Originally posted on Vishnu’s personal blog, and shared with his permission.
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As I progressed with my Cinema Workshop children became more and more receptive and perceptive. The girls more than the boys for whatever reason! And gradually they came a long distance away from the staple diet of Bollywood masala fare including the ever present ‘Item Numbers’. Unaware of the others in most part of the country, popular films have become synonymous with our ‘Indian culture’ more so in foreign countries where the NRIs survive on the staple diet of popular Indian films and songs in various Indian languages. That is how they keep in touch with India. Our India! But there in Jhamtse Gatsal within our own land these popular films are a dream world which exists somewhere else in the country and the children there dream to go to such places shown in the films and may be shake hands with popular stars. Hence all the questions about film stars! Popular cinema in India is certainly the “opium of the masses”! But as I kept on with the Cinema Workshop I kept on receiving wonderful reception from the children and all other guests and staff members who kept their interest in the workshop. The best responses, to my surprise, were for some old black and white films including Boot Polish, Sujata , Kabuliwallah and some silent Charlie Chaplin films
The film which to my surprise made the maximum impact on the children there was ‘Boot Polish’. A black and white film produced by Raj Kapoor which deals with two orphan children. Since the film dealt with orphans I was a little skeptical about the reactions of the children there as most students in Jhamtse Gatsal are orphans. I was afraid that the film may hurt their sensibilities or disturb them and as the film progressed I could hear more and more sobs and I could actually see children visibly disturbed. When the lights came on I could slowly see smiles coming back on the faces of the kids. I knew that the underlying message of the film had gone home, the message of dignity of labour and importance of education which the main character of the film ‘John Chacha’ played by actor David kept on stressing throughout the film, telling the orphan children not to beg but work and educate themselves. The last shot of the film shows the two children entering a school like walking into the proverbial sunset. Later on after my discussion about the film with Lobsang Phuntsok it transpired that he resisted the idea of calling the school an ‘orphanage’ because he wanted the children there to have a sense of dignity about themselves and not feel like orphans living on the ‘charity’ of others. Although he explained that he would have received more money from various sources if he had added the word ‘Orphanage’ to his school. In the next session of the workshop he explained this point to the children and repeated the message of the film about dignity of labour and importance of education which the children had received well. Inadvertently I had chosen a film which is not often spoken about, that had the maximum impact on the children apart from Charlie Chaplin films.
[singlepic id=1927 w=300 h=225 float=right]Every day in the morning when I looked out of the window of my room I would see a different formation of the clouds and light falling on the mountains which kept changing every minute and I kept recording them in my still camera. The beautiful mountains, the valley and the river flowing in between the borders of India and Bhutan! Lama Lobsang one morning drove me and some other volunteers down to the river. It is actually a point where two rivers merge with each other, river Tawangchu and river Nyanjsumy, a natural border between Bhutan and India. Across the narrow river between two rocky mountains was Bhutan. [singlepic id=1930 w=300 h=225 float=right]Another country another land, another culture, where people could stand on the opposite side and wave out to us and beckon us to come to their side. An experience which gave me goose pimples when I imagined how borders have divided people, lands and cultures. Border from where you can see but cannot touch! Beautiful mountains with rock formations which reminded me of black and white Chinese paintings and now I was there looking at them right in front of my eyes. I was almost there in China and Tibet and Bhutan. When we started to climb back in our jeep I knew that my return journey had begun. This is as far as I could go on this trip. Maybe next time with a permit to enter Bhutan I would go further. To China and Tibet I would not know when I would go. Even the Lama who was driving us did not have the answer. All the Tibetans in India have a dream that one day they can go to their own land Tibet. One’s own land and one’s own people! But the people who live there on these borders have the consolation of physically being so close to their homeland Tibet and smell the air which drifted from those mountains across the border. I quietly looked at the mountains receding from my window and then it occurred to me that this was looking at the location of my future film about a Tibetan Lama and his relationship with a boy! I was suddenly transported to my world of celluloid and fictional stories.
[singlepic id=1929 w=300 h=225 float=right]Finally a visit to Tawang and the Tawang Buddhist monastery which is one of the biggest in the world and innumerable photographs of the beautiful frescoes in it. Tawang monastery has a long history and is a very important landmark as far as the history of Tibet is concerned. Being there was a great experience both physically and spiritually. After a hearty Chinese lunch in a local eatery and some souvenir shopping it was time for me to leave.
One month had passed. A lot had happened: the Cinema Workshop, my contact with people there and their culture and most of all, my bond with the beautiful children there in Jhamtse Gatsal; a bond which now will never break. Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community School created by Lama Lobsang Phuntsok was an eye opener. It goes on to prove that with a clear vision and dedication and without any government support and political patronage it is possible to do things which can bring about a positive change in our country. Maybe in our country people have got into a slavish mentality of either being patronized or dependent on a dole from the government. We are always asking what others should do for us and not say what we can do for the country as President John F Kennedy once said.
[singlepic id=1931 w=300 h=225 float=right]After a tearful farewell and party which went late into the night I woke up at 3 A.M. to leave. A handful of people were there to say good bye to me in the cold dark morning when I started my journey back to ‘my land’. Far far away! The return journey was more beautiful as I knew what to expect. I had missed a lot of things on my way up as it was already dark when I passed through that area and I was sleepy with fatigue. On my way back in bright day light I could see the beautiful Sela pass at 13700 ft, Bomdila, Bhalukpung Dirang and many historical landmarks made famous by the infamous Indo-China war of 1962. Most of all some astonishingly beautiful landscapes at giddy heights above the clouds which made one shudder and exclaim with ecstasy at the same time. I left behind many, many small villages and towns with beautiful houses and curious eyes looking at my passing vehicle. I saw on the way constant presence of the army which is there now to assure people that their fear that China will one day walk over their land is an ill-founded one. And most of all a proof that a certain civilization can survive and continue to move ahead with hope that one day they will be part of the mainstream life in India and that they will not be a land so far way that it would take days and nights even to reach there. And most of all I was leaving with a hope that next time I go there, there will be better roads and maybe a super fast prime train to reach me to the north east frontier of the country in comfort. Most of all an institution like Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community School remained in one’s mind as an example of hope that everything is not lost for us as a nation in spite of rampant corruption, inept government machinery and politicians who are only looking at their own interest first and then the political parties they belong to and only then anything that has to do with the people and the nation.
The fresh innocent shinning eyes of the children there gave me the hope that all is not lost in our country or anywhere else in the world where such conditions exist, and that there will always be a metaphoric rainbow at the horizon no matter what the odds may be against humanity at large.
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Photographs and Text © Vishnu Mathur.