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A quest for the heart of Tibet

Dreaming Lhasa captures the emotions of Tibetans, writes Saibal Chatterjee.

india Updated: Feb 06, 2006 18:48 IST
WIDE ANGLE| Saibal Chatterjee
WIDE ANGLE| Saibal Chatterjee

A small film driven by big ambition, that’s Dreaming Lhasa, directed by Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam. From the point of its conception to the current rounds that it is doing of the festival circuit, the film was in the making for more than six years. The final result? The Indo-UK co-production has clearly been well worth the effort and time.

It is important, however, to set your expectations right in order to fully appreciate the real nature of the goal that the New Delhi-based husband-wife filmmaking duo is out to achieve. Dreaming Lhasa isn’t a hard-hitting, cut-and-thrust political film designed to provoke, inflame and, finally, belt out a call to do-or-die action.

Some might even find its fictional core a little too genteel in its overall approach and pacing to be able to capture the sheer enormity of the political questions associated with the never-ending Tibetan tragedy, a story that has been told times without number.

The quiet little film is well propelled by the powers of gentle persuasion and emotional subtlety. It recognises the undying flickers of optimism that still burns in the hearts of those who feel, each waking hour of their lives, the loss of their homeland. And that is what sets Dreaming Lhasa apart from the general run of films that are inspired by live, delicate political issues. It’s more about the heart than the mind.

Dreaming Lhasa, directed by Ritu Sarin and TenzingSonam, is a small film driven by big ambition. It recognises the undying flickers of optimism that still burns in the hearts of those who feel, each waking hour of their lives, the loss of their homeland.

It narrates a simple story that has multiple strands running parallel to each other, criss-crossing at points and taking off on a tangent once or twice. Karma, a Tibetan filmmaker from New York, coming off a fast deteriorating relationship, lands in Dharamsala to make a film on political refugees from a land that she has never seen but one that suffuses her entire being.

Karma isn’t the only one on a quest though. Her assistant in India, Jigme, a passionate and perky musician, dreams of a better life in the US, while an ex-monk that she meets, Dhondup, who has only just arrived in Dharamsala is in search of a man about whose whereabouts neither he nor anyone in town has any inkling.

Dhondup, whose wife is pregnant back in Tibet, is in Dharamsala to catch a glimpse of the Dalai Lama and, at the behest of his recently deceased mother, to hand over a charm box to a stranger named Loga. The narrative blends elements of a mystery story with the study of the various facets of Tibetan lives in exile.

The Tibetan-language film (the dialogues are interspersed with a fair bit of English) conveys the deep pain of geographical dislocation and fractured cultural identity without succumbing to the temptation of playing to the gallery by wallowing in a welter of bitterness.

Says Tenzing Sonam, born and brought up in Delhi: “Dreaming Lhasa is essentially a tribute to the generation of my father, to the men and women who fought against Chinese occupation. But it also reflects the experience of Tibetans like me, people who have never seen Tibet.”

After its world premiere at the 30th Toronto International Film Festival in September last year, Dreaming Lhasa has travelled around the globe, arousing great interest and excitement at the 53rd San Sebastian International Film Festival, the 2nd Amazonas Film Festival in Brazil and, closer home, at the 10th International Film Festival of Kerala.

Its next stop is the Bangkok International Film Festival, which kicks off on February 17. Dreaming Lhasa is also currently on a weeklong run at Spice PVR, Noida, making it the first Tibetan film ever to be ‘released’ in a commercial theatre in India. But, given the tenacity that has made the film possible, is that a surprise? For a film that represents a fascinating new cinema in exile, every available outlet is a welcome destination.

First Published: Feb 06, 2006 23:00 IST