Gokul KS talks to director and writer Dhondup Tsering

Ama Khando, a 2019 Tibetan language film from Nepal written and directed by Dhondup Tsering, was one among the memorable films streamed at the 9th edition of Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF). In his directorial debut, Dhondup narrates an intimate personal story of love, resilience and separation inspired from real-life experiences. “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.  Ama Khando premiered at the prestigious Busan International Film Festival and it won the Audience Award at Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival (KIMFF). It is the first-ever film written and directed by a Mustangi native filmmaker. In this in-depth conversation about Ama Khando and the different aspects of the film, Dhondup talks about his journey of becoming a filmmaker, research for the film, writing and filmmaking process, themes and motifs in his film, issue of migration, Buddhism, and Upper Mustang.

Dhondup Tsering, a still from Ama Khando (Photo Courtesy: Media Port & Lungta Art)

Your film Ama Khando is about journeys. Who was Dhondup Tsering before Ama Khando and what was his journey?

The film is inspired from my mother’s story. A lot of the incidents in the movie come from my friends’ experiences as well. I spent three to four years in Mustang, before coming to Kathmandu. After getting a sponsor or foster parent, I moved to the Tibetan camp in Pokhara. I’ve done all my schooling in Kathmandu and Pokhara. Then I got a scholarship to study in Varanasi, India, where I did a Masters in Buddhist Philosophy. I felt that I should go back to Mustang to do some research, and that’s how it all started. My friend Ali Rasheed (cinematographer of Ama Khando), who had already made a film with my childhood friend Tsewang Rinzin called Serdhak: The Golden Hill was looking forward to making another film in Upper Mustang. He was searching for a writer from Upper Mustang to ensure there would be no biases in the story. Ali and I got connected instantly and started to discuss stories. I had no idea about filmmaking at that time, because I was studying Buddhist philosophy. I was more like a monk, actually not a monk, but praying and spending time reading Buddhist scriptures. That was my life before becoming a filmmaker.

Could you explain a little bit how you approached the research for the film?

When I was in Varanasi, I used to read a lot about Mustang, its history, culture and so on. I was always thinking about my mother and mostly about her journey. Most of the students and my friends back there in Varanasi were from Tibet. They used to share their past life experiences with me, how they escaped from Tibet, their memories about those journeys, families, childhood and things like that. I listened to all those stories, and it influenced and shaped the narrative of Ama Khando. After many years, when I went back to Mustang, in the initial stages, my mind was occupied with thoughts like, are they still wearing the traditional Tibetan Chupa or not, are they speaking the authentic Himalayan Tibetan or not, things like that, and that’s how the research began along with the location scouting.

Dhondup with his assistant director Lhakpa Wangdi en route to Lo Monthang for the shooting (Photo Courtesy: Ali Rasheed)

I still remember, when I was a kid, it took 12 to 13 days to reach Pokhara from Mustang, walking through the mountains. I went to see those routes. Some of them remain very much the same, at that time. Gradually, I came to know more about Mustang. Now things are changing, especially the lifestyle of the youngsters. Their childhood life is very different from my generation’s experiences. They prefer to go abroad and don’t want to return. Even the older generations have changed, to an extent. Our profound agricultural practices are also undergoing change. I tried to incorporate all these aspects in the 90-minute long film.

I cannot speak Mustangi dialect. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been away from my village for decades. When I talk to Tibetans, especially the older generation, they find it difficult to understand what I am saying. Although they do understand it a little bit, when they reply, I couldn’t understand what they were saying. So it was challenging for me in the initial days. I was accompanied by Tsering Dhondup (who plays Lobsang) and Lhakpa Wangdi (who plays Karma) to every location. They were my translators. Even when I met my mother after a very long time, we couldn’t communicate properly because of the language barrier. But during the research and later while filming Ama Khando, we got a lot of help and support from the people of Mustang, especially friends like Lhakpa and Tsering among others really supported me throughout the journey.

Tsering Dhondup (Lobsang) and Lhakpa Wangdi (Karma) , a still film Ama Khando (Photo Courtesy: Media Port & Lungta Art)

The ‘geographical space’ plays a decisive role in shaping the audiovisual narrative your film. Ama Khando effectively captures the landscape, culture and traditions of Upper Mustang sustaining the emotional story of the mother’s journey at the heart of the narrative. How did you pre-visualise the Upper Mustang you are familiar with from your childhood memories and how different is the region now?

