MARK TURIN Rethinking Himalayan Cinema



© Mark Turin & Sara Shneiderman, 2000

Kanak Mani Dixit's review of Eric Valli's Caravan in the March issue of Himal South Asian (Vol. 13, No. 3) is uncharacteristically lacking in punch. Being one of Nepal's most prominent journalists, and with a reputation for intellectually astute commentary, it is all the more surprising that Dixit has only
unconditional praise for the film. Clearly a film critic need not always be negatively 'critical', and the film does deserve applause for its achievements. Reviewer's subjectivity aside however, we believe that there are a few fundamental problems with the film that Dixit fails to address.

We too view Caravan as an historic achievement and as an excellent film. It is stunningly beautiful, professionally produced and most important of all, a great success. As Dixit points out, Caravan has been continually running at Jai Nepal cinema hall since it opened on 10 October 1999, a clear sign of appreciation which should not be underestimated. For those still in doubt, the Oscar nomination confirmed that Caravan is a movie of international calibre, and the first feature film to come from Nepal. However, based on involved conversations with friends and colleagues who have either worked in Dolpo or are themselves Dolpo-pa, it is clear that as with any multi-layered contemporary film, there are more complex issues lingering beneath Caravan's critically acclaimed veneer.

The first element strangely missing from Dixit's review is any reference to the storm which is brewing concerning the proceeds from the film. For the best part of a week, The Kathmandu Post carried front-page articles detailing the frustrated expectations of NGOs working in Dolpo who were calling on Valli and the producers of Caravan to return some share of the profit made by the film to the district whence it came. The details of these debates are not relevant to this short letter, but the ideas behind them are. The fact that local people in Dolpo, together with activists representing their cause, see Caravan as being in part their intellectual property, and thus any see themselves as being partly entitled to any resulting profit, is an important ethno-political development. Regardless of the validity of such claims, some reference to this ongoing discussion should have featured in Dixit's review.

Our second criticism is more serious in nature. In his letter to The Rising Nepal about the film, Director Eric Valli writes: "I had to remain true to my sources" and "In order to show respect for this reality," "we had no desire to disguise" (page 5, March 27, 2000). Likewise, Dixit informs us that "Director Eric Valli has said that the life of the Dolpopa does not have to be romanticised, and so he does not pander to the overseas viewer by hyping the romance of high plateau". On one level, Valli's assertion and Dixit's support of his claim are fair: the film shows the back-breaking difficulty of eking out an existence in Dolpo against all climatic odds. At a more profound level, however, their suggestions are highly questionable. If Valli were to present a genuinely 'unromantic' picture of Dolpo, then it would have to include election posters, Maoist disturbances, wrist watches, radios, Wai Wai noodles, green Chinese army shoes, a few plane loads of trekking groups, and many more trappings of the modern world. And what about the psychological issues such as disaffection with traditional life and young people's desire to head to the city? The careful viewer is sure to notice that not a single one of these elements is addressed in the film. That Valli chooses to leave out these less aesthetic aspects of contemporary life is perfectly acceptable, but then he must not labour under any misapprehension that he is portraying an 'unromantic' reality.

Whilst the West is endlessly fascinated with the mythical Tibetosphere, Himalayan social scientists are working to pop the Shangri-La bubble and to inject a little social realism into the flat, one-dimensional images of smiling, peace-loving Tibetans. The greatest irony of all is that whilst this perspective is slowly penetrating the Western consciousness, it has yet to make serious inroads into the middle-class Nepalese perception. Judging by the reactions of the Nepalese audience during the showing of Caravan in Kathmandu, very few had a realistic image of life in the high Himalayas, and perhaps even less so after seeing the film. Even more than in the West, the urban middle classes of Nepal have a tendency to exoticise and rarefy their fellow countrymen from remote mountainous districts, a prejudice which Caravan will do little to change. Although Caravan's Dolpo-pas are citizens of Nepal whether they like it or not, one can hardly blame viewers for forgetting this fact. Valli at no point indicates that the district of Dolpo is indeed located in the modern nation-state of Nepal: areas outside of Dolpo feature only as "the land of grain". After the film, we loitered in the foyer for a while and listened to comments from members of the Nepalese audience as they left the hall: "what a simple life!", "what honest and happy people those Bhotes are", "lucky people, surrounded by such beautiful mountains" and the like.

This exoticisation is not an inevitable result of "effective Himalayan cinema". Dixit mentions the 1986 Horse Thief as the only other film in this genre and suggests that Caravan is a step up, but clearly he has missed the 1998 Windhorse, directed by a Tibetan-American team, as well as the hype about The Cup, a new film directed by a Bhutanese lama which is currently playing to packed houses in the US and Europe. Both of these films show that it is possible to strike a balance between traditional and contemporary concerns, and that Himalayan cinema can indeed be at once beautiful and politically aware. Windhorse documents one Tibetan family's struggle to come to terms with the effects of the Chinese occupation, and is largely filmed in Nepal; while The Cup portrays a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in northern India in the throes of World Cup fever. Although Caravan's subject matter is unique, Valli could have taken a few cues from these other productions, particularly Windhorse, since one of its stars, Kathmandu resident Jampa Kelsang, also plays a prominent role in Caravan.

Any piece of art should be appraised according to its stated objective. Caravan is a beautiful fable, a metaphor of Himalayan life frozen in time, and this is how it should be viewed and enjoyed. No viewer would equate a period film about 17th century France with the contemporary lives of Paris businessman, and likewise neither should Caravan's artistic timelessness be confused with the social and political realities of Dolpo and other Himalayan regions at the dawn of a new millennium. As an archetypal tale then, the film deserves the praise it has received, but as an 'unromanticised' picture of contemporary reality in Dolpo, as both Valli and Dixit claim it to be, the film is fundamentally flawed.

Mark Turin is a linguistic anthropologist working on the Thangmi language spoken in central-eastern Nepal.
Sara Shneiderman is a Fulbright Fellow in Anthropology based in Kathmandu.

A shorter and edited version of this letter was published in Himal South Asian, April 2000