In what may go down in cinema's "discovery" folklore, it was at last year's
sleepy Cairo Film Festival that jury president John Malkovich was roused from his prone position by a little-heralded Indian
film called 'The Terrorist'. A few dynamically composed frames and dramatic opening sequences are enough to see what drew
the actor's attention and to lend his patronage and prestige to this Tamil film shot only in 18 days by a largely film student
crew for a budget of about $50,000. Seen by only a handful in India, 38-year old cinematographer- writer -director Santosh
Sivan's first film about Malli, a young Sri Lankan teenage girl selected to be a living bomb, has gone on to considerable
acclaim in its international release.
Captured luminously by Sivan's camera every frame, and portrayed magnetically
by the young actress Ayesha Dharkar, Malli, named after the fragrant jasmine flower, is a young girl who has grown up in the
shadow of this shadowy war. She is already a cold-blooded killer, trained and admired by her peers. Malli is chosen from
the ranks of many eager young girls in the terrorist camp in the Tamil homelands of northern Sri Lanka for the choice suicide
mission of assassinating a high ranking political opponent across the water in southern India.
The film is inspired
by the circumstances surrounding the real-life assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 by a suicide bomber
from Sri Lanka. There has been considerable international press on the separatist movement launched by the largely Hindu
Tamil Tigers in the northern part of the island nation against the Buddhist Sinhala majority. But the topical nature of the
film ends there. The film really does not refer to the actual setting and circumstances in Sri Lanka and India at all, much
less to the issues at stake. The Sinhala majority, whose oppressive ethnic and religious policies since the 19??s lie at
the root of the Tamil Eelam movement are almost totally absent. Sivan gives a sympathetic face to the Tamil cause by making
Malli the emotional center of the film, but that is far as it goes. After all, one man's terrorist is another man's patriot.
Much will resonate with a Tamil, Indian or Sri Lankan audience that will not be familiar to the international viewer. But
it is plain that Sivan's film is really about blind devotion to political causes and it's impact on one's life, and humanity.
Terrorism has a human face.
What is ultimately distinctive about 'The Terrorist', however, are the cinematic
approaches Sivan employs to flesh out and give moral shading to the issue of devotion and patriotism. A succession of close-ups
and extreme close-ups of Malli brings to the viewer an emotional closeness and startling eroticism. Tilted camera angles,
extreme wide angle lenses, fast paced cutting, hyper-real hues and foreground-background compositions that combine the emotional
power of the extreme close-up with the ominous blurring of out-of-focus background action, establish a cinematic style of
visual beauty and pleasure in the drama and melodrama of his investigation. Rarely is there a sequence where Sivan has not
given his cinematographer's touch in extracting the dewy beauty of his heroine and the lushness of his locales that indicates
a poetic expressionism rather than the scrub-like dryness of northern Sri Lanka. Above all, there is a minimal reliance on
the spoken word; The Terrorist is a film of images and not of dialogue, though in true Indian fashion, there are separate
credits for screenplay and dialogue.
This style is expressed by several incidents and characters that Malli encounters
as she prepares for her mission. But first there is her own inner turmoil, described in fragmented flashbacks that come
to her as she sits by the swirling waters of the river she must cross, of her memory of an encounter with a dying boy-guerrilla.
It is an original and wrenching sequence of rare erotic beauty that also poignantly underscores the deprivation of the joys
of crushes, love and growing up in the lives of the young terrorists. Sivan further accentuates the wreckage of a normal
childhood with Malli's creepily horrific meeting with a troubled water sprite of a boy who is recruited as her guide through
he jungles of Sri Lanka. The boy-guide, named Lotus by the rebel leader, has seen it all but has not lost the capacity to
be traumatized over and over again by the death, carnage and losses of the bloody war. The haunting mystery of Malli's discovery
of an old woman grief-stricken into a catatonic coma by the loss of her son to the conflict serves as a poignant counterpoint
to the gentle satire of the old woman's street-philosopher husband and adds to the film's ability to transcends the expected
and the literal.