As I mentioned earlier, we had to travel for 13 days to reach Pokhara from Mustang. I have a very sharp memory about the details of those journeys; like how we spent the days and how we spent the nights, our relationship with the local folks, and so on. During the old days, everything about these journeys were so natural; one has to cross desert, rivers, climb hills after hills, cross jungle and finally the crazy noise of vehicles. Now it takes three to four days to walk from Jomsom to Lo Monthang. When we started trekking from Jomsom, I could easily visualise the old trekking route from my childhood. But the current geographical terrain, honestly, freaks me out and I couldn’t figure out where should I shoot now? Tsering, who was accompanying me, works as a tourist guide for people visiting these places. He had a great level of understanding about the vast mountainous regions. In Mustang there are many smaller villages, the landscapes of which are left untouched, and we choose those locations which still resemble our old trekking route. That is how we managed to establish the authentic landscape of the erstwhile Mustang in the visual narrative of the film.

But we faced multiple challenges during the shoot. There were no vehicles and we had to walk continuously for long hours. We had to take the cameras and all the other equipment with us, and we had to carry food as well. It was really challenging for us in that way. Also, the authenticity you mentioned in capturing the landscape with its nuances, I would really like to appreciate the efforts taken by our brilliant cinematographers Ali Rasheed and Manojkumar Pant.

Dhondup, Ali Rasheed, Manojkumar Pant and Tsewang Rinzin (Photo Courtesy: Gyalbu Lama)

I would like to know about the three prominent motifs in the film – travel, separation and memories. While writing the script, what was your thought process about these layers? The narrative of the film is structured like a collection of memories. Was it intentional or it happened organically during the filmmaking process?

I have to admit that I really don’t know how to write proper scripts following all the rules and the structure. Back in Varanasi, during those days, I used to read a lot of novels. So I was familiar with the writing style and structure of novels. When Ali told me to write a script, I had no idea about how to write a script. But somehow I wrote a script, and it was written like a novel. Then Ali gave the instructions to rewrite the story into a proper script. Then he invited me to Maldives, and I went there to discuss the script. Honestly, I never thought about memories or the other motifs you mentioned while writing the script. My intention was to write a story about the journey of my mother as truthfully as possible, and I wanted to portray the authentic Mustangi culture and traditions on the screen. When I was writing the script, my focus was solely on these aspects.

When the script was finalised, my friend Gyal Po, who played the character of older Nyima in the film, and I went to meet Ali again, this time in Malaysia. Then everything you mentioned, the motifs and subtexts, gradually evolved from the in-depth conversations about the script. Yes, the story is about memories. I wrote the story recollecting the memories about the journeys you see in the film and more than a memory, it defines me and my life. After all these years, I cannot forget that journey because it is the reality of people like me who are left with a few choices.

Auditioning Kag Chode Monastery monks at Tiri village (near Kagbeni) to play little Dhondup and Nyima (Photo Courtesy: Gyalbu Lama)

As you said, these layers evolve over time. At different stages of the filmmaking process, like writing the script, or shooting the film, or while editing it, multiple ideas and thoughts influence and shape the final outcome which we see on the big screen. Sometimes, unconsciously, many layers get added to the visual narrative. What were your thoughts when you saw the final cut?

When I was writing the script for the film, initially I wrote around 130 pages for a 90-minute feature film. Later, we had to reduce or minimise the script to 90 pages. It was really hard for me and Ali to compress the script. Some scenes and subplots were edited down, and we felt the writing is perfect now. We even discussed the script with some of our friends in Malaysia, and all of them said it’s beautiful and really good. I was kind of relaxed hearing those comments and I thought people will definitely like the film when they watch it. While shooting, we realised that it’s not that easy to make a film. Especially with a set of non-professional actors, most of them acting for the first time in front of the camera, shooting conversation scenes were a major challenge. Because, you know, they have to memorise the dialogues by heart and obviously it is difficult. So we adopted a different approach, where we narrate the scene and ask the actors to speak whatever that comes to their mind at the moment in that particular situation. If you remember, there is this scene in the film in which the young Dhondup says something like ‘I will kill them like Rajnikanth”, those were the dialogues which were not part of the actual written script.

Production still from the shooting in Dhakmar, Upper Mustang (Photo Courtesy: Gyalbu Lama)

Then at the editing table, when I first saw the first cut, I was so disappointed. We had so many ideas in our mind and what I pre-visualised while writing the script and making the film was very different from what I can see now on the monitor. Then Ali began to work on the film. Through that editing process, I understood the other dimensions, the structure of the visual narrative, the subtexts you mentioned and various underlying themes. I watched the final cut of the film when it was screened at Busan. Even though, as the makers of the film, we found flaws here and there, overall, it was totally different from the first cut, and I honestly felt happy about the teamwork we did considering all the constraints. Like you said the filmmaking process teaches us a lot of things at different stages which we can’t learn from elsewhere.

Cast and Crew in Kagbeni, departing to Lo Monthang for the shoot (Photo Courtesy: Media Port & Lungta Art)

In one line Ama Khando is a story about two journeys; one which ends in the separation of a mother and her son and the second one in which son returns to his homeland. As I mentioned in the review, I felt, the former resembles the history of exile Tibetans, and the latter one reflects on the yearning for the eventual return to Tibet. I would like to know your thoughts regarding this interpretation of your film.

