Yak Ride to Bike Ride

Review of Tsampa to Pizza
A 45-minute film by Sonam Tsetan.

In the summer of 1995, I was travelling from Manali to Dharamshala atop a local bus with a friend from college. Both of us were wearing secondhand Nike shoes bought from Delhi’s Sunday market at a throat-training price. We sat tight on the roof among crates of apples, cabbages, tomatoes and mountains of other luggage as the bus precariously negotiated the rough road and sharp mountain turns. A little while into the journey, a young American tourist also climbed on the roof of the bus. After “Hi” and “Hello”, he looked at us and said, “With your Nike shoes, blue jeans and fluent English, you could be straight from the pavements of New York city.” My friend beamed a satisfied smile. I boiled within and delivered a pretty long lecture. Perception, I concluded, is not always reality.

Another time, as I walked with a Belgian woman to Strawberry Hill in Dharamshala, she commented, “It’s sad that young Tibetans have discarded their traditions. They wear Western clothes, listen to pop songs and don’t seem to speak in Tibetan. How will they ever regain freedom for Tibet?” Again I had to give her a good piece of my mind. Impressions, I said, are often misleading.

Of course, then there are our self-righteous teachers and officials who sternly lecture us about our lack of patriotism, non-adherence to Tibetan culture and religion, ending their sermons by describing how they had struggled and suffered when they were young. We are spoiled brats, they repeat. They also tell us that we are the future seeds of Tibet. But most of all they wanted us to be like them. In front of such people, who are immune to the winds of change and to whom time stands still, we simply remain silent — hoping that perhaps one day they will understand our inner anxieties and our love for Tibet hidden behind disguises of Gap sweatshirts and Nike shoes.

Tsampa to Pizza, a short 45-minute film by young aspiring filmmaker Sonam Tsetan who currently works for India’s NDTV, intends to provoke this inner fire and to display the fact that there is more to the seemingly clueless exile Tibetan youth than meets the eye. How subtly and professionally Sonam has managed to do this is quite another matter.

The two central characters in the film, Tenzin played by the director’s brother Tenzin Trinlay and Dhondup played by his friend Lhundrup, are archetypal college-going Tibetan youths immersed in music, branded clothes, sports, girls and bikes. They burn a good amount of their parents’ hard-earned money on their bikes and clothes while sleeping through the days, avoiding classes.

In the midst of high-decibel music, basketball games and nights out, the vulnerability of being born refugees and clueless over their identity shows its ugly head. Tenzin is at a loss what to write as his nationality while filling in an admission form. In another scene, he is asked by an Indian student to which country he belongs; China? South Korea? Nepal? North Korea? Japan? His answer “I am from Tibet!” simply does not register in the questioner’s mind.

One day, while loitering around the college canteen they see an Indian student wearing a ‘Students for a Free Tibet’ badge, and Dhondup tells Tenzin, “I bet you can’t go and ask him where he got the badge from.” Tenzin boldly goes and strikes up a conversation with the Indian student, whose dedication to the Tibetan cause makes him realize his own shortcomings and half awakens him about who he is and what his life is about.

Tenzin’s metamorphosis is complete when he hears the testimony of a former political prisoner. The firsthand account of suffering inside Tibet under Chinese occupation and the tortures that political prisoners are forced to undergo triggers open his pent up emotions. That night, after he returns to his rented room adorned with a Tibetan national flag, he breaks down, tears streaming uncontrollably. Paradoxically, Dhondup — who claims to have a deeper mind — is the one who doesn’t really think beyond fabricating ways to bunk classes and fail to pay exam fees on time. He consoles Tenzin and asks what’s wrong. Tenzin, between loud sobs, pours out his inner feelings, his inadequacies, and the need to do something. This, as you can well imagine, is the climax of the film.

Thus sleep-loving class-skipping bike-riding girl-chasing Tenzin is catapaulted into becoming a responsible young man ready to face the harsh realities of his exileness with courage and conviction. The conversations among his biking gang suddenly shift from girls and centre around the fate of refugees and how they can fight for Tibet’s freedom. “Everything that a Tibetan does is illegal, because we have no country,” says one of the guys.

One evening, in an open dhaba while munching chicken masala and chappatis, Dhondup reminds them, “We are descendents of warriors. Our forefathers fought for our land. It was during King Songtsen Gampo’s reign that Buddhism was brought to Tibet.” So an element of tsampa-eating gallant warriors is in each Levis-clad youngster. “Tibetans are too much immersed in religion and compassion which brings no freedom,” says another gang member. These expressions sum up the angst and desperation of many exile Tibetan youth.

The film ends with a scene in which confident, self-assured and settled Tenzin is being interviewed by a woman making a documentary film on Tibet. Finally, when he is asked what message he has to the young Tibetans, he says, “We are born as refugee. But we are not going to die as refugees.”

