MARK TURIN Caravan: A rejoinder


© Mark Turin, Sara Shneiderman, 2000

We disagree with Kanak Mani Dixit’s unconditional praise for the Eric Valli film, Caravan (March 2000). We do agree that Caravan is stunningly beautiful, professionally produced, and most important of all, a great success. However, based on involved conversations with friends and colleagues who have either worked in Dolpo or are themselves Dolpopa, 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 of any reference to the storm which is brewing concerning the proceeds from the film. The fact that local people in Dolpo, together with activists representing their cause, see Caravan as being in part their intellectual property, and thus see themselves as partly entitled to any resulting profit, is an important ethno-political development.

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, this support for the director’s much-publicised position is 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, a genuinely ‘unromantic’ picture of Dolpo would have had to include election posters, Maoist disturbances, wrist watches, radios, Wai Wai noodles, green Chinese army shoes, plane-loads of trekking groups, and other trappings of the modern world. And what about the psychological issues such as disaffection with traditional life and the desire of young people to head for the cities? The careful viewer is sure to notice that not a single one of these elements is addressed in the film. We cannot go along with Valli’s claim 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 middle-class Nepali perception. Judging by the reactions of the Nepali 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 that Caravan will do little to change.

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. But as an ‘unromanticised’ picture of contemporary reality in Dolpo, as both Valli and Dixit claim it to be, the film is fundamentally flawed.