Until the early 2000s, Bollywood remained the main source of entertainment for the Himalayan monarchy of Bhutan, with a bootlegged VCD or two of Hollywood blockbusters thrown in for good measure. The advent of the internet brought along a tidal wave of new content and a nascent film industry was quick to take shape. It was in 1999, when the late Tshering Wangyel released the first Dzongkha-language movie called Rewaa (Hope)—a love triangle about two college boys falling for the same girl—that the commercial Bhutanese film industry was born.
Two decades later, commercial Bhutanese films continue to ride on Bollywood influences, with staple themes of mawkish drama, syrupy duets and acrobatic action sequences featuring prominently. As the industry continues to bloom, a new parallel cinema movement, made mostly for an international audience, is emerging.
Passionate, self-taught film-makers, armed with themes ranging from magical realism to social justice and sexual identity, have begun to appear on the rosters of major international film festivals in recent years. From Busan to Berlin and beyond, their films and short features are offering a rare glimpse into a country landlocked both geographically and culturally.
Take, for instance, Khyentse Norbu, a Buddhist monk, whose film Hema Hema: Sing Me A Song While I Wait was shown at the Locarno Film Festival in 2016. It drew praise from critics for its portrayal of complex Buddhist themes like transgression, by juxtaposing them on to modern topics like anonymity on the internet. The story is told through a mysterious ritual in a forest, attended by participants wearing masks to hide their identities.
Dechen Roder’s film Honeygiver Among the Dogs won the special jury prize at the 2017 edition of the International Film Festival in Switzerland’s Fribourg. It was invited to screen at the Berlinale the same year. Roder’s film, about an investigative officer led astray by a mysterious woman called Choden, is a genre-bending work, blending elements of neo-noir with Bhutanese mysticism.
Chand R.C.’s Thimphu, screened at the Pune International Film Festival 2017, does away with the notion that all independent Bhutanese movies draw upon the country’s Buddhist mysticism. Instead, he trains his lens on people inhabiting the fringes of Thimpu’s urban landscape and sprinkles it with relatable characters. It features an alcoholic garbage collector and his equally alcoholic grandmother, a transgender woman in a completely normalized set-up without any social discrimination, a rich mistress in an unfulfilling relationship and a struggling young singer and his travails with his career and love. As the stories start overlapping, the film presents the city as a microcosm of multiple lives.
Arun Bhattarai’s The Next Guardian (co-directed with Dorottya Zurbó), a bittersweet documentary set in a remote monastery, also features a character going through a sexual identity crisis. It premiered at the 2017 International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam and went on to be featured at other festivals. Tashi Gyeltshen’s The Red Phallus, screened at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea in 2018, traces existential angst in rural Bhutan and was invited for the Berlinale earlier this year.
“Bhutan is still a big curiosity in general (not only for film festivals), so there’s always an interest in anything coming out of here,” says Roder, whose film is self-produced. In a country where no film-related tutelage is yet available, this new breed of film-makers is self-taught. Roder recounts how she “had to literally google what a producer does” for her film. She is inspired by Ugyen Wangdi, who made a feature in 1989. He is the father of documentary film-making in Bhutan, she says.
Their other influences are foreign: Chand loves Iranian cinema but also watches Wong Kar-wai, Alfonso Cuarón, Hirokazu Kore-eda and Nadine Labaki. Bhattarai mostly follows documentary film-makers like Victor Kossakovsky (Russia), Aliona van der Horst (The Netherlands/Russia), Gianfranco Rosi (Italy) and Alan Berliner (US).
Although fed on a staple diet of song-and-dance fare, Bhutanese film-goers have proved receptive to ventures like Roder’s. She is surprised by how well her movie performed at the Bhutanese box office, despite an eccentric plot drawing upon Buddhist mysticism. “Though it wasn’t a blockbuster, of course, I was really warmed by the audience turnout. I had expected it to be a flop but we showed it for about three weeks in the capital, and I realized we can’t underestimate the Bhutanese movie-goer,” she says.
Chand echoes Roder: “When I went to watch my movie with the audience, I was pleasantly surprised to see the response. The exhibitors told me they thought I was doing a good job, because films like mine are bringing back urban educated people to the movie halls. I was quite touched to hear these comments.”
Challenges abound, however, and not the least of them is Bollywood’s long-standing grip on the consciousness of the Bhutanese movie-goer, who is used to seeing films solely as a pleasurable form of entertainment, peppered with song-dance montages, rather than a reflection of contemporary Bhutanese society or a mode of artistic expression. To ensure their movies are accepted by the average Bhutanese film-goer, Chand and Roder admit to making some compromises like inserting songs. “Though no dance,” Roder quips.
Karma Wangchuk, an actor and director of the short Monk In The Forest, which screened at Locarno in 2016, calls the transition a “metamorphosis”. “Tashi Gyeltshen, Dechen Roder and Chand R.C. can be seen as trailblazers, but these independent movies made for foreign audiences are more expensive to produce,” he adds.
Chand and Roder agree that one of the biggest hurdles is funding, both for producing these movies and distributing them domestically. “Since we don’t have an established industry or structure, we have to distribute the film ourselves. My husband, baby, myself and two friends took a road trip down to a town in the south of Bhutan, pasted flyers around the town, rented a hall, and sold the tickets,” Roder remembers.
There is also the censorship issue. For example, the government banned the screening of Hema Hema because of the use of masks, saying “it demeans religious symbols” (masks are considered to be religious symbols in Bhutanese culture).
There is no clear answer to what counts as a taboo subject, but these directors seem willing to take chances. “We are known for Gross National Happiness (a metric used by the Bhutanese government to measure happiness and well-being), which paints an unrealistic picture about Bhutan to the outside world. But I want to show that there are people in the country who face issues similar to those everywhere,” says Chand.
Bhattarai concurs. “A small group of Bhutanese film-makers is now reflecting changing times in Bhutan through their films. This change is important. Through our films, we give the international audience a chance to reflect on a time that was lost or was not documented,” he says.
The current crop of Bhutanese film-makers who shun the influence of Bollywood and look inward for inspiration carry the flag of an independent film industry in a country where freedom of expression is subject to the limitations set by the constitutional monarchy. “It’s going to be a slow and long journey, I think, but I am so happy that the journey has started, with not only my film but Tashi’s and Chand’s and other Bhutanese film-makers who have been part of international festivals,” says Roder.