The Evolution of the Bhutanese Cinema

In 1888, the earliest surviving motion-picture film, a mere 2.11 second clip by French inventor Louis Le Prince, called Roundhay Garden Scene was filmed. Though at the time, the leap from still pictures to motion captured on film didn’t answer anything; it merely posed one question: what next?

Over a century later, in 1989, Bhutan answered with Gasa Lamai Singye, our first feature film. Admittedly, it’s nothing more than facetious to say the amalgamated contributions of Le Prince, Godard, Hitchcock, and Kurosawa was for the sole conception of the Bhutanese cinema.

Yet it’s not wholly absurd for aspiring Bhutanese filmmakers taking in the marvels and machinations of the cinema to think that the conception and every subsequent technological and artistic breakthrough in close to a century and a half has been for the sole purpose of enabling them to tell their story, the Bhutanese story to be precise.

But why was this important? Partly because until the last century, there weren’t many means of telling the Bhutanese story besides the orally transmitted verse and prose. In 1914, formal education started and literacy rates rose steadily; however, reading was secondary to the spectacle of the cinema as evidenced by the fact that the first Bhutanese movie, Gasa Lamai Singye (1989) came out before the earliest books of fiction, the Hero with a Thousand Eyes (1995) or Folktales of Bhutan (1994).


The 80s were rife with bellbottom jeans, aviator glasses, and a faint notion of disco. All of these can be attributed to the Bollywood influence. The dance sequences, the melodrama, the antagonizing of the rich parent of the lover, even actors unconvincingly pretending to play the guitar—these are all tropes borrowed from India but ingrained beyond the mere superficial in the Bhutanese cinema culture.

In 1997, Bhutan succeeded with Jigdrel in our attempts at imitating our Bollywood counterparts. It had the poor boy, rich girl trope, melodrama, musical sequences, as well as our version of Bollywood’s Salman Khan.

The 90s and the better part of the aughts were entrenched in the inescapable yet proven formula of Bollywood.  Even a few filmmakers’ attempts at distinctive thematic forays or plots, such as Muti Thrishing and Lengo in 2005 wouldn’t free the films from the Bollywood influence of song and melodrama which we had adopted as features of our own cinema.

In that golden era of Bollywood influence, Travelers and Magicians (2003), was the solitary film, perhaps only the second since Gasa Lamai Singye to be and feel discrete from the sways of Bollywood. The former film, however, would go on to have a cult following that grew years after its release and continues to influence Bhutanese storytellers, whichever medium they may choose.

It is difficult to say if we have shaken off the Bollywood influence which, although a catalyst in our growth, inhibits true creativity and the originality of expression. There have been films such as Don’t Tell Mom (2007),  Gyalsey (2012), Honeygiver Among the Dogs (2016), each of which sought in its own way of shedding the Bollywood influence. Which is not to say the status quo of Bhutanese cinema and its scrounging on Bollywood should be reviled.

 

On the contrary, the purpose of the cinema isn’t singular or definite. It isn’t mere artistic expression, a medium of edifying the masses or spreading propaganda. The reason people took to Bollywood the way they did was the simplicity, the universal themes of good and bad, and the numerous dance sequences which showed the microcosmic purpose of the film industry on a whole—that it was for entertainment, nothing more. A means for people to forget all hardships and immerse themselves in the simple yet cathartic experience that is most Bhutanese films.

So will there be more diverse films? Films whose themes rise beyond the clichéd or plots that aren’t predictable? It is a certainty, filmmakers often move with the inner yearnings of the zeitgeist. As we hunger for richer plots, deeper characters, and more dynamic means of expression, filmmakers will rise to cater to that new demand. For the moment, the demand is for distraction in the form of palatable entertainment.  

It may not be the norm but for those who yearn for something different, there always will be an eccentric who will make a film for himself, one that is criminally unappreciated in its time but that which shall remain unforgettable.


-Editor (The Samsara Express)

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