SOURCE: Asia Calling Radio
Bhutan, a tiny landlocked nation in the Himalayas, is renowned for adopting the Gross National Happiness index as its measure of development.
The country doesn’t rely solely on its economy to measure progress, but also weighs its citizens’ happiness.
One of the four pillars of the happiness index is preserving Bhutanese culture and traditions.
Bhutan’s young film industry is seen as an important contributor to this factor.
Despite the challenges it faces, the Bhutanese film industry is growing quickly.
Gayatri Parameswaran travelled to capital Thimphu to meet the film stars.
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I’m at the Lugar film theatre in Thimphu -- the oldest cinema in Bhutan.
It’s a Wednesday evening and the Bhutanese film “Shob Machap” or “Don’t Lie” is being screened.
It’s an action comedy.
“Shob Machap” is one of the many Bhutanese films showing in theatres across Thimphu.
Crowds here suggest that Bhutanese films have a loyal audience.
Yangchen Zam is a film buff.
“Most of our Bhutanese movies are about romance only, I think (laughs). Well right now I like, there’s one movie called “Perfect Girl” – Mukdi Teeshing. So what happens is in that movie is basically basically the girl, she is like, she gets raped by all the other guys and there’s one guy who comes to help her. It’s all about love and how he helps her.”
Zam began watching Bhutanese films only a few years ago.
In fact the film industry, sometimes referred to as Drukwood, is very young.
The first Bhutanese film was released in the 90s.
Sherub Gyeltsen, general secretary at the Motion Pictures Association of Bhutan, says the Bhutanese film industry is unique.
“All Bhutanese films that are shot within Bhutan are required by law as well as and then even by.... our own... self-regulated, you may call it... by ...there’s this internal responsibility, I mean, a genuine responsibility, that as a Bhutanese citizen we carry that all Bhutanese films shot within Bhutan will have to make sure that we use our own local traditional costumes, local languages are spoken. We try to promote as much as our culture and language as possible. And then the stories and themes are all based on like lot of legends, lot of... very...folk tales that we have very much available in Bhutan.”
After over 100 years of absolute monarchy, Bhutan transformed into a democracy in 2008.
Since then, it has adopted the Gross National Happiness Index or GNH as an indicator of development.
The GNH does not only focus on economic success but also on other factors such as cultural values, good governance, natural environment and sustainable growth.
And Bhutanese films play an important role in promoting the Bhutanese way of life.
“And then in fact the films are doing pretty well and then it is very strongly received and accepted by the locals and then we have managed in fact to some extent we have managed to phase out or fade out foreign films. Like, until the 1980s, in fact, at my childhood I can very well remember we had been watching only Hollywood and Bollywood films. We sing Hollywood I mean English songs and we sing Hindi songs. And now, you will not get to, even if you want, you will not get to watch Hindi films and English films in Bhutan.”
It’s Sunday afternoon, but actor/director Lhaki Dolma is busy on the set of her new film “Lue Dang Sem” meaning “Body and mind”
Dolma is wearing a pink kira, the traditional Bhutanese costume. And her co-actors are also dressed in traditional clothes.
Dolma says it’s very difficult to draw young audiences while continuing to promote Bhutanese culture and tradition through films.
“Honestly, now, India being our very good friend or a very close neighbour, I think, I have grown up watching Hollywood ... uh ... Bollywood movies. And that’s why we know Hindi. We speak Hindi, we understand Hindi. And it’s very difficult to take away the audience from that, you know, this song and dances element in the movie. So right now what’s happening is the film industry, if you want to run the movie, you know, if you want to say your movie is commercially successful you need to have beautiful and good songs with, you know, maybe a dance number and few romantic, you know, melodies songs. So to attract the young Bhutanese coming audiences, you know, we need to keep this in mind, which is very difficult challenge I would say (laughs).”
Dolma says she includes one traditional Bhutanese dance in each of her films.
Once the recorder is turned off, she complains about having to re-shoot a scene for the upcoming film.
The scene showed her character smoking cigarettes, something that goes against censor board rules, since Bhutan maintains a strict non-smoking law.
Filmmakers in Bhutan aren’t just contending with issues of creative freedom.
Director of Photography Pema Rinzin says there are other challenges too.
“A lot of productions are in places now and many...most of them do not have good equipment, as you are mentioning. Because of the coming of this computer age, the digital age, it’s been a very big leap for us. Uh...there are producers who take the risk of, you know, hiring better cameras, like the one I am using now. We are improving in the matter of equipment, but it’s the skill that we are lacking here in Bhutan.”
Despite all the challenges they face, the Bhutanese film industry has been churning out an average of 15 films per year.
The films are popular in theatres across big cities. But that may also be because Bollywood and Hollywood films aren’t allowed to be screened here anymore.
Saraswati Sundas is a young Bhutanese journalist and she loves watching Bollywood and Hollywood films.
She’s disappointed that she can’t enjoy these films on the big screen any more.
“Well, being in a country that is landlocked and the government trying to promote culture and trying to limit the screening of movies just to Bhutanese movies, I think in a way it’s a good thing on their part, but then, when it comes to watching movies from outside Bhutan, I think a lot of people around here, mostly young people, they prefer watching movies from outside. The Korean movie industry is really popular out here in Bhutan and mostly we get it in CDs and otherwise we have to resolve watching the movies, Hollywood or Bollywood, like all kind of we have to download the pirated version, so I think it’s just giving the market for piracy in Bhutan.”
Along the border between India and Bhutan, pirated Bollywood film CDs are a hot property.
The sale of these pirated CDs is growing just as the Bhutanese film industry is.
While the industry tries hard to preserve Bhutanese culture and tradition, the question remains whether force-feeding it is the way forward.