My dad is from Tibet. He was with the Chushi Gangdruk guerrilla army. When I was one or two years old, my dad passed away, and I can’t recollect any moments I spent with him. But somehow the thoughts about my father always followed me. I spent most of my childhood and college life with Tibetan friends and their families. The older generation, who fled from Tibet, really wished to go back to Tibet before they die, and they wanted to touch the soil of Tibet, wanted to see those plain grasslands, and things like that. My grandfather, he really wished to go back. All the time, even at the age of 80, he used to cry, and say I want to go back to Tibet. So while I was writing this story about my father, I intentionally changed the ending. Even though in real-life he passed away, in the movie, it is shown that he is going back to Tibet. His body might be dead, but his soul lies back in Tibet, and that was the message or the idea I wanted to convey. As you said, these journeys are a kind of metaphor about us. We are telling the people that Tibet will be free one day and we will be going back. On the other side, we are also implying that Tibetans are losing their contacts with our extended family in Tibet. We need to maintain the connections, and it is very crucial. These were the thoughts I wanted to share through the film.

Upper Mustang (Photo Courtesy: Dhondup Tsering)

And also the campfire song in the film carries that emotion…

Yes, indeed. The campfire song is not just another song they sing after drinking Chang. These songs speak volumes about us. In the film, Lobsang, son of Tsewang, wants to leave the village to go abroad. The song Tsewang sings is a message to all the youngsters in Mustang who leave the village and never come back. Not just for the Mustangis, but these songs also speak to the Tibetans. It is also related to Dhondup’s father. He decided to go back to Tibet, because he missed his family and homeland, risking his life. It is about ‘the return’ in many ways.

I really like the scene in which 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…

Yes, exactly. It’s a long history. Mustang and Tibet share the same culture, religion and traditions. Borders appeared only because of colonialism, but for us, we are one large family. So yes, it’s always there.

Dhondup Tsering at the ‘Nepal-Tibetan Border’ in Upper Mustang (Photo Courtesy: Tsering Dhondup)

Ama Khando is your debut film, and now you are a filmmaker. How has the process of filmmaking influenced you as a person?

I never thought about making a film or writing a script. I never imagined myself as a filmmaker. I’ve never been to a film school. In Buddhist philosophy, there is this saying; ‘life is very short, so many things cross us, sometimes we need to take it and sometimes we have to reject it’. So when this opportunity came, I thought ‘okay, let me try this’. Honestly, after completing the film, I don’t consider myself as a filmmaker or something like that. I am a simple man from the happy mountains, leading a normal life and trying to figure out how to move forward, that’s it. But I learned a lot from this platform. At the moment, I am continuing my research in Mustang, and I have some stories in my mind. I like to tell more stories about Mustang.

Dhondup during his research (Photo Courtesy: Tsering Dhondup)

Because by telling these stories, from one perspective, I am trying to preserve the Mustangi culture, the religion, and traditions. How people used to live in Mustang, their memories about the place and how everything is changing, these questions occupy my thoughts at the moment. Now Mustang is in a dangerous state. Most of the youngsters are migrating to other places, and the Mustangi population is below 5000 right now. In many of the villages, Mustangis are outnumbered by Nepali settlers. If things are changing at this pace, down the line, within one or two decades, I am pretty sure that Mustang will become a chapter in the history books. The traditions, the culture, or the religion, and the languages; everything will become part of history. Anticipating that unfortunate scenario, I want to preserve the memories we share as a community through the stories I write or the films I make. I am looking for opportunities to make more films about Mustang and its people.

One of the main concerns expressed by films like Ama Khando and Serdhak, both set in Mustang, is about the issue of migration. Could you explain a little bit about this in the context of your film?

When Tsewang was writing the script of Serdhak, I was in Kathmandu, and I read the script before he made the film. We used to talk a lot about Mustang, and he was really concerned about the migration issue. But at that time I didn’t take it seriously. You know, I was in India, and in a way I was also away from Mustang. But Tsewang was in Kathmandu, and he visited Mustang frequently, so he had a great understanding of the issue. When I started my research for Ama Khando, I understood the gravity of the issue. The future of Mustang is in the hands of today’s youth. If all of them decide to migrate to other places, then who will be preserving the profound and culturally rich traditions of Mustang, which has been in practice for thousands of years? In Ama Khando we tried our best to convey how important our traditions are and also by narrating a story set in the past, our intention was to bring back the memories of Mustang like a flash back to our own lives.