With its sunny what's-not-to-like charm, Bhutanese writer-director Khentse
Norbu's award-winning The Cup also gives us an unexpected look at life behind the doors of a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in
this tale of a young soccer crazy monk striving to watch the 1998 World Cup Finals on television. It is affable and genial
entertainment: perfect family fare were it not that the grim shadings of the political plight of Tibet and the paradoxes of
Western and other outside cultural infiltration might be beyond the grasp of most children.
Like The Terrorist, the
film has gone on to considerable international acclaim and success. But what is thought provoking about The Cup, however,
is how unlike other Asian films it is, even well-produced ones like The Terrorist and the inescapable irony that a film about
encroaching globalization is a truly globalized product. With this film, one is ultimately left with a gnawing sense of a
certain loss of innocence in the conception of the film, quite unlike the loss of innocence suffered by in the characters
of Sivan's film.
The film, the first film in the Tibetan language, is set in a Tibetan monastery in northern India.
Fleeting pictures of the Potala Palace and the Dalai Lama further place the film. They jog our collective image-bank, trigger
associations and the film's sequences unfold smoothly, conventionally. Sent by their parents, two young boys escape Chinese-occupied
Tibet and arrive at the monastery to be ordained. The political background is established.
The film then makes a
turn to follow the story Orgyen, an enterprising 14-year old scamp of a monk who, grounded after sneaking into town's video
parlor to watch the televised matches, leads his friends on a scheme to rent a television set to watch the finals between
France and Brazil. The story, based on real-life incidents, then unfolds under the kind, yet worldly gaze, of Geko, the Monastery's
Proctor and the other senior monks of the monastery. Orgyen and his friends strong-arm the young arrival from Tibet to allow
them to pawn a watch given to him by his mother. The film is then set for the final sequence when, as they finally watch
the soccer game, Orgyen is racked with guilt and the film makes a second turn, with the narrative picking up from the wry
observations of the head lama to deliver a Big Lesson.
The Cup is immensely enjoyable. What makes
The Cup work is its basic humanistic approach and the fairly universal elements of classic myth in the young monk-hero's journey
that gives the film a comforting and familiar arc. The film opens with shots of a Coca Cola can being used as a soccer ball
by Tibetan monks, their maroon robes hitched up to their knees. The image is telling. Not merely does it set the tone of
the film and the themes that will unfold, such as the encroachment of a global culture on the far-off hitherto isolated cultures,
but because it is a cliche and its very power rests on its being a cliche. How many films have used Coke as a stand-in for
America, global culture, and consumerism? ("The Gods Must Be Crazy", with which this film shares much of its appeal, springs
to mind. Even in The Terrorist, Lotus, the water sprite, hands a comforting can to Malli.) A philosophical bemusement is
the standard response being evoked and the audience duly complies.
Shot on location at Chokling Monastery near Dharamsala in Northern India,
The Cup is cast entirely with real-life monks and non-actors, presented for the most part as happy fellows cheerily performing
their mundane everyday tasks: chanting, peeling vegetables, passing surreptitious notes in class. Though it is a picture
not portrayed in the usual films of outrage or enlightenment that the West usually makes about Tibet, it is still along the
comforting and familiar aspect of Buddhism as benign and wise, rather than the more malevolent political background of Buddhist
Sri Lanka in The Terrorist. It is clear the film seeks to tell us how human and average these usually exoticized people are.
This is not surprising, since the film's 38-year old director himself is a believed to be the reincarnation of Jamyang Khentse
Wangpo, a religious reformer who revitalized Buddhism in Tibet in the 19th century. After serving as a consultant to Bernardo
Bertolucci on "The Little Buddha" and a three-week course at the New York Film Academy under his belt, Norbu remains a monk,
even making some major decisions of film stock and casting for The Cup by harnessing Mo, the forces of Tibetan Buddhist divination.
