Once dubbed the World's Sexiest Man, Richard Gere, the star of such Hollywood blockbusters as Pretty Woman and An Officer and a Gentleman, has an unstarry avatar. He heads the International Campaign for Tibet, a 14-year-old Washington-based organisation lobbying for human rights and self-determination for Tibetans. Last week, Gere was in India to promote his twin pet causes: Tibet and AIDS. The 53-year-old dapper actor-activist and practising Buddhist—who started out with Zen in his early 20s, and now meditates for "anything between 45 minutes and two hours every day", practises tai chi and wears a Tibetan bead bracelet—spoke to Soutik Biswas in a New Delhi hotel. Excerpts:
How does the International Campaign for Tibet work?
We work very closely with Democrats and Republican legislators. A lot of our people can walk into almost any office in Washington. Now we need to replicate this success in Europe.
So, it's mostly lobbying with lawmakers to pressure China on Tibet?
Absolutely. What's interesting about this is that no power or money is essential.
How much of this lobbying has translated into real gains?
Certainly the world's knowledge about Tibet has reached a critical mass. Everyone seems to know about Tibet and have an idea about the Dalai Lama. They used to think of him as a strange man from a different part of the world. Then there's the concept of non-violence, the tool Tibetans are using to fight for self-determination. Chinese friends of mine are amazed why anyone should care about Tibet. They have been so radically taught from their childhood that Tibetans are horrible people.
Is that all you've achieved?
It's very hard to know effectively what to do because most things in a complex world happen at least in two different ways. Consider the question of US investment in China or European investment in China. You don't want to prop up a dictatorial government, but at the same time investing in China leads to prosperity which brings education, connection to the rest of the world. (As they prosper, the Chinese) see how other people live and start wondering why can't they live that way. It's (now become) embarrassing for the Chinese to continuously have people bring up the human rights abuses issue in Tibet. The fact that there is a universally revered person, and everyone is on his side, is also deeply embarrassing for the Chinese leadership. More so for the new Shanghai group of Chinese leaders, who are more global, and are most amazed by the West's interest in Tibet.
Aren't the Bush administration's moves on Tibet getting sidelined with its preoccupation with the war against terror?
Not just that. There were certain deals that have been made. Take the case of the Uighurs in western China. With China basically backing the US in the UN, the US had to denounce the Uighurs as terrorists. Which is really far from the truth. So, real people, who are trying to seek dignity and freedom, are being lost in this process in the deals that are being made.
Are you happy with the Bush administration?
(Pause) I am not displeased vis-a-vis Tibet directly yet. There are a lot of conflicts going on in the world. It's very hard to get time for a non-violent movement.
But how can you expect an administration that pushes for a war with Iraq and advocates violent interventions to push an essentially non-violent cause?
I'll tell you about the problems with the Republican and Democratic administrations. The Democratic administration is usually with us in terms of what is right or wrong. That there are human rights abuses, that there's a genocide going on (in Tibet). From the Republican point of view, it's more of anti-Communism or it is about freedom of religion in a very narrow sense.They'd be happier if they (the Tibetans) were all Christians.
What would be the best strategy for Tibetan self-determination?
Transformation of China. China becomes its best self. It becomes a most moral, educated, far-thinking country. Not isolate them and marginalise them but to make them fuller, more loving people. And if that happens, the relationship with Tibet is totally transformed.
What do you think of the Tibet chic in China today with the Chinese coopting Tibetan culture, opening up the Plateau to tourists, teaching Buddhism after a fashion, so to say?
These are superficial signs. But you know Tibetan teachers have been teaching Buddhism to the Chinese secretly for many years. Now it's more open. Remember, Buddhism was in China before it was in Tibet. So, it's very much in their DNA. So, (some day) Tibetans will be what they were hundreds of years ago: the priest class to the Chinese.
But if and when Tibetans are given real autonomy, won't it be too little, too late?
Yes, it's very bad but there are still areas in Tibet that are as Tibetan as they were. I am told that many of the younger generation of Tibetans, part of the diplomatic corps, government, are deeply Tibetan.
But the Tibetans have been reduced to a minority in their own homeland.
Absolutely. There are approximately between five and six million Tibetans and there's probably six to seven (million) Chinese now there.
How do you react when there is talk about people like you, Harrison Ford, Goldie Hawn being simply out to promote Tibet chic in the West?
I don't pay any attention to that.
Or, is the world's sexiest man pushing the sexiest cause?
Oh, I never saw that, I'm not aware of that.
Or, a band of rebels with a cause running out of steam.
It's a very big cause, it's 50 years old. I don't get a paycheque for this. I do it because it needs to be done. To tell you the truth, I'd be happy to be with my family, right now, back in New York.
You are a Buddhist in Hollywood where there's greed, competition. Do you lead a schizophrenic existence?
The focus of Buddhism is the mind. It's irrelevant what the environment is. It's a private process. The fact that it's about the mind looking at itself is relevant in every situation. Many times I find (Buddhism) more relevant when conflicting emotions arise. Where there's greed, jealousy, anger come up. And if you have any training, you witness it coming up and it doesn't manifest in action. It's a good mirror to see yourself in. Greed and anger and all that, you find that in a Tibet monastery, you find them in Hollywood, you find them in this room right now, between us.
But hasn't spirituality changed you as a person, or, maybe, as a Hollywood professional?
I am a workaholic. We, who do films, work very long hours, it's not very glamorous. We get paid a lot of money, but the money that we are paid is more about doing interviews than about doing the work. Maybe, we really do the work for free (smiles). Ninety-nine point nine per cent of us see it as a good, hard, satisfying job. The glamour and celebrity part of it we would gladly give away. I put on a suit and come and do an interview with you. Otherwise, I am in sweatshirt and jeans because I'm trying to catch a little rest to start some other work. It's the same as you.
How many films do you have on your hand?
There's two more next year...and then who knows, maybe that's the end. The first one is Without Apparent Motive with Julianne Moore by Danish director Bille August. The other is about Bruno Zender, who was a strange photographer obsessed with penguins in the Antarctic, by Gregory Hoblit who did a movie with me called Primal Fear.
Do you intend to retire after you finish with these movies?
I'm not planning but I don't have anything past that point.
Why not a film on Tibet?
I haven't got a script, frankly. I've helped in some documentaries, though. I thought (Martin Scorsese's) Kundun was a great film (on Tibet). I remember the Dalai Lama was invited to the screening in New York and it was a moving experience. He was totally silent after the movie. He said, 'When I left my country in 1959 and arrived at the Indian borders, I watched the khampas who accompanied me going back and I knew they would be killed by the Chinese.'
What does India mean to you?
India in many ways is my first home. My heart belongs to Tibetans living here. Indians have supported the exiled Tibetans with so much generosity. The Gandhian non-violent movement is also what the Tibetans are emulating as a tool of revolution. But if the Dalai Lama decides to return to Tibet, Dharamsala would become a ghost town by the weekend!