Ama Khando, a 2019 Tibetan language film from Nepal directed by Dhondup Tsering, was recently streamed at the 9th edition of Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF). In his feature directorial debut, Dhondup narrates an intimate personal story, based on his real-life experiences, set in the Upper Mustang region of the Nepali Himalayas. DIFF, one of India’s leading independent film festivals, curated by filmmaking duo Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam (White Crane Films), was the first film festival in India to go online this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Over the years, DIFF has become a platform for film lovers in Dharamsala and elsewhere to come together and celebrate independent cinema voices from across the globe. DIFF Online streamed Ama Khando in the ‘Himalayan Stories’ section. Prawin Takki Karki produced the film under the banner of Media Port and a majority of the cast and crew are from Mustang region.

Khando, a 26-year-old single mother, spends most of her time working in other people’s farmlands to earn a living. She cultivates the inhospitable and harsh lands in the mountains and valleys of Lo Monthang (in Upper Mustang) along with fellow villagers in exchange for buckwheat. Dhondup, Khando’s seven-year-old son, bunks classes and often ends up getting into trouble. Due to her long working hours, Khando finds it challenging to look after Dhondup and is worried about his education and future.  While Khando is determined that her son should see the world beyond the mountains, she can’t imagine herself moving out of Lo Monthang for a life in the city. In one of the early scenes, we understand that Khando is searching for a sponsor in the city who can take care of her son and offer him better education and upbringing. The village monk informs her about a potential guardian in the city. She makes up her mind and decides to give up her only son to foster care. Khando and Dhondup join another family who is trekking south as part of the annual winter migration to the lower altitudes, a journey which results in their separation. Ama Khando begins as a family drama narrative and switches to the road movie genre, while maintaining its emotional core.

Khando and Dhondup (Courtesy: Media Port)

The geographical terrain visualized in the film is the Upper Mustang region neighbouring Chinese occupied Tibet. Mustang, located in the Gandaki Pradesh federal province of Nepal, occupies an important position in the history of Tibetan empires, Tibetan Buddhism and the armed resistance movements against Chinese annexation of Tibet in 1950s. The tributary kingdom of Mustang (known as Lo among the inhabitants) maintained a suzerainty relationship with Nepalese kingdom from 18th century till the overthrow of the monarchy in 2008 following a civil war in Nepal. The lineage of Jigme Dorje Palbar Bista, who passed away in 2016 and considered the last king of the Kingdom of Lo, dates back to Ame Pal who founded the Buddhist kingdom in the late 14th century. Upper Mustang is heavily influenced by Tibetan culture, traditions, and mainly Tibetan Buddhism. The mise-en-scène meticulously captures the Tibetan lifestyle, culture, and practices in Upper Mustang, and it shapes the base of an immersive visual narrative in Ama Khando.

The annual winter migration journey (Courtesy: Media Port)

Films, as dominant cultural art, embody the socio-political realities that are profoundly linked to the broader historical context. Following the Chinese annexation, many Tibetans fled their homeland and some of them found refuge in Upper Mustang which continued till the closing down of the borders in the late 2000s. From 1960s until early 1970s, Upper Mustang was the base of the CIA-aided Tibetan resistance army, the Chushi Gangdruk. Chushi Gangdruk, mostly Khampa fighters, frequently conducted raids into Tibet from this base. The Chushi Gangdruk resistance at Upper Mustang base had a tragic ending. When the Dalai Lama asked the soldiers to surrender and stop the armed resistance, some of the soldiers were reluctant to surrender, and they cut their throats. Many others went to Tibetan settlements in Nepal and India. In the film, Khando’s husband was a Khampa fighter. When Dhondup enquires about his father, Khando says, “He’ll be with us soon.” Khando recollects the last day she spent with her husband who was leaving for Tibet. He never returned. It’s not clear in the film, what happened to Khando’s husband. This historical context is crucial to understand the subtext of the film.

Dhondup and Nyima, a still from the film (Courtesy: Media Port)

The digital revolution in filmmaking, particularly in the last decade, has encouraged many Tibetan filmmakers to make feature films that narrate stories of their struggle, past and present to sustain the personal and collective memories of generations of Tibetans in exile. The emerging Tibetan independent cinema outside Tibet also renegotiates the pre-existing conceptions about Tibetanness, Tibetan identity and the understanding of the struggle through the nuanced exploration of lived realities in the exile spaces. Ama Khando is a timely film that enhances these efforts and takes a significant step forward documenting the experiences of Tibetan community in Mustang, which was hitherto not represented in cinema. “Ama Khando comes straight from the heart because it is drawn from the life of my own mother. It is important for me because she is the only family I have in this world and, as she ages, I hope the film will keep her story alive,” says Dhondup Tsering. How do films visually translate the memories of people and places? Why is it important to keep personal stories alive through visual narratives? How does the subtext of Ama Khando engage with the present and of the times past?

