The forbidden kingdom of south Asian cinema finally seems to have broken free from the fetters of its images and imagination. And the outcome was as fresh as the endeavour itself. Phorpa (The Cup)-the Bhutanese entry to the Asian Competition section at the International Film Festival of India 2000-was easily the most endearing film at this annual jamboree of cine addicts. Though it was the least publicised and failed to make it to the victory stand, it left the viewer with a smile on his face and a song in his heart.
The narrative, apparently a trifle, has its moments and celebrates the power of the banal. Its a story, seen through the eyes of Palden and Nyima, two young Tibetan boys, who escape from their occupied land to arrive at a Tibetan monastery in India. Far from being austere and penitent, the monastery is gripped by football fever. Leading the soccer-crazy monks is the young and cheeky Orgyen who is obsessed with watching the World Cup on television. When the supervisor Geko forbids him to sneak into the village to watch soccer, the enterprising monk devises a new plan: to seek the permission of the abbot to bring the World Cup finals to the monastery itself. By hiring a TV and a dish antenna.
This entire tale is told with tongue firmly in cheek. There are delightful vignettes of the monks lives-the abbot who lights candles in coke cans, the soothsayer who keeps getting irritated because the monks ask him to predict "inconsequential" things like whod win the World Cup. Theres the young Orgyen who wears a Ronaldo T-shirt under his habit and cycles through the countryside merrily singing O o jaane jana. Religion is far from his mind and its the football pin-ups on the wall which make his shrine.
The film is suffused with moments of gentle humour. Like this conversation between the abbot and supervisor Geko:
"What is football?" "It is two civilised nations fighting over a ball." "Does it have violence?" "A little." "Does it have sex?" "No, theres no sex." "But how do you know all this?"
Obviously, the man who repudiates the young monks is himself hung on football.
The Tibet theme is also subtly interwoven with the game. The monks support France because France supports Tibet. They respect Indians for giving them refuge but when the cable operator tells them to point the dish northwards they do just the opposite and follow it up with a smart dig: "Never ask directions from an Indian."
The film holds interest beyond the one-and-a-half hours that it plays out on the screen. Its unique in many ways. It stars real-life monks and is the debut feature of the 39-year-old Bhutanese lama, Khyentse Norbu. Norbu is one of the most important incarnations in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition today. More famous as H.E. Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rimpoche-his ecclesiastical title-he is an incarnation of Jamyang Khyentse Wangop, a religious reformer and saint who played a pivotal role in the revitalisation of Buddhism in Tibet. He helped Bernardo Bertolucci during the filming of Little Buddha and says he has been influenced by the works of Andrei Tarkovsky, Satyajit Ray and Ozu.
Norbu had earlier made the 30-minute-long Eto Meto, adapted from a story by Rabindranath Tagore. It portrayed a clash between the religious and scientific methods of cure. He then made another 30-minute film, Big Smoke, shot in Australia. According to the Bhutanese weekly Kuensel, Norbus next feature film, to be shot in Bhutan, will be based on a village family which earns its living from making paper. "Rimpoche (Norbu) believes that the audio-visual media has the potential to spread the Dharma," Norbus attendant Ugyen Wangchuk told Kuensel.
Unfortunately, he was missing at the festival. And yet Bhutan caught the eye of jury member and writer Joan Dupont. Says she: "In the West we get to see Chinese, Indian and even Korean films but rarely do we get to see films from Malaysia, Sri Lanka or Bhutan. I have come here to see these rare offerings." But Phorpa has already been a big hit at the Cannes Film Festival and has also travelled to the festivals in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, London and Sundance. It was shown in Germany, Canada, Australia and Korea before the screening at Luger theatre, Thimpu in October.
Phorpa, in its making, also has another story-the story of international cooperation. It has been produced by Australians Malcolm Watson and Raymond Steiner, has been financed by American money and has been shot at the Choyling monastery in Bir, on the foothills of Himachal Pradesh.
In its simplicity and economy of style the film is quite like Iranian movies. It uses technology sparingly and is rich in humour and humanity. Phorpa makes for a happy, unpretentious and utterly unself-conscious cinema. If Bhutan continues to deliver more of such gems, it could well emerge, after Iran, as the next big force in Asian cinema.