Filmmaker and writer Khyentse Norbu (Dzongsar Jamyang Kheyntse Rinpoche) is a Buddhist lama, who has
three films to his credit – The Cup
(1999), Travelers and Magicians
(2003) and Vara: A Blessing
The Cup is the story of young
Tibetans based in Dharamsala,
who want to watch the soccer
World Cup on television. It
played in the Director’s
Fortnight section at the Cannes
Film Festival and was later
Bhutan’s official entry for the
foreign language Oscar race.
Norbu who spends a substantial time at a monastery in North
India, was in New York for
Vara’s North American premiere at the Tribeca Film
Festival which opened April 16.
The film revolves around a
young village woman, a dancer,
in an unnamed location in
India, who must balance tradition and old ways with her
desires to liberate herself. The
film explores caste, class and
religious divides that define rural life in
contemporary India where BlackBerries
and untouchability live side-by-side.
You are an ordained Buddhist lama and a
filmmaker. How do you balance those two
Not so well. For instance, Vara’s world
premiere was at the Busan International
Film Festival. They invited me to open my
film, but unfortunately I was 4,500 meters
high in a cave in Bhutan, in the Himalayas.
I was meditating and it was a five-day
walk to the nearest town.
But you knew about the premiere?
I knew it, but I opted for meditation,
because that is my profession.
Don’t you see yourself as a filmmaker?
I never see myself as a dedicated film-
So let’s talk about Vara. You shot it in Sri
maker. It’s just not possible. The only rea-
son I am doing this — well there could be
other reasons, including a sense of satisfac-
tion — but I want to make a film on the life
of the Buddha. That’s a big project and it
will cost a lot. I don’t know if it will happen,
but if it does, I need to prepare myself. I
need to know how to do it.
Lanka. I am curious why didn’t you shoot in
I was told the bureaucracy would be an
issue in India.
But you shot The Cup in India?
Yes, but that was in my monastery. I didn’t require any permission. But this one was
a big project with a crew and actors.
Why were you attracted to this story? It is
quite different from your first two films.
There was the urge to take on a bigger
challenge and learn to work with real actors
and real crew. Besides that I have always
admired Indian classical dance and I
always thought somebody should present it
to the larger world. I have to say even with
Vara I couldn’t do it.
Originally I wanted to make a film about
dance, its nuances and discipline. And I
was lucky I got Shahana Goswami to perform with her dance training.
Why did you decide to make the film in
We had a lot of discussions about it and it
was decided we make it in English for the
Then you had the film subtitled as well?
We realized that many times people
found the accents difficult.
So it was a business decision then?
I am totally not involved in the business
side of the film. Artistically, probably it
would have been better if it were in Hindi
I loved the look of the film — the produc-
tion design and the cinematography.
I have a very good production designer —
Aradhana Seth. But I have to single out my
editor and my sound engineers for their
excellent work. They got the mood and the
pace in a nice way.
What are your expectations from this
film, especially in India?
It played at the Goa and Kerala film festivals and I was very surprised by the reception. Of course, it is not a mainstream film.
What about Bhutan? I know television
has come to Bhutan. Are there any movie
Yes, there are two theaters and surprisingly they show Bhutanese films. Bhutan in
a very strange and nice way is making lots
of films. You have to book the cinemas way
So they are not showing Indian films?
I read that you worked on
They used to show Indian films, but not
anymore. Of course there is television and
they show a lot of Indian programs. In any
case, a lot of Bhutanese films are like
Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little
Well if you call it that. I sat next
to Bernardo and if he asked me
questions about Buddhism, I
gave him the answers. I was a
Buddhism consultant. I didn’t
know about film at that time.
Did you have any formal train-
ing in filmmaking?
I had enrolled in a school in
London, just before Bertolucci
decided to make Little Buddha.
But after two weeks the principal
suggested I should go work with
Bertolucci. He told me that was
the best school.
Do you have a script on the
I have a script in my head and
it’s basically on the Buddha’s life.
But it’s always going to be difficult because many Buddhists will
have different points of views on
who was Buddha. So suddenly if
I show Siddhartha, before he
became Buddha, massaged by
half naked girls…
Really, Buddha was massaged
by half naked girls?
When he was Siddhartha, the
prince. It might raise a lot of eyebrows, but
it is necessary.
So, that is going to be your next project?
No it’s too early. I have two stories, both
set in Bhutan and they will be much smaller. Again, they will be obscure.
Your films are not obscure. The Cup was
such a sweet delightful film. I took my nine-
year-old son to see it.
I don’t know sometimes I feel I am not
speaking to the larger audience.
Well, you are not making a Bollywood
film with Shah Rukh Khan.
I wrote to him saying that he had achieved
everything, reached the peak, and now he
didn’t need to struggle. Here was a chance to
support art. Come and join us even in a
small role. But there was no response.
Did you send him an e-mail or a letter?
I sent both, but I am sure they were never
IN FOCUS M10 THE MAGAZINE
Aseem Chhabra finds what brings this recluse
who became a
In between meditating in the Himalayas and
attending prayer sessions, Khyentse Norbu finds
time to make films that satisfy his creativity.
into the spotlight
PAWO CHOYNING DORJI
A scene from Vara: A Blessing. Above, filmmaker Khyentse Norbu.