With an international co-production team that includes Jeremy Thomas, the veteran producer of Bertolucci's
films, among others, The Cup has financing and crew from Britain and Australia. Though much higher than Sivan's more typical
Asian-independent budget for The Terrorist, the $650,000 budget for The Cup is still low by Western standards. Production
values are high and certainly superior to most Indian or Thai or Mongolian films you will see. The soundtrack is evocative
of Philip Glass or is ethnic world music, like the Gyuto Monks and Mongolian overtone singing. By contrast, the soundtrack
in The Terrorist will strike the Western viewer as more idiosyncratic with its swelling male choruses and Wyndham Hill-like
piano scores. Paradoxically it will be more familiar as a version of the kind of Asian pop that habitually accompany Asian
The difference in the choice and music in the two films is one aspect of
the larger and more complex question of what makes an Asian film Asian - or a European film European for that matter - in
our current age of global culture. Granted that the very word Asian is used variously in its geographical, ethnic or cultural
senses but in every case, always based on accepted convention and particular social and historical constructs. One expects
a sharing and linking of these constructs - whether language, people, dress, values, attitudes, religion, music or the like
- to define an Asian film as Asian in our collective mind. One expects a certain foreign-ness in a foreign film. It is indeed
an intrinsic part of our enjoyment; otherwise why bother? But this is not for exotic value alone. A perspective and a centrism
different from our own throws light on our own certainties and assumptions; makes us question our truths and relativities
and then give us a deeper understanding of all we have in common. And there lie some of the intellectual and aesthetic response
one has to "other" art.
Unlike The Terrorist, The Cup has no intrinsic strangeness despite its alien
setting. The film is suffused with a gentle, warm humor and pathos in the occasional references to the political situation
and cultural loss of Tibet. If Marcel Duchamp's dictum that no work of art is complete without an audience were applied to
international pop entertainment like The Cup, its accessibility would depend on how well it chimes with cultural stances that
already exist in the targeted audiences.
These stances derive from the image of Tibet that
has been built up over time in the West. The international market is primarily the Western markets in the US and Western
Europe and of course, modern, educated, cosmopolitan populations the world over, and there is a great deal of sympathy and
outrage over the Chinese takeover of Tibet. A couple of decades later, Tibet and in particular Tibetan Buddhism, offered
searchers of counterculture in the West a way to spirituality and inquiry without the danger of religious conversion. Shangri
La was recreated once again in the Western mind of the Vietnam Era. As with the Dalai Lama himself, it was hard, pointless
and perhaps even undesirable to say where the philosophical and the divine ends and the temporal and the political begin.
This is not undesirable. Without mystery and interiors, The Cup has a campfire sing-along quality
that leaves little room for one to respond in one's own individual way. One comes away a little pleased at one's humanity,
liberal response, and the comfort at the affirmation of a world outlook. It enables the viewer to partake briefly in another's
culture without really questioning, discovering or marveling at what the film had to say. What is absent in The Cup is a
distinctive voice, a shadowy interior. Were one to seek an encounter with new experiences different from our own, experiences
that make us question our own and make new discoveries, one is more likely to find it in the beauty and murky horrors of The
Terrorist rather than in the picturesque pleasantness of The Cup.
Perhaps the essential difference lies in
more The Terrorist is much more auteuristic in is conception while The Cup, has a smoother, familiar, studio production feel
to it. But another a clue may lie in the very nature of filmmaking. ln successful films such as The Terrorist and The Cup,
there is the happy conjunction of artistic impulse, financing, technology and marketing that is cinema, our age's foremost
art of the possible. If one did not know beforehand, or read the credits, The Cup would certainly come across as a Western
film. Which in a sense it is, given the level of Western artistic collaboration and input in the creative aspect of cinematography,
design, editing, music and so on.
A friend pointed out that while one of the most wonderful things you can
do is take the mundane and transform it into the unfamiliar; with Tibet the reverse has happened: an "other" place made into
a familiar object of Western cultural consumption. Perhaps this is how we learn to possess the unfamiliar. Perhaps in the
global interface it is inevitable each begins to exist in the image of the other. Perhaps this is how Tibet and Tibetan
culture will survive: in the West, transmuted into yet another theme in the Great Theme Park of Globalization.
Cup does little to seriously challenge pre-held notions or foster a deeper understanding of a culture and an issue that already
exists as a popular cause in the West. A film like Sivan's The Terrorist displaces them and makes us see, though not condone,
the world of terrorism, ironically, also in a Buddhist country. But there are dark horses that upset our most carefully tended
views. While The Cup caters and delivers in its global success, The Terrorist disturbs and haunts our very dreams.