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A Blessing comes home
Needrup Zangpo, January 20, 2014
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Bhutan’s first English feature film

Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche’s first English film, Vara: A Blessing, is home. It is markedly different from his two previous films, The Cup and Travellers and Magicians. The red-robed monk protagonists and Bhutanese-looking actors of the previous films are conspicuously missing from Vara. The film powerfully depicts a number of universal human values and character traits through an Indian story.

Based on the Bengali short story Rakta Ar Kanna (translated as Blood and Tears) by novelist and poet Sunil Gangopadhyay, Vara tackles the sensitive subjects of caste and creed, faith and women’s position in the traditional India. The film has seamlessly woven into the story the classical Indian dance, Bharatnatyam, which is not part of Blood and Tears. Rinpoche is a big fan of Bharatnatyam. He had earlier said that he could not make a tribute to India without including Bharatnatyam in the film.

And Bharatnatyam is an integral part of the film because the lead actor is a temple dancer who aspires to get married to Hindu god Krishna like her mother did. The temple dancer, Lila (played by Shahana Goswami), the giggling carefree girl often attracted by Bollywood dance moves, agrees to secretly model for a low caste sculptor, Shyam. Shyam (Devesh Ranjan) makes a statue of goddess Saraswati, who is known as Lhamo Yangchenma in Mahayana Buddhism. Perhaps Saraswati is the only obvious element of Buddhism in the film. During countless modelling sessions, Lila becomes enamoured of Shyam. She is clearly torn between her aspiration to be imagined Khrishna’s wife and her love for real Shyam. Her unconventional relationship with an untouchable throws her small, isolated village into disarray. If her human emotions have put many lives on the line, it’s her strength that saves everyone.

The film is a tribute to the strength of women as much as it’s about devotion that constructs a whole new world for many traditional societies. The moment Lila talks to the statue of flute-playing Krishna, the line between reality and fantasy blurs. A giggling Lila shows off a few Bollywood dance moves she has picked up from television to Krishna even as she imagines Shyam to be Krishna’s emanation. The power of devotion and faith makes everything possible for Lila.

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche earlier said that the ‘ability to believe is a strength, not a weakness.’ The world in which Lila and Shyam live is populated with people who believe in everything except in fellow humans. The village priest sanctifies the lake believed to have been polluted by Shyam, who is mostly referred to as an ‘idiot’. And temple dancers are referred to as ‘whores’ who keep breeding more whores throughout their lives. The film powerfully brings out the absurdities and futility of caste hierarchy that destroys social equality and creative potential of a society. This is symbolised in the film by the destruction of the beautiful, life-size Saraswati statue Shyam has sculpted.

The Indian nature of the film is abundantly captured by the tone and language of the dialogues that reflect the average Indian. Rinpoche, who is also the writer of the film, says this is an ‘accidental success’. He wants the film to bring out a part of ‘incredible India’ whose wisdom traditions he hugely admires. At the premier of the film in Thimphu on January 19, Rinpoche said he had deliberately kept Bhutan and monks out of Vara to step out of his ‘usual zone’. But he could not keep out the element of devotion. This makes his attempt to make a film without a religious or spiritual theme incomplete. The next film may be without spiritual components, Rinpoche says.

For all its success in tone and accent of language that remain Indian, Rinpoche thinks that one of the drawbacks of the film is the use of English language. The Cup (1999), set in a Tibetan monastery in India, is in Tibetan with English subtitles and Travellers and Magicians, which was shot in Bhutan, is in Dzongkha with English subtitles. In both the films, lead characters are monks.

Vara is Rinpoche’s first film made with a professional cast who are not his disciples or friends. That, Rinpoche said in the beginning of 2011, would mean he couldn’t use his ‘rinpoche’s tyranny’ and make the making of Vara more challenging and rewarding for him. ‘This [the making of Vara] has been special to me,’ he now says. The Cup is played by monks and Travellers and Magicians by untrained Bhutanese actors.

Shot in Sri Lanka, Vara: A Blessing is a stream of refreshing bucolic scenes complete with thatched huts and verdant surroundings. There are some sensual scenes but they are mostly fleeting and not overdone. Unlike his previous films, which are packed with symbolism, Vara is largely a haunting story told simply and elegantly. It will, therefore, appeal to the average viewer more, although there are no Bhutanese elements in it that will draw the average Bhutanese moviegoer. Although The Cup and Travellers and Magicians were critically acclaimed internationally, they did not appeal to average Bhutanese moviegoers whose taste for good films is yet to be cultivated.

It seems that Rinpoche will increasingly turn to films with more secular themes, but he wishes to come back to Bhutanese themes. He has two stories set in Bhutan to be written into films.

Vara was chosen to open the 2013 Busan International Film Festival in South Korea. It is the first English feature film by a Bhutanese. It will be screened at 3 pm on January 25 and 26 at City Cinema Hall in Thimphu.

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