only wishes their express factory set their ideals a little higher.

In terms of novelty, only Tsering Rhithar’s Karma and Pema Dhondup’s We Are No Monks deserve positive mention.


Dreaming Lhasa is technically a road movie; its story essentially about searching. At the heart of the film is the mystery surrounding the Gawu: Who does it belong to? What story and what history would the revelation unearth, about what person and which people? And more immediately, what bearing the answer would have on the life of Dhondup, who has come from Tibet, to fulfill a wish he had granted his mother on her deathbed, minutes after she had handed him this relic from an unknown past?

The Gawu is more than a cryptic puzzle screaming for resolution. It is a metaphor for the very plight daunting the Tibetans today: the violence that China’s military occupation has wrought on a people both sides of the Himalayas: in the uprootedness of a generation now all but vanishing, and with them a way of life; in the identity crisis of their descendents, younger by age, weaker by faith, and enfeebled by circumstances; and in the multifarious versions of flight, both in mind-space and physical, that occupation and exile entail.

And it is this twin impetus - occupation and exile - that makes people leave homes, undertake journeys and cross borders. Some as in the case of Karma, the woman documentary filmmaker from the United States, to reconnect with her past, the place of her origin, Tibet, by inhabiting an idea of it which is Dharamsala. Some as in the case of Dhondup to find answers to a mystery that death had bequeathed him and which during life had kept hidden from him. And some as in the case of Jigme, a local vagabond, with all his ready charm and inborn rebelliousness, at once a manufacturer and peddler in dreams and despair, to just be somewhere else, anywhere else but here.

Karma too is on a mission of her own, to make a documentary about former political prisoners. After each interview, with nuns who had been arrested for shouting slogans, with monks who had been imprisoned for distributing flyers; after each remembrance and recounting, of blows and humiliation: hands across face, cattle prod inside vagina, it is like unto Karma, in the solitude of her sparse hotel room, is passed the impact, the wound, the damage. It shows in the silence and in the sigh, and in such insignificant and asymmetrical shot as her glasses resting on her video camera.

Karma is horrified and pained, but there is also about her a certain purpose, which as she sets about her business takes on the form of an unmistakable resoluteness; a will to accomplish. And it is this quality that makes her want to throw her lot with Dhondup, in who she finds everything which is pure and right, as if he were not a person but the very embodiment of her vast unseen country, the id of her idealism. Her emerging detail, as a mother of a girl with an American man with who her relationship is strained, only adds to the poignancy.

Her at-will assistant, an adept navigator through the psychedelic corridors of Dharamsala’s Mcleod Gunj, is a local chutzpah-laden youth, Jigme. With long disheveled hair and a rock star swagger, clad in vintage denim Jacket and torn jeans, he is the quintessential exile youth. Having his fancy set on Karma, it is for obvious reasons that he is irked by her growing fondness for Dhondup. But it is also because in life if he has learnt anything it is to be skeptical, to not give in to appearances, while belying his own with a ready smile. For a place the smallness of Dharamsala, he appears cosmopolitan, so much so he even wears his handicap, his limp, almost like an accessory.

The characters having been established, the film now takes us on the road. It leads us to Delhi and the Tibetan settlement of Clement Town and the desert city of Jaipur, where resides an elderly and ailing Tibetan sweater seller with his family, their rented quarter cramped with garments in squeaky plastic bags. One finger points to another, one clue to next, before they finally locate the owner of the Ghawu, and it is his identity and his back story and the circumstances under which the amulet came to be in the hands of Dhondup’s mother that renders the film’s climax portent and powerful and profound.

The film has been shown and lauded at thirty-plus film festivals around the world, including the prestigious Toronto Film Festival where it made its international debut, alongside such critically-acclaimed fares as Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain and Deepa Mehta’s Water, and in many it has won the audience favorite vote. It takes little to understand why.

