Monday, January 28, 2008

An Englishwoman abroad: Bhutan

Source: Telegraph UK

Lindsay Hawdon experiences the magic of the movies on a smaller scale in the reclusive kingdom of Bhutan.

The banner outside the Luger cinema in Thimpu, Bhutan's capital town, reads, "Dolma Pictures Presents, Muensel".

"It means, true love comes and goes," says Tshewang, a 27-year-old Bhutanese man who's taking me to see the film. We are already late. The foyer feels like a swimming pool.

The walls are covered in cracked, pale-pink tiles. Rivulets of grime run down on to the grey concrete floor. The place stinks of damp clothes. Two teenage boys sit behind an old school desk, collecting money in a metal tin and listening to Bhutanese music rattling from a small cassette-player.

We pay 80 ngultrum - about £1. Tshewang opens a small door at the back of the foyer and we shuffle directly into the auditorium, the screen flickering and silhouetting rows of heads. The cinema is full and hot. People sit on hard, wooden benches.

There is nothing glamorous about the place at all.

Tshewang leads me up a flight of narrow stairs to the gallery and the more luxurious seats, which are orange plastic and look just as uncomfortable as those downstairs. A few fans whirl on the ceiling but do little to temper the heat.

The air smells of hot breath and cigarettes, though in Bhutan smoking is forbidden.

We sit down and I look at the screen. What seems to be a very bad daytime soap is playing and I presume it must be the second feature. The sound is slightly out of sync. I watch as the lead character, a blind teenage boy, stumbles on to the set, a white stick knocking rhythmically on the floor, a pair of oversized dark glasses hiding his eyes.

He starts to sing. He has a beautiful voice. The camera pans round to show the people he is singing to, a large crowd who, like him, are blind. The camera stops on one particularly unfortunate-looking individual, and a ripple of laughter echoes from the audience. Nobody tries to to stifle it.

"He is thanking the blind school for bringing him up," Tshewang explains, making no effort to talk quietly. He is more animated than I have seen him. When I ask him if he comes to the cinema often, he tells me that he does, mostly to see Bhutanese films.

"Is there a drama college in Bhutan?" I ask, slightly confused about who the actors might be. "No there is no school. The producer will sometimes use people off the street, or his friends. There are only four cinemas in Bhutan. It's a small industry."

I watch people wander in and out of the auditorium, talking loudly and rustling sweet wrappers. Meanwhile, the action has moved on. The boy is in a classroom at a college, sitting next to a pretty girl with whom he is obviously in love. The film becomes more bizarre by the moment.

A second boy is vying for the girl's affections and he has just tricked the blind boy into walking into the women's lavatory to humiliate him. The audience is in raptures. Tshewang is clapping his hands and laughing.

As the film goes on and on, the love story slowly unfolding towards a rather stilted happy ending, I realise that this isn't the second feature at all. It is the film itself. It is Muensel. I look at the people around me.

They are transfixed, their faces full of pleasure, their worries forgotten for the night. I glance at the shaft of dust caught in the light of the projector and I realise that the magic of cinema isn't restricted to the multiplexes and blockbusters of Bollywood or the West. Any old space will do; any old film.

  • Lindsay Hawdon travelled with Cox & KingsTravel (020 7873 5000;, which offers tailor-made trips and private journeys to Bhutan. A 13-night escorted group tour costs from £2,775 per person, including flights, accommodation, meals, guided excursions and transfers.

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