Like other first-time films such as Pun Anu Thanu and Kadrin — A Journey to Success, Tsampa to Pizza has good subject matter with a weak execution. Though it is the best one of the three, amateur viewers like me are left struggling to connect between scenes to build a mental picture of the story. For example, there’s an old man and a crafty schoolboy at the beginning of the film who also appear in a scene somewhere in the middle; they seem unrelated to the central characters. Only when I later returned to my rented room did I deduce that the old man must be Tenzin’s grandfather, looking after their house while his mother goes for the seasonal sweater business. Who is the little boy then? Perhaps Tenzin’s younger brother as he addresses the old man as grandfather. A brief appearance of Tenzin’s sister (again my assumption) in his room late one morning, while he and Dhondup are fast asleep, also adds nothing to the central theme. In fact, her arrival and her one didactic sentence are superfluous. Too many disconnects between scenes fracture the story.

Another negative aspect, if I may call it so, is the excess of music ranging from lilting Tibetan flute to pounding heavy rock, and thump-thumping hip hop to witty Tibetan fusion. One point in the 45-minute film gave me the impression that I was watching a channel-V music video clip as ear-pounding tunes drifted one after the other. Music, when properly employed generally enhances the emotions of the characters. However, when there’s one tune too many it dilutes the piquancy of moods.

A limitation common to all the films mentioned above is their somewhat shaky dialogue. Many times I was mentally rewriting sentences the characters spout. In a few instances formal terms which are only written pop up between typically colloquial sentences, or actors make moralizing statements which are not in tune with the central theme. Calculated sentences and well-thought-through dialogue could have made a world of difference to this short creative film.

In one scene a former political prisoner speaking to a group of students says, “Our time will soon be over. I have full faith in you to continue the struggle since you are the future seeds.” Only when one sees his face will one know the ineptness of his statement. The speaker is young, as young as some of the students listening to him. He neither looks nor speaks like a former prisoner narrating his terrible experiences. He is definitely a case of wrong casting and words coming from his mouth seem even less credible. If only Sonam has chosen a real political prisoner. Alas he did not!

On the whole, Tsampa to Pizza is a fine attempt. For debutantes, Tenzin Trinlay and Lhundup performed quite admirably. One notices sparkling performance in some scenes. Better still are the traces of genuine creativity that shine forth from the film. The credit for this goes wholly to the writer-director-cameraman-producer Sonam Tsetan.

Tsampa to Pizza expresses the collective inner feelings of today’s youth which are often left unspoken and not displayed, thus creating false impressions and a generation gap. Of course, as in the film we do not need a foreigner to reinforce our love for Tibet and reveal our inherent strengths. Looking back into our history or remembering our martyrs are all we need to reaffirm our roots while living this hollow existence of exile.

With two more documentary films — A Girl from China and Tibetan Muslims — in the pipeline, Sonam Tsetan is on a roll. But he needs all the support we can give him. Tsampa to Pizza was made with less than two lakh rupees (around US $4,000). Failing to hire cameramen and other professionals, Sonam juggled all the balls alone by becoming the scriptwriter, director, cameraman and producer. A heavy load on his young shoulders. Perhaps this was what Satyajit Ray and Akira Kurosawa did initially. It takes intense hard work and painful steps to reach the zenith.

I end my first attempt at a film review with this thought. Our fathers and forefathers rode yaks on the high Tibetan plateau, while we ride bikes in the heat of the Indian summer plains, but the same blood that ran through them runs in our veins. We may not wear chupas, go to temples or knead rosaries as regularly as they did, but we love a good butter tea and freak on hot thukpa and sweetened tsampa. We love and long for Tibet, though many of us have never been there. As the late Tibetan poet K. Dhondup wrote, “Do not tell us, ’You are rootless, far removed from the sacred glory of your heritage… Give us the chance to pursue our search for our shores and shapes.” We will forge our paths in our own ways. The same heart that beat beneath their sheep-skin chupa beats beneath our Puma T-shirts for Tibet. We are wide awake; may you rest assured.

Tsampa to Pizza is a Tibetan-oriented film and needs to be watched by all of our people, especially the old and doubtful ones. By the way, at the beginning of the film two feet wearing traditional handmade boots walk on the mountain while the sounds of guns are heard in the distance; then two feet wearing plastic slippers walk on a dusty road; finally two feet sporting brand new white sneakers walk on a metalled road. I say, it doesn’t matter what the feet wear as long as they walk the right path.


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There is one comment for “Yak Ride to Bike Ride”

  1. Wow! May be there are still no Tibetans who have learned to make good films in the refugee communities, but there are those who can do solid and very well-written critical reviews! Good discovery!

    Pity that i found the film and this review so late.

    Himalaya Film Days, Estonia
    Society of Himalayan Cultures, Tallinn

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