Dhondup with his mother Bhumchung, a still from Ama Khando (Photo Courtesy: Media Port & Lungta Art)

In the Director’s Statement about Ama Khando, you wrote, “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.” The road also marks increasing Chinese influence in the region. Upper Mustang as a borderland region between Nepal and Tibet is a highly sensitive area. How do you see these developments?

To be honest, when I was a kid, I still remember, only a few things from Tibet reached Mustang like sweets, biscuits etc. Now everything in Mustang is from China, including rice, biscuits, clothes, solar televisions, motorbikes and so on. If we look at the region from the perspective of products, it seems like a part of China. China is attempting to co-opt the people of Mustang, coming up with numerous schemes like providing food, blankets, gas, grass cutting and harvesting machines, among other things, every year. But people in Mustang are still practicing their profound tradition and culture amidst all the challenges. Outwardly, one may think that they are very generous and trying to help the people. But as you know, this was how China came to Tibet; helping to build bridges, helping the farmers, lending money to poor people, so on and so forth. Eventually, China occupied Tibet. They are still following the same old method for co-opting the people of Mustang as well. They have hired some spies in Mustang to help them. It is a dangerous and risky situation. I can’t just go and fight them. As a filmmaker and writer, I would say storytelling and filmmaking can be media to sustain our culture, or memories, and spur conversations.

‘Stone Chorten’ (Photo Courtesy: Dhondup Tsering)

Ama Khando is replete with Buddhist analogies, myths and beliefs. Tibetan Buddhism is integral to the people of Mustang as well. In the film, we hear about Ghemi cliffs, the Three Jewels, Tiji Festival, karma, the idea of life as a cycle and so on related to Buddhism.

Yes, religion is essential to Mustangis, and it largely defines the people, our history and lifestyle. That is why we begin with the ‘Ghemi cliff’ scene you mentioned. Guru Padmasambhava has a significant influence in Upper Mustang. Most of the pilgrimage sites are associated with him. There is this famous monastery called Samye Monastery in Tibet which was built by Guru Padmasambhava back in 766 CE. It was said that before constructing the Samye Monastery in Tibet, he said that need to build a small monastery in Upper Mustang. In Lo Manthang there is this ancient monastery called Ghar Monastery which is a holy site for Mustangis, and it was built before the construction of Samye Monastery. In Mustang, there are numerous of caves in which you can see authentic and original Tibetan paintings. There are also paintings which are influenced by Indian traditions, maybe from Kashmir or Ladakh.

Dhondup Tsering and Gyalbu Lama (Nyima), a still from Ama Khando (Photo Credits: Media Port & Lungta Art)

I am sure that you have seen some of the films made by fellow Tibetan filmmakers.

Yeah, I watched this film called ‘Balloon’, directed by Pema Tseden at Busan recently. I have seen many of the short films made by Tibetans, most of them are my friends, here in Kathmandu. And yes, I have seen all the films directed by Khyentse Norbu Rinpoche. He is such a great filmmaker. I really admire his works. I’ve seen others films made by Tibetan directors, but I can’t recollect the names. I have a huge respect for all of them. It is very difficult to raise funds for an independent film project, and several Tibetan filmmakers are coming up with some great works under many constraints.

I think it was last September when Ali shared the news that Ama Khando will be screened at DIFF this year, I was really excited. I really wanted to show my film for the people in Dharamsala. But unfortunately, due to the Covid, the festival was conducted online. Initially, I was disappointed hearing the news. But through the online platform, a large number of people got an oppurtunity to see the film, and it reached a wider audience across South Asia.

While making Ama Khando, did you have a specific audience in your mind?

To be honest, I wanted to share this story with the world. I never thought about any specific audience. We sent the film to different film festivals around the globe with the sole intention of giving voice and visibility to the personal stories of Mustang.

Dhondup Tsering at IFFI Goa during the Indian Premiere of Ama Khando

What were the reactions from the audience at different film festivals like Busan, IFFI, and KIMFF?

At Busan, many middle-aged and old people attended the screenings, more than the young people. During the Q & A session, many of them said that they were able to connect with the story and they were very emotional. I was moved by their responses. You know, a story from mountains connecting with the people in a place like Korea, it’s the magic of this medium. At Goa, many people came to me and shared heartfelt reviews. Back in Kathmandu, many Mustangis watched the film, and they were asking a lot of questions. It was also memorable. We are looking forward to screening the film in the upcoming film festivals.

The interview was recorded on November 30, 2020. The author would like to thank Ali Rasheed, Dhondup Tsering, Tsering Dhondup, Gylabu Lama, Media Port and Lungta Art for their photo inputs.

Gokul K S is a Ph.D Candidate at IIT Madras researching on ‘Politics of Tibetan Cinema and Filmmaking in Exile’

Read our review of Ama Khando here: Ama Khando: A Poignant Journey of Separation | Tibetscapes Film Reviews | Gokul KS

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