For one, the film refuses to dabble in hysteria (Take note, makers of Pun Anu Thanu and Milarepa). The narrative thread is contained within a structure that is impeccable, and throughout one observes a certain economy of words, gesture, shot duration, which is but the result of a finely-executed storyboard, and because of which every frame becomes worthwhile, every scene inevitable. The characters here actually talk, not rant; they perform, not exaggerate; the emotion is here subdued and not a contortionist’s spectacle; and instead of letting jargon-filled winding monologues do the job, the filmmakers let the interaction among characters and the dynamics of their situations establish and move forward the story.

Dreaming Lhasa is imaginative without being preposterous and realism is its biggest USP, a strength that owes to the filmmakers’ background in documentaries. Former political prisoners play themselves; their brutal past is portrayed simply through close ups and voiceovers, as captured on a video camera. For all her anguish and awakening, when the time comes, Karma returns to America, the country which had inscribed upon her identity a million questions, leaving behind Dharamsala, her idea of Tibet, without Dhondup or Jigme; without love, without absolution.

For all his past, of courageous resistance and blood-dripping sacrifices, Dhondup makes no affectations of a grand plan for the freedom struggle which in exile he finds has become a subject for sweeping, sometimes mocking, commentaries by his counterparts, the likes of Jigme and company. He indulges in no reprimands; instead he minds his own business and trudges onward, with his eyes set backward on his enslaved land where lives his wife with his newborn child, the only future he has and he knows of.

On the surface, Jigme is a typical Dharamsala delinquent, full of amorous streaks and if not bedding Westerner tourist women, then smoking pot, drinking beer and shooting pool. A hybrid between a fractured past and fleeting present, one conversant beyond detection in the affectations of accent and attitude, the very disguise with which to give his self relevance and visibility. But when inspiration strikes him, he takes to the guitar and belts out an anthem of his own, "Zugu ruko naza tangwa, nying la sugpo gangda du, ga dang dukpo gangda du, sosoe mitse kyipo duk pe (I play till my finger joints hurt, tell me how deep I strike in your heart, how much of pain and joy do you feel, are you happy with your life?)"

It is to the film’s great advantage that the filmmakers incorporate Jigme’s character with his real-life nemesis’ passion and profession. Actor Tenzin Jigme is part of a popular three-member band "JJI Exile Brothers", all real siblings, whose music combine Western rock and traditional Tibetan influences. In the age of effeminate vocals, their hand-me-down lyrics stilted in honorific vocabulary of the yore, which proliferate the modern Tibetan music scene, JJI’s in-your-face, don’t-take-no-prisoner, fart-if-you-feel-like-it, variation is a refreshing departure.

The film’s innovative soundtrack also includes such jarring accompaniments as a Bollywood oldie "Aghe bhi Jaane na tu, peeche bhi jaane na tu, jo bhi hai, bas yahi ek pal hai (what is in front of you, you do not know; what is behind you, you do not know; what there is to it, is this just one moment)" and a strange fusion genre, Dub. A fitting ode to the ambivalence that is exile experience.

Among the actors, Jampa Kalsang who plays Dhondup is phenomenal. He is perhaps a true movie actor we have in the Tibetan world, one with a face an actual reminiscent of the country’s anguished fate. From Windhorse to Dreaming Lhasa, the artist has come a long way, and somebody ought to give him an Achievement Award already. Tenzin Jigme is a delightful revelation and Tenzin Chokyi Gyatso, who plays karma, holds her own admirably.

Finally, the film’s greatest achievement is its deep meditation on that enduring measure of loss, beyond occupation and exile, in the labyrinthine thicket of which we thrash everyday and yet we sometimes so easily overlook, called time. It pays a fitting homage to the sacrifices made by our father’s generation, especially those who were part of the CIA-backed Tibetan resistance fighters, that soldiered on amid a barrage of Chinese bullets, with a hope of leaving behind for us, a living struggle, a fight not yet surrendered.

It plays on their real experiences, their hard won wisdom, and their vanishing turn as an ancient generation; and it asks of the younger lot a most strident question: what end are we going to give to their sacrifices?


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