“The myriad of characters adorn the narrative like prayer-flags in the bleak hill tops.” (Courtesy: Media Port)

Ama Khando is a story of love and separation. Right from the beginning, it is clear that the intention of the filmmaker here is to tell a local and personal story rooted in the culture and history of the Mustang region in Nepal with a theme that resonates with people across the globe. The three dominant motifs – travel, separation and memories – are carefully intertwined with the film’s audiovisual narrative and are conveyed effectively through specific filmmaking and aesthetic choices. The story unfolds in these mountains and valleys where the memories of generations of Mustangis, the history of exile Tibetans and their struggle lie. Ali Rasheed and Manojkumar Pant, the cinematographers of Ama Khando, integrate the mountains as a character and  a silent spectator within the visual narrative. The soundscape elevates the idea of establishing ‘space’ to a greater level by including sounds of birds chirping, wind blowing, the road gutters, water flowing, and a variety of sounds in the forest.

Shooting a film in the Himalayan regions is tricky. On the one hand, there is a possibility that the stunning landscapes naturally transcend the emotional aspect of establishing the space in the film. On the other hand, emerges the question of gaze and exoticization. Negotiating these two extremes and finding a delicate balance is crucial for films like Ama Khando. Many romantic-road movie genre films use landscapes for nothing but the embellishment of frames. And of course, we have the Indian mainstream film songs shot in the Himalayas; the sole purpose of many of those songs is to capture the ‘beauty’ of these places for entertainment and commercial reasons, not to mention the backdrop of Himalayas as a ‘mystic zone’ and adventurous terrain for a wide range of Hollywood films. These films serve the function of a tourist brochure or a promo video that can attract tourists from different places. What about the life of the inhabitants in these regions and their untold stories? Ama Khando realistically weaves a narrative in the mountains without falling into the trap of pre-existing templates established by other films set in similar regions of the Himalayas. This is not to say that Dhondup’s film is the first film to achieve that feat, but foregrounding this aspect shapes the understanding of the ‘space’ in the film.

A Landscape Shot still from the film (Courtesy: Media Port)

The story is presented as Dhondup re-membering his past during the return journey to Lo Monthang. Since it’s the process of Dhondup recollecting his memories; presences and absences characterize the narrative. The past is not rendered through a linear narrative progression; instead, it is a collection of memories, obviously with cinematic liberties of fictionalizing certain elements. In the process of re-membering one of the poignant episodes in his life, Dhondup focuses on his mother’s hardships and her emotional struggle. At the same time, the narrative is not restricted to them alone. Dhondup also shares his memories about the fellow family who travelled with them during the trek. The elder son in that family Lobsang, who is a high-school graduate, aspires to continue his education and find a life outside Lo Monthang. His father Pa Tsewang is a rural hardliner who insists that he stay in the village and work in the fields, partly because of the family’s financial constraints. At this point, two conflicts are visible in the narrative; one in which Khando wants her son to lead a life outside the village and get a better education, and in the case of Lobsang, his father doesn’t seem to allow him the same. It is noteworthy that during a conversation about Lobsang’s education and in the subsequent scenes, Khando always supports the young man’s dreams. At one point, Lobsang says, “My life will be like all other Mustangis – cultivating fields and herding animals till I die.” It speaks volumes about the life of Mustangis, particularly the limited choices they are left with to survive amidst all the difficulties.

Pa Tsewang, Karma and Lobsang (Courtesy: Media Port)

Ama Khando’s travel motif in the narrative doesn’t rely on the anxieties generated from the dangerous trail, a trope common in travel-adventure films. Instead, the focus is on how these ‘long journeys’ are the lived realities of Mustangis. For the Tibetans, it starts from the memory of exile, the annual winter migrations to lower altitudes portrayed in the film, people leaving the village seeking better opportunities in cities like Pokhara and Kathmandu, similar to Dhondup journey. While watching the film, it’s impossible to avoid the layer omnipresent in the visual narrative about the ‘Return to homeland’, a ‘travel’ that many Tibetans, across generations, await to undertake. In that sense, the whole film, a journey of a son back to his village where his community lives, reflects the yearning for the eventual return to Tibet. This is amplified in a memorable scene in which the families gather around the campfire singing a song. The English translation of the Tibetan song (translated by Dorjee Gyaltsen) goes like this,

“Woe… woe!
To the joyful land
Of our forefathers,
Let us return,
Let us cross
These tree-laden hills,
And return.”

The Campfire Scene (Courtesy: Media Port)

Many Tibetans have already migrated from Lo Monthang to other regions of Nepal and abroad in search of job opportunities and better living conditions. In Ama Khando, one character says, despite all the difficulties they chose to remain in Lo Monthang because they feel that the place in many ways resembles Tibet. Even at the end of the film, when Dhondup requests his mother to move to the city with him, without a second thought, she replies, “I’m happy to stay in Monthang till I die.” Ama Khando, in another sense, is a harrowing film about ‘separation’. Even though we are happy to see the son and mother together after a long time, eventually it ends up in another separation when both of them stick to their respective lives. Dhondup doesn’t melodramatize these moments and subtly conveys the intense emotion through silence. We can read the exploration of separation in the film as the pain of ‘separation from homeland’. In the last scene, the mother and son are standing at two sides of a field separated/connected by ‘buckwheat flowers’. Tibetan Buddhist stories and traditional folklores are rich with metaphors, allegories and references related to agriculture. Mustang, geographically, is a high-altitude desert where meticulous irrigation canals are required to support the distinct practice of hilltop farming to grow crops like buckwheat. Buckwheat flowers in the film are a visual metaphor for the triumph of Mustangis on making a livelihood out of the bleak and inhospitable terrain. When Dhondup and Khando are having a conversation in the final scene, we see the buckwheat flowers are in bloom, meaning it’s time to reap the harvest of one’s past actions.

