Kheyntse Norbu straddles the opposing worlds of cinema and spirituality

  • Asad Ali, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: May 16, 2015 20:09 IST

A sensuous story of forbidden love between the Hindu daughter of a devadasi and a Muslim sculptor, who persuades her to model for his sculpture of goddess Saraswati. Directed by a Bhutanese lama, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, simply known as Khyentse Norbu.

This cultural trail wasn’t lost on those streaming in to India Habitat Centre on April 25, to watch the film titled Vara: A Blessing. An adaptation of a Sunil Gangopadhyay short story Rakta Aar Kanna, it’s Norbu’s third film – and it’s already made a buzz on the festival circuit. Shahana Goswami (she plays the daughter of the devadasi), it opened at the 2013 Busan International Film Festival to good reviews, besides getting critical acclaim at others.

However, the journey of the spiritual master from the calm confines of a monastery to the frenetic world of filmmaking hasn’t been too radical. He has coped with much more demanding situations than direction, says Norbu with a smile.

Early bird
At age seven, Norbu was recognised as the third incarnation of Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö, the spiritual heir of one of the most influential 19th century incarnations of Manjushri (a deity in Mahayan Buddhism), Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo. So did he ever yearn for an alternative life, something convention defines as “normal”?

“At that age, you’re so influenced by adults you don’t think much,” says Norbu, “When I grew up, there were second thoughts about where I could go and what I could do.” But, Norbu says, that by the time second thoughts sprung up, the strict religious training he underwent had spread its roots quite deep.

Norbu admits candidly though, that the lifestyle he led as a ‘special’ kid won’t probably work now. “The traditional training I underwent was so difficult it would be seen as criminal now!” laughs Norbu. “Getting up at two in the morning to study, no weekends or holidays, no toys, no friends to play with, not meeting parents for long periods of time,” rattles off Norbu.

Students often had to read a hundred odd pages to improve memory, backwards. After studying under private tutors in Bhutan, Norbu went on to study Buddhist philosophy in Mussoorie. He then studied comparative religious psychology at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

Once his formal education was complete Norbu devoted himself to creating awareness about Buddhism and more importantly, preserving tangible Buddhist heritage. He heads a number of non-profit organisations – one of them, called ‘84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha’, is trying to translate the words of the Buddha from ancient manuscripts into modern-day languages.

Reel wisdom
Norbu the filmmaker though, is merely an extension of his personality as a Buddhist spiritual head. His craft has a purpose, he says. In London he discovered the impact of good cinema and Norbu says he was influenced by Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, Ghare Baire, Shatranj Ke Khiladi and many of his other works.

In 1999, Norbu directed his first film The Cup, about two young Tibetan monks – big football fans – trying to procure a television set to watch the 1998 World Cup final. The New York Times, in a review of the film, wrote: “his first feature, proves that he is also a born filmmaker.”

Next came Travellers and Magicians in 2003: about a young Bhutanese official who’s trying to go to the US. It earned accolades at a number of film festivals and a couple of awards as well along the way. It was also the first proper feature film to come out of the Kingdom of Bhutan, setting the standards for the fledgling film industry there.

But even after three films Norbu says that he doesn’t see himself dedicating a lot of his life to cinema. Explaining further, Norbu says, “I’ve always had a wish to make a film on the life of the Buddha. It’s an important project and I realised to do that, I need to learn the skills associated with filmmaking. So you can say that all my films are really in preparation for that one big film.”

But what follows after? “I don’t want to make more films after I achieve that. It’s difficult to make meaningful non-commercial cinema anyway. Why would someone watch something serious? Mostly people want excitement in everything!” he laughs.

Follow @AsadAli1989 on Twitter

From HT Brunch, May 17
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