Refuting Shangri-La

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As partners in life and filmmaking, Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin have been trying to overthrow clichés on Tibet

To the west, Tibet has for long been Shangri-La. A mystical place whose people are otherworldly and pious, and whose wise lamas have answers to all questions. It’s an image that has been hammered in, apart from books, in countless films. Tibet and Tibetans have bit parts in films like Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, Johnny English Reborn, Batman Begins and Bullet Proof Monk, at most times to portray a protagonist’s spiritual side. But even seemingly serious films on Tibet fall into this slipstream of overworked Tibet clichés.

In Frank Capra’s 1937 classic Lost Horizon, a group of Englishmen whose plane crashes in the Himalayas reaches a magical place called Shangri-la. Although unnamed, there is no doubt this place is intended to be Tibet. More recently, there was the Brad Pitt-starring Seven Years in Tibet and Martin Scorsese’s Kundun, both of which perpetuate the myth of an untainted Shangri-La. In Seven Years in Tibet, not only do Tibetans spend their days offering nuggets of enlightened wisdom—a Tibetan woman tells Brad Pitt, playing Heinrich Harrer the mountaineer, “You Westerners prize achievement; we in Tibet value harmony”—they believe ice skate blades are meant to chop meat. On one occasion, a group of Tibetans building a cinema hall refuse to work because of the earthworms being killed in the process. They tell Harrer: “Those earthworms could have been your mother. Please, no more hurting!’’ In an interview with The New York Times, well-known Tibetan writer Jamyang Norbu said of that scene: “It was like Saturday Night Live… Every Tibetan I know shudders over that scene.”

While this Western fascination may have helped bring Tibet to people’s living rooms, it has also had a negative corollary effect. Many Tibetans have come to believe this bullshit. Inconvenient aspects of Tibetan history and culture—banditry, violence, the wars within factions and with neighbours— are often brushed aside to be replaced by stories of the mythical Shangri-La.

Over the years, however, the Tibetan community has thrown up a few filmmakers who are fighting this very depiction of their story. Foremost among them is Tenzing Sonam, who has for over two decades, along with his wife Ritu Sarin, made an array of films on Tibet, looking at and discussing various hitherto neglected topics.

Their films have ranged from documentaries on how the CIA secretly funded a resistance movement against Chinese rule in Tibet (The Shadow Circus: The CIA in Tibet), to how there is a growing dissent among Tibetans-in-exile against the Dalai Lama’s decision to give up the call for Tibet’s independence for limited sovereignty (The Sun Behind The Clouds). They have also made a feature film, Dreaming Lhasa, about a Tibetan woman from New York making a documentary on political prisoners in Tibet. But apart from US releases and broadcasts on TV channels there, the reach of their films have mostly been limited to film festivals and Tibetans themselves. However, their latest work, When Hari Got Married, has just been released in India by PVR Cinemas. On appearance, it is very different from their earlier works. Its chief character is Hari, a smooth-talking Pahari taxi-driver in Dharamshala who is preparing for his wedding. But on closer inspection, it bears many similarities with their previous work—a personal story of a man on a journey, fleshed out with a deep insider understanding of the subject.

Says Sonam, “We were tired after Sun Behind The Clouds and were looking to perhaps take up a smaller film. That’s when Hari came over to invite us for his wedding.” The filmmaker-couple have known Hari since he was a teen. When they moved to Dharamshala, Hari’s brothers helped them build their house. Hari’s wedding was slated to take place two years later but apart from a momentary glance, he had never seen her. Over the next few days, he continued to inform Sarin and Sonam of developments in the wedding preparations.

When the village of his to-be-bride got a cellphone tower, Hari managed to get her phone number. “He had started to call her so he could understand her better. At that point, we thought—‘Perhaps we should film this’. It could make for a film,” says Sonam. Hari gladly accepted Sarin and Sonam’s request.

The film might appear simple, but has a warm and intimate quality. It’s like watching a romantic comedy, except that it isn’t scripted or enacted but real. As the film progresses—with touching moments like Hari and Suman’s developing love (over cellphone contact), Hari’s fears of her being short, (because he realises her brother is only about four feet tall), the expression on the faces of Hari’s family when they see the jeweller’s bill, and his boasts of having performed his ‘honeymoon’ on the night of his wedding—you get to witness through Hari’s wedding a section of society whose lives we rarely glimpse. And the filmmakers don’t just observe, they also participate. Sarin is often seen chatting with people. And on one occasion, the day of the wedding, when Hari learns that no one around knows how to knot a tie, Sonam is beckoned to complete the task for him.

It is believed that the first film by a Tibetan was made in the mid 1970s. An individual named Gungthang Tsultrim in Dharamshala had hired technicians and equipment from Mumbai to make a feature film. Very little is known of what the film was about, as all its prints and negatives now appear to have been lost. Since then, Sonam has appeared on the scene along with Sarin.

