Interview with Tsring Rhitar Sherpa

By Mohan Rai, Kantipur Online, April 26, 2006

Kathmandu, Nepal -- Tsring Rhitar Sherpa’s film Mukundo was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 2000 Academy Awards. Mohan Rai talks to Tsring Rhitar about his latest film Karma and Nepali cinema.

<< Mask of Desire (Mukundo)

Q: If there is one thing that can be said for sure about your films, it is the singularity or at least the similarity of themes you have tried to tackle in them. You seem almost obsessed with subjects like religion and spirituality and are concerned about their relevance vis-à-vis today’s so-called modern world. You seem to be anxious to find out whether the lofty ideals of religion or spiritualism can co-exist with mundane everyday reality in an increasingly hostile and materialistic world. But at the same time you want to question them, their intrinsic worth and put them up for a debate.

Why are you so anxious? So skeptical?

Tsring Rhitar: It’s a very interesting question because that’s exactly what I have been trying to explore in my films. There are so many things in the world, which the human mind cannot comprehend in a lifetime. That’s why we have abstract things like god and we don’t know for sure whether these things exist or not. Such things always bother me, because I have been brought up in a very traditional and religious environment. My parents are very religious. So religion has been a very important part of my upbringing.

But gradually, as I got a modern education and began to think rationally, I began to look back and question my faith. I felt there were many contradictions. These contradictions made me very uncomfortable. It was as if suddenly what I had been told and taught and believed for so many years was groundless, false.

When I was at my college, there was a time when I was constantly uncomfortable with my own religion, my upbringing because it had a lot of so-called superstition, which I thought was baseless. And for a while I had almost become an atheist in an attempt to become pragmatic.

As they say, life is a cycle and now I have matured enough. I am in a process of coming back to it because, now I feel, after all, they have a lot of positive effects for humanity.

In The Spirit Does Not Come Anymore, I have questioned the spiritual power of a healer to heal sick people. Does that old man really have a supernatural power or is it just a superstition or a kind of trance or whatever. The process of going into a trance and healing people can be studied at several levels. For example, we can study to examine their inherent qualities to see if they can be proved scientifically.

But after spending so much time with him, in the end what I have found is, so many people have gained a lot from going to him. The rituals he makes have such a good effect on the people, it uplifted them spiritually. He is helping the people because they have no alternative. Going to him is like going to a psychiatrist. He does not do anything. He doesn’t give you medicine. He just talks to you. But by just talking to you, he relives your pain, your suffering. So it works even though you think it is superstitious.

Then I realized that it does not matter whether it is true or not, or superstitious or scientific as long as it helps people. What is important is its positive impact on the people. Buddha said that if you can help people for even a day, it is worth trying, because we are living through a lot of suffering.

In the past, as I already said, I was very skeptical and suspicious. Now I realize it does not really matter.

Q: But when I was watching Mukundo, I could not help feeling that even if our rituals and spiritualism had substance in them, they have been misused for suppression and subordination or even destruction in our society. After all who else could kill a person and get away clean with it except a Mata?

Rhitar: In Mukundo, what I tried is to study the whole concept of what we brand as spiritualism again.

Q: But it has killed someone.

Rhitar: It can have both positive and negative impacts. What we have to study is how to make use of it. We should not let it to suppress and control people, which, of course, has been happening for a long time.

My approach to spiritualism is in a way very pragmatic. As I said already, first of all, I think we have to study what is useful to us. We should not do it just because our parents and elders are asking us to do it. You have to study how much it is helping you. If it does not help you, you have the right to shun it.

The practice of tying a ‘biralo’ (cat) is a very good example of how rituals have passed from generation to generation. Initially it was tied -- the pundit had a cat, right -- so that it could not disturb him during his ‘puja’. And suddenly it became a ritual. Everyone had to find a cat and tie it next to you, right?

We have the right to set the cat free. If we just stick to them blindly, it can have a negative impact sometimes. Religion and rituals have to be dynamic. They have to change according to time. I was not sure when I was making Mukundo, and I am not sure even now. Through the film, rather than send a message, I wanted to raise a question, to stimulate some kind of discussion so that people could talk about this whole idea of spiritualism after seeing the film.

I don’t have the answer. Everyone has his own set of experiences. I have a set of experiences. From these experiences, we can share and discuss and then may be we can have some kind of answer.

Q: But when you made Mukundo, what concerned you most? The positive or the negative effects (of spiritualism)? To me, it seems you were more concerned about the latter.

Rhitar: I tried to balance. In the film, if you remember, there are examples of Mata healing people. But in the end things do go wrong. Probably because the film ends on a negative note, you feel the negative aspect more strongly. It is difficult to say.