Director Dhondup Tsering’s mother Bhumchung, on whose life he based the film (Courtesy: Media Port)

Khando is not forcing her son to come back and work on the farm and look after her. Both of them have found their different paths. Reflecting on the ideas of karmic cause and effect, the fruition of actions and life cycle in Buddhism, these moments in the film say that it is time to reap the fruits of their respective labour. In one of the earlier scenes in the film. Pa Tsewang says, “It’s our tradition to trek lower for the winter and return in the summer. We can’t change our karma.” Moreover, the name of one of the characters in the film is also Karma. Dhondup says, “The myriad of characters adorn the narrative like prayer-flags in the bleak hill tops.” Characters in the film often mention Tibetan Buddhist thoughts emphasizing how religion is deeply ingrained in the lives of Mustangis. References to The Three Jewels, myths about Ghemi cliffs, old sayings, prayer wheels, monasteries, and so on effectively incorporate the cultural and social fabric of the region to the narrative. There is also a reference to Tiji Festival, which is the most important annual Buddhist ceremony in Lo Monthang dedicated to Guru Padmasambhava. In many scenes, foods and drinks – like Arak spirits, chang beers, dry yeast, special soups etc. – are highlighted which also contributes to the visual translation of the region and its memories. When Karma, coming all the way down to the town, to collect his citizenship card, the officer denies him the fundamental right citing his surname, which is Choyang, is not acceptable. The officer insists that he change his surname to ‘Gurung’ and Karma replies that it is not even his name. This scene alone represents the intricate ‘othering’ people from Mustang face in Nepal.

Mother and Son separated/connected by buckwheat flowers (Courtesy: Media Port)

Dhondup sets the story of Ama Khando in two different periods. Interestingly, he distinguishes the two timelines by showing different modes of transport. In the past the only means of transport was horses, and we don’t see any other vehicles in Dhondup’s childhood story. Whereas decades later, at present, when he returns to the village, we see him taking a 4WD to reach a particular point, and it’s from there he begins his trek. The construction of the road connecting Nepal with China, passing through Mustang, is expected to bring major changes to the remotely located region. Even though the construction of the road brings certain benefits and increases accessibility, Mustangis fear the loss of their traditions, culture and religious values. “There was an urgency for the film to be shot now because the landscape is in the process of dramatic change. As roads connecting China to India are developed across Mustang, the ancient trails are disappearing, and the lives of the inhabitants are transforming beyond imagination,” Dhondup writes in the Director’s Statement. The road also marks expanding Chinese influence in the region which is a major concern for the people living in Mustang considering the political and economic implications. In one conversation, the characters share their anxieties about the ‘unpredictability’ of season changes that are affecting their harvest. In the Himalayas, as multiple studies underscore, climate change is a harsh reality that is directly affecting the people and nature. Many villages in the region, where people lived for thousands of years, are now deserted due to the acute impacts of climate change that ranges from the sudden rise in temperature to the siltation caused by uneven melting of glaciers.

Dhondup returning to Lo Manthang (Courtesy: Media Port)

Ama Khando is the first-ever film written and directed by a Mustangi native. From his own life experiences, Dhondup Tsering creates a genuine film that embarks on a journey to sustain the memories of a community, who are on the verge of a radical transformation. The personal portrayal of a poignant journey of separation, resilience, love and identity visually documents and preserves the living memories of Upper Mustangis for generations to come. The understated and minimalist narrative uses the medium of visual storytelling to comment on a range of issues affecting the concerned society, which reminded me of Iranian cinema. I hope, the integrity and uncompromising affection in the narrative arc of Khando and Dhondup developed around personal memories of the past resonates universally. Pema Dolker who played Khando gives a remarkable performance, and Dhondup’s mother Bhumchung make a heart-warming cameo towards the end. Renowned Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami famously said in a 2013 interview with Los Angeles Times that, “No film is apolitical. There are politics in all films. Any film that is anchored in a society, any film that deals with humanity is necessarily political. There are politics in it, but I do think my role is to make audiences sense the politics indirectly.” I would argue, Ama Khando belongs to that league of cinema which attempts to understand society through a universal theme rooted in specific cultural, historical and political contexts.

*The author would like to thank Ali Rasheed, the cinematographer of ‘Ama Khando’, for his valuable inputs
Olsen, Mark (2013). The films that Abbas Kiarostami Carries Inside. Los Angeles Times. February 9.
Press Kit – Ama Khando (Media Port and Lunga Art)