By Rick Westhead
South Asia Bureau
The ramshackle movie theatre is filled with rickety wood benches and has a few, bare light bulbs to help patrons find an available, if uncomfortable seat. There are small pools of spit left on the cement floor from people chewing paan, and rats dart under the seats, scrounging for bits of popcorn.
|Tsokye Karchung, a former Trent University student, returned to her native Bhutan in 2008 and has become a celebrity there. She stars in a popular Bhutanese film which tackles HIV. Bhutan filmmakers are still constrained by strict govenment rules. - Rick Westhead/Toronto Star|
It hardly looks like a front line in the battle to preserve a nation’s culture.
Yet cinemas like this one have become tools in an effort to ensure local customs and traditions are showcased in front of a young audience enraptured with western television and the Internet. Like the eight other movie theatres in this Buddhist kingdom, the Luger Theatre doesn’t show Hollywood or even Bollywood fare.
A decade ago, at about the same time western satellite television made its debut in this mountainous nation, local businessmen in Bhutan began financing homegrown films.
The industry enjoyed a modest start. In 2003, six locally produced movies were made in Bhutan.
But since then, Bhutan’s movie industry has evolved into a surprisingly vibrant industry. Last year, local filmmakers churned out 23 feature-length movies, meaning a new film debuts at theatres like the Luger almost every second week.
Actors in most films speak the national language, Dzongkha, and some movies feature English subtitles. Traditional Bhutanese clothing is a must, according to rules set down by the country’s film board. Women onscreen wear the kira, a Bhutanese-styled kimono; men wear the gho, a cloth smock that reaches to the knees.
“The government is pretty strict,” said Sherub Gyaltshen, secretary of Bhutan’s motion picture association. “There’s no glamorizing the West or showing characters in too many western clothing.”
Early on, Bhutanese films played it relatively safe. The first domestically produced movie in 1999 was a local adaptation of Untamed Heart, a saccharin-steeped love story starring Christian Slater and Marisa Tomei, Gyaltshen said. Subsequent films have highlighted the importance of the family unit and traditional local values.
A 2003 feature called Travelers and Magicians appeared at film festivals in Toronto and Venice. But it didn’t win many admirers in Bhutan, where customers preferred to hand over $2.25 for tickets to see more formulaic movies and those that featured Bollywood-like singing and dancing.
But recent films are challenging social mores.
This spring, Shh, Galu Yon Malap (“Don’t Tell Anybody”) made its big-screen debut. The film starred Tsokye Karchung, a former Trent University student who left school and returned to Bhutan two years ago because of a medical condition. In the movie, Karchung, who also was crowned Miss Bhutan in 2008, played a young woman lured by the relative bright lights of Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital city.
Karchung’s character contracts HIV and is ostracized by her family. Her life begins to take a positive turn when a longtime friend, considered something of a loser in society, develops a close relationship with her, sharing a water bottle and food with her, highlighting some of the myths about how HIV is spread.
While films are supposed to be shown for no longer than 22 days, to give other pictures a chance to be screened, Shh, Galu Yon Malap has been a fixture in theatres for several months.
“It’s not a film you would have seen 10 years ago, for sure,” Karchung said, sipping honey and ginger tea on a recent afternoon in one of Thimphu’s new wireless Internet-connected cafes.
The actress, a pretty 25-year-old with shoulder-length brown hair and a tattoo that runs up her arm and reads “This too shall pass” in Dzongkha, recently received a call from a female fan who said she loved Karchung and wanted to connect. Turned out her fan was a patient in a local mental hospital.
“I briefly thought about where we could do something about that in a movie, but I don’t think Bhutan is ready for that, yet,” she said.
Most films here cost about $45,000 to make and roughly one-quarter of them turn a profit, said Gyaltshen, from the motion picture association.
Karma Tshering, a 42-year-old director who lives in Thimphu, says he’s planning a new movie that should cost close to $70,000. His new film will be a period piece set in the early 1800s, when Bhutan was still a series of small kingdoms. The film will explore Bhutan’s tradition of “night hunting,” a rural custom in which men visit women in their parents’ homes for late evening rendezvous.
“If the women wanted to play tricks, they’d tell the man the wrong room and he’d wind up in her parents’ bedroom,” Tshering said. “I don’t see how anyone can say not to make a movie about this, it’s part of our culture.”