But you are true, I am a bit more concerned about the religion and rituals being misused. Of course, they have a lot of positive impact if used well. But since at the present time, they are being used in such a negative way, you can’t help feeling that way.

Q: The other thing I found very striking about Mukundo was the kind of atmosphere you created in the film: the darkness, the almost-dreading silence. Were you consciously creating such an atmosphere in the film?

Rhitar: Yes. Warm colours are usually associated with religion and spiritualism, especially red. We use red tika. Women wear red saris during religious ceremonies. So, most of the time we framed and used film stocks, filters to achieve a reddish look in the film. So, the red tone that has come in the film was a very deliberate attempt to bring the feeling of spiritualism and religion strongly into the visual and viewing experience.

Also, as you said, the film is shot in a darkish, dimly lit and moody manner because that’s how the atmosphere of religious places is. It is dark and dim. Whenever you go to a temple or a monastery, you always get that feeling. It’s the sense of mysticism, of not knowing everything. At least that is how I feel. This adds to the mysticism of the whole thing. And that is why we did low lit lighting.

To complement with the visuals, we did not put in a lot of music and sound effects. We used mostly atmospheric sounds like footsteps, cycles going, water splattering, ducks going.

Q: After Mukundo, Karma came after quite a long gap.

Rhitar: Mukundo was not very successful commercially. Sometimes, there are films that you make with a lot of passion and dedication, but then they do not click with people. In Nepal, it did not run well. So it became quite difficult to make another film right away. I was lucky that NHK supported me. They bought the film and showed it on their channel.

Otherwise, it would have become quite difficult for me. But then I had been planning Karma for a long time. But I was busy doing other things. I was making documentaries. So that took a lot of my time.

Q: It’s not that you did fiction just for a change?

Rhitar: No, fiction is my passion. But in Nepal, because the film industry is not well developed, it is very difficult. Doing fiction needs a whole set of infrastructure. You need a lot of people. Moreover, filmmaking is such an expensive task. And as a director I have to depend on so many people.

When I don’t have proper support, what happens is that I have to do most of the work myself, in which case, it takes a long time. That is why Karma has taken one and half years by now. By the time it gets released, it will take two years.

Q: You must be aware that when a filmmaker consciously tries to make a statement through a film, or moulds the story to make a statement, sometimes the story can suffer. But what I’ve noticed about Karma is that, though you are trying to tackle a profound question, the story in itself is quite interesting. That is, even if you leave aside the theme, the story on its own is quite interesting.

A nunnery in a high desert mountain, the death of a revered abbess, now money is needed for her rebirth, the two nuns set out to get it back from someone who owes them. I have not seen the film, but I guess most of the film is about their effort to get back the money. And finally they get hold of it, but decide not to take it. A good story per se.

Q: How did the idea for the story come?

Rhitar: Again, Karma is a continuation of my thinking about spiritualism. I wanted to explore the idea of spiritualism and materialism. We always take religion as being completely opposed to materialism. Is it really so?

In the beginning, this nunnery has an old nun who dies, she is coming back and they have to do a big ‘puja’ for her, they need money for that, then they go and search for the person and that person gives them the money. Throughout the film, there is this search. And they hear different rumours about him. He deals in the flesh trade, girl trafficking, trades in endangered animals and things like that.

In the end, he turns out to be someone who is doing something good for the society. So then, the nun decides not to take the money. She decides to return the money. In the end, when she goes back to the nunnery, the thought is further reinforced when the eldest nun says what she has done is okay. She says, ‘We now have not much butter left in the nunnery, so we don’t have to light all 108 lamps. Only one is enough. What is important is our intention.’ That is like a one line statement in the film.

Q: When filmmakers make films with oriental themes such as oriental religion or spirituality, sometimes they consciously try to create an aura of exoticism, especially to appeal to a western audience. Were you conscious not to do so in Karma?

Rhitar: Yes, I have tried to make the characters like ordinary people, like us. Karma, my main character in the film, is an ordinary girl. She has a poster of Amir Khan in her room. She is very inquisitive, breaks the rules in the nunnery, is famous for not doing her studies. She is like any other school-going girl. I wanted to break this myth of mysticism.

Q: How did you find the actors?

Rhitar: So for this film, I could not rely on mainstream actors. So I had to rely on local people and people of that origin. So I asked my friends, did auditions. And finally, I got them.

Q: I hope the setting of the film, especially the pristine beauty of Mustang, must have come alive in the film?

Rhitar: My cinematographer and I worked hard to capture the remoteness of the area, the nunnery. Actually, the landscape is a part of the story. I hope it’s come out.

Q: That means most of the places are real places.

