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Bhutan is changing, and with the arrival of television come consumer goods like the bra; the country’s only filmmaker, the Buddhist teacher Khyentse Norbu, captures the mindset with his new film, Travellers and Magicians. But his next film may be about a sexually repressed couple, he tells Andrew L. Urban.

The bra has arrived in Bhutan, says Khyntse Norbu, the Bhutanese diety and the country’s only filmmaker. He says it as a matter of fact. “Television is a year old,” he explains, “and tourism is starting ... Bhutan is changing. We cannot sit back and romanticise ourselves that we’re a sort of last Shangri-La.” Before the bra, Bhutanese women would come to him and ask him to lay his hands on their breast (or wherever else they had a complaint) without a moment’s hesitation or shame. Indeed, the subject of sex is not taboo in Bhutan. “A puritanical Tibetan, Chinese or Indian might think the Bhutanese are primitive when they phalluses painted on walls and hanging here and there, what they don’t realise is that the non-existence of such inhibitions about sex can be a blessing.” 

Norbu, a revered teacher of Buddhist philosophy, visited Australia for a series of lectures and study tours prior to the release of his second feature film, Travellers and Magicians, and talked about his work. The film, not surprisingly, reflects the mindset of Bhutanese people as their universe is invaded by other cultures and the by the stirrings – in some young people – to seek for themselves what they imagine are the pleasures and the riches of the West.

"it is important to value what you have"

The story of Travellers and Magicians concerns Dondup, a young government official in a remote village, who is eager to escape what he sees as a backward and poor Bhutan, with its old fashioned values and traditions. He wants to go to America and be rich like everyone else there. He sets off in his sneakers and I Love NY T-shirt, his meagre belongings packed in a second hand Samsonite suitcase – and his ghetto blaster. He waits for the bus and meets other travellers, and his journey is delayed.

Of course Norbu’s point in the film is that it is important to value what you have – and to get the most of its many potential treasures. This theme perfectly matches the social and historical moment in which Bhutan finds itself. It follows his highly successful debut, The Cup, in which young Buddhist monks sought to get a tv set working in time to watch the World Cup soccer final. 

Both films deal with Bhutan looking out into the wider world and in both films Norbu extols the same virtues, through different stories and different characters. “Dondu symbolises the changes,” Norbu explains, “and the girl is the symbol of the innocent Shangri-La, the monk is the symbol of Buddhism…” Norbu’s love of filmmaking is built on its ability to convey powerful messages via images. “I can see the power of the language…I like going to movies…I like making them…putting images into a frame. It’s very exciting. But very expensive.”

Norbu first saw film on television – at an Indian railway station when he was 19, on his way to Rajpur to study Buddhist teachings. Later, while studying in London, he haunted the cinemas as his interest in film grew. When he had a small role in Little Buddha, he watched Bernardo Bertelucci closely and was inspired to enrol in a film course at New York Film Academy.

Of course Norbu is living something of a double life. As he puts it, “Now I’m known as a filmmaker [in Bhutan], but I still do my Buddhist stuff.” But filmmaking didn’t make him famous in Bhutan. He was already a revered figure because of his status as a Rinpoche – a high ranking diety. Besides, Bhutan is so small, everybody knows almost everybody, which rather diminishes the impact of ‘fame’. 

"Moving between the two worlds"

Moving between the two worlds – as he has always done, first discovering the joys of cinema in India – has always been a pleasant experience. “Being analytical and sceptical has always helped,” he says. “I feel very liberated … because when I go back to Bhutan, ridiculously and very reluctantly I have to pretend I am a god, even though I don’t believe in it. But it helps people, and for that reason I keep on doing it. When I’m in the West, I’m a human being.”

There are now two cinemas in Bhutan, so Norbu’s films can be screened for his own people. But he’s disappointed that “when they showed Alexander, or King Arthur, it’s house full, but for films like The Motorcycle Diaries, there are four people…” 

Norbu’s pragmatism about a changing Bhutan is informed by his wish that Bhutan control the rate of change and the style of change to its culture, its society and its traditions. “It’s going to change anyway, why not we change the way we want to. Bhutanese television should remember that.”

As for Norbu’s filmmaking aspirations, he’s hoping that “things will work out” so he can make an adaptation of a Japanese short story set in medieval Japan, about a sexually suppressed married couple. “She has this fantasy about sex with her husband – not with anyone else – but she can’t tell him. So she writes it down, and everytime she goes to get provisions, he reads it. She knows he’s reading it…”

And where will he shoot this? “In the middle of Grafton, Australia. I’ve been to Grafton and I can see it there…”

Published May 5, 2005

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Khyentse Norbu - on the set of Travellers and Magicians


Khyentse Norbu

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