The two first made a documentary— The New Puritans: The Sikhs of Yuba City—in 1985 while studying filmmaking in San Francisco. In the following years, they churned out a number of impressive films, mostly on Tibet. The duo later started their own production house, White Crane Films, and shifted their base to Dharamshala. They needed to be close to their subject matter. “When we got into films, every film on Tibet was made by someone from the West. Although they are mostly sympathetic, it was often one-dimensional, and, as a consequence, patronising.

We sort of wanted to change that—to create a more realistic Tibet and refute any magical elements,” Sarin says. Apart from being well-regarded in Dharamshala, the duo have also been hosting a film festival there, titled Dharamshala International Film Festival.

Sonam’s late father, Lhamo Tsering, was a key member of the little-known CIA-funded resistance movement against Chinese rule in Tibet. Along with his close friend Gyalo Thondup, brother of the Dalai Lama, he had been able to get the CIA to fund and train Tibetans in guerilla warfare, intelligence gathering and arms use after the Chinese invaded the country. Tsering was one of the first Tibetans to be trained by the CIA, and served as a liaison officer of the operation for almost 20 years. “It was all cloak and dagger,” says Sonam, recalling his father’s involvement with the CIA. “His office was in Darjeeling. And every once in a while, he would travel to Calcutta, and stand at a certain spot on Park Street with a newspaper rolled under his arm. A big car would then pull up. In the back would be an American who would hand over a big bundle of rupees.

Information would be passed, arms drops would be discussed, and he would return to home,” says Sonam. The entire operation, called ST Circus by the CIA, was an extremely secretive affair. It eventually fizzled out when the US agency pulled out as ties between the US and China started improving.

Sonam learnt of the operation and his father’s involvement when he was around 15 years old. A newspaper on his school’s bulletin board bore a headline to the effect of ‘Leader Of Tibetan Bandits Arrested’. Upon reading it, he realised that the person arrested was his father. Tsering was sentenced to life imprisonment by a Nepal court, although he was set free about seven years later. In 1998, Sarin and Sonam made a documentary on this subject, titled The Shadow Circus: The CIA in Tibet. It had taken them almost nine years to complete the film, although they had worked on other films during this period.

Researching the subject, getting access to classified data, locating the CIA operators involved, and securing funding for the film hadn’t been easy. “My father had archived letters and information about the operation.

But all the CIA handlers had only used pseudonyms. So it was immensely tough just locating them,” Sonam says. When they were able to trace one CIA handler, he was still working with the agency and was thus barred from speaking about it. They were later able to trace a retired CIA hand to a casino in Las Vegas, where he was the chief of security. One name led to another, and eventually they were able to meet a number of individuals involved with the dealings. What they achieved is a remarkable documentary on a clandestine operation that very few people knew of. The film is sometimes hilarious, especially when those involved recount memories, but given how the operation eventually turned out, it is also often remarkably sad. One Tibetan fighter tells the interviewer, “We were so happy that America was training us. We thought they will be giving us an atom bomb.”

A few years before Shadow Circus released, Sarin and Sonam had made another well-received documentary. The Trials of Telo Rinpoche told the story of Erdne Ombadykow, a Philadelphia-born boy of Kalmyk origin. Kalmykia is a region in eastern Russia, where people mostly follow Tibetan Buddhism. For years, Kalmyks had made perilously long journeys to Lhasa in Tibet to be tutored by its lamas. However, when Stalin started accusing Kalmyks of conspiring with the Nazis and deporting them to Siberia, many fled to other parts of Europe and the US. Ombadykow was born and raised in one such immigrant Kalmyk family in Philadelphia. He was sent to India when he was still a child to become a monk, and was later ordained by the Dalai Lama as Telo Rinpoche, the spiritual head of the Kalmyks. The Dalai Lama then asked him to move to Kalmykia and revive Buddhism there. “We met him one day at a bus stop in Dharamshala. He kept saying, ‘It was all so crazy’,” Sonam recalls. Unable to cope with his life as a spiritual leader in Kalmykia, the 22-year-old renounced his vows, got married and moved to the US. The film ends at this crucial juncture. A few years later, however, Ombadykow returned to Kalmykia to complete his mission. Since then, it is said, Ombadykow has helped construct and administer a number of temples and led a successful revival of Buddhism in the region.

The film closest to Sarin and Sonam, however, is their 1997 film A Stranger In My Native Land. It is a documentary based on their first visit to Tibet, during which the duo had made their way to Kumbum Monastery, located in the far reaches of Tibet’s Amdo region. Sonam’s father was originally from this area. When they reached Sonam’s father’s native land and met his relatives, they were shocked. No one knew how to speak Tibetan, except for one cousin who had moved to India a few years earlier and picked it up. Otherwise, they all spoke Xining Chinese. “There were three Tibetan families to about 100 Chinese ones,” Sonam says. “I was depressed and wanted to leave. This far corner of Tibet that I had always dreamt of and where my father once resided—its Sinoisation was near complete.”