Rhitar: Of course. We travelled a lot while shooting. We stayed in the nunnery for sometime. But after that, we travelled all through, stopping at different villages on the way until we reached Jomsom and Marpha. And then we stopped shooting because we had some in-between scenes in the hills. Then we shot in Kathmandu and Pokhara.

Q: How long did the shooting take?

Rhitar: About 45 days.

Q: The state of the industry is not very good. The ongoing conflict is one reason. But the lack of good films is obviously another. What you are doing is just fine. But don’t you think it is high time good filmmakers like you came forward and made films with mass appeal?

Rhitar: It is not that we have no talented filmmakers in our country. We have several good filmmakers; actually many of them. As filmmakers, we are very insecure people. Insecure in the sense, we don’t know how we are doing, how our films will be received. I think we need some kind of feedback from the media also.

The media has to judge films putting them in the context of our society, our standards of film literacy. If the film writing is done within that parameter, it will encourage a lot of filmmakers to improve and make slightly different kinds of films than they are making now, but not off the track so as to alienate the audience completely. If you make a very good film, but your audience does not understand it, what is the point in making it? Because the industry has to survive. It is based on business. It has to run.

Good filmmakers can sometimes make a film keeping mass appeal in mind. That’s also okay. Because he has to be accountable to his producer or financier. If he makes a film in an exploitative way and with very little craft, then we have the right to give ‘gali’, talk bad about it and totally avoid writing about it.

But then, there can be films that have conformed to the traditional or popular pattern to appeal to the mass but have some innovative things in them. Those kinds of films have to be appreciated in the media. Because that will encourage them to increase the standard of filmmaking slowly.

Our industry is young and we were not exposed to films other than Bollywood until 20 years back. Change is not an overnight process. It is not that a good set of films will come and suddenly change the industry. It is a very slow evolutionary process. Because it is a very slow process, we have to appreciate the small improvements. Besides the story, there is a lot of craft involved in filmmaking, which is an important part of the filmmaking process: the craft, narrative techniques, in terms of camera angles, approach, direction, the setting of the scene.

Suppose, you come inside a room through a door. There are more than a hundred ways to shoot it. We can judge how a director has taken trouble to design the scene. If one seriously looks into these aspects, Nepali films have improved a lot in the last ten years.

We have to appreciate these improvements. Even if the story is not very innovative, if the craft is good, we can talk about the craft. There is no need to always write bad about Nepali films.

What has become stagnant is the approach to storytelling. The craft has improved in our films but the narrative esthetics has not improved much. The approach to storytelling and the choice of story has to improve a bit. But we cannot expect a sudden change. I am a filmmaker who wants to try everything. I grew up watching Bollywood films and films like Kusume Rumal. Actually between Mukundo and Karma, I was almost making so-called mainstream films with songs and things like that. It was a teenage love story.

But the palace massacre happened and the situation suddenly changed and we could not make it for practical reasons. Though somehow I ended up making two films without songs, I am not completely against making films with songs and dances. After Karma, my intention is to make one.

Q: So despite everything, you are still hopeful?

Rhitar: Of course, I am very hopeful because in any industry, there are ups and downs. In a way, what is happening is good because sometimes always going up makes you very complacent and satisfied and you don’t want to change. Today’s situation has taught us a lesson that we have to change and we have to improve ourselves. Now is a good time to realize our mistakes, our shortcomings. From here, we can improve. Not only that, we need to be more aware while making films.

But firstly, it needs support from the media and film writers and critics. Secondly, today digital filmmaking is becoming very popular. I am a big advocate of digital filmmaking. Our kind of industry should be completely digitalized. Making films in the digital medium will make the process of filmmaking much cheaper. If you have a good digital film and it is projected well, it will not look any different from a film made on 35 or 16 mm. More so it should look better.

One can of 16 mm film will cost about say 12 to 14 thousand. That will give about ten minutes of footage. Where as a DV that costs a mere one thousand, will give you 60 minutes.

At present, a lot of filmmakers are compromising to save the film reel because it is very expensive. Even if the shot is not good, you say ok, because you want to save the film. Because of the cost factor, people are always playing safe and that has made us static. With digital, you can take as many shots as you like until you get the perfect shot. It is easier to set up, to shoot. You need less crew, can shoot faster. The whole process of post-production can be done in the country at much cheaper costs.

The only thing we need to do is to install digital projectors in the theatres. At present, the exhibitors do not want to do so, but if they install them, they too will profit much more. If we do so, the Nepali industry can do much better. Since the cost will be less, more films can be made. You can afford to experiment, to explore and be innovative.

I think Nepali films have a lot of potential. Indeed, I am very hopeful.

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