By Topden Tsering
If you are on Facebook, chances are your wall serves as an unwitting notice board for Shenpenn Khymsar’s postings about his film, “Jigden: The Beginning of the End.” Whether he’s in your friend’s circle or not, you’d likely be abreast on everything there’s to know about the film he has written, directed, and acted in – courtesy the social media site’s tagging feature. Khymsar’s full frontal monochromatic profile in reflective sunglasses from one of the posters would have been burnt into your brains. And suddenly you’d have found yourself missing those baby pictures and food updates from friends you had previously dismissed as boring, and therefore insufferable.
This is the genius of Shennpen Khymsar. The man is a face to the word “ubiquity.” In the unforgiving streets of Mumbai and other such Indian cities, this sense of resourcefulness is called “Jugaad,” the closest cousin in English being “to hustle.” And Khymsar – a talented rock musician, long-time activist, and now filmmaker – is a consummate master of “Jugaad.”
It is no wonder that for his short film he picked the Gangster subject. The mafia genre enjoys rapturous adherents around the world from among both filmmakers and audiences alike. From France’s “Mesrine” to Japan’s “Sonatine” to Hong Kong’s “Infernal Affair” to India’s “Gangs of Wasseypur” to Hollywood’s “Godfather”, the storyline follows a familiar arc. Early on, the protagonist decides he is above the everyday struggle facing the common man; the world and its glittering luxuries are his for the taking; he might wince once on his first blood-letting, but after that the murky terrain of crime and violence is his default kingdom; with death from a bullet or capture by the police a given conclusion, he lives out his moment, however vengeful or depraved, as though it were the truth staring in the faces of lies, and not vice versa.
What is unique about each of these successful films is the sheer imagination that imbues it with an originality of its own. The universe in which the story unfolds is rooted in the local peculiarities; the characters and their behaviors embody familiar quirks – you’d see your tailor, barber, teachers and local politicians in them; the everyday struggles would have a lived-in quality, akin to the only pair of slippers you own and which you wear into the world and which alone bears testament to the cuts from sharp edges and the cold from slapping rain; the languages spoken and unspoken carry jargons that you and your childhood friends alone might recognize – colorful and abstract like the paint peels on your neighborhood walls.
Not long after his beginning on the film’s shooting, Khymsar’s Facebook postings were rife with this question: “Why a Tibetan Gangster movie? Are there Tibetan gangsters?” While it is difficult to establish if there are any Tibetan gangsters, the Tibetan psyche is not far removed from the realities in which the gangster culture operates.
For one, we live in a shadow world: be it in Tibet or exile, the presiding realities offer little justification to our existence. We move not quite under the open glare of the sun but with our backs close to the wall, our toes teetering over the edge of an invisible cliff, forever suspicious of the ground beneath our feet. We are never quite born into legitimacy; legal documents forever shun us; wherever we go, our biggest worry is a piece of paper saying we exist. We cross borders but whichever country we arrive in, our names – through misspelling and mispronunciation – become the first casualty of distortion; then the rest of us follows. Our authentication comes at the cost of forgery. Forever we catch ourselves looking at ourselves, split right in the middle, each half not really trusting the other.
We are constantly skirting between ambiguity and prominence. We are always making up a new world as we leave the old one behind. Like gangsters.
Like gangsters, it comes natural to us to carve out our share from a world that is less than giving. Our ways of improvisation often eschew regulations, or plain defy logic. A Tibetan sweater seller buys his wares from Ludhiana, India’s hosiery capital, and sells them in a distant or nearby city or town, playing into the local customer’s assumption that the items are imported simply because the hawker looks Chinese, the very people responsible for the Tibetan’s misfortunes in the first place. A Tibetan woman, two weeks into arriving in the U.S. and without a work permit, helps rear the child of an American couple well embedded in their Great American Dream. Now the new transplant will have to unlearn everything she knows about raising a child, starting with having to speak with the toddler as though she were an adult and forever resisting the temptation to smack her at the slightest tantrum, as is the accepted parenting norm in the Buddhist settlement she grew up.
Not unlike gangsters, we have an unhealthy appetite for violence. In old Tibet, it was not uncommon for even monks to settle their slightest disagreements with no-hold-barred fights. An elderly former monk in Dharamsala once raised his undershirt to show me a dense crisscross of knife wounds inflicted in his youth by other monks. Today, in Toronto or New York, Tibetans gather for a celebratory dance party and live another day to distress over a fisticuff among Tibetan youngsters that had abruptly shuttered the merry-making. A couple of years ago, the main alley of Majnu-ka-Tilla in Delhi played stage to two Tibetan men duking it out to death with knives. The scene that was captured on a shaky smartphone less belonged to this world and more to “Game of Thrones.”
And then there is the leather jacket. We might rank second only to Mexicans for our penchant with this article of clothing. Even on a somber occasion such as an audience with the Dalai Lama, you will be sure to see the crowd half-awash with black leather jackets, both men and women wearing them over their traditional dresses, as though the national costume was designed around the outerwear made iconic by movie stars and, well, gangsters.
“Jigden,” however, is not interested in drawing these parallels. Instead it affects to play out like a dark and brooding version of the many gangster movies we have seen and come to love. Consequently, the film comes off like a parody, minus the fun, and is undone by the weight of its own seriousness.
Set in Queens in New York, the film centers on Tibetan mobster Singye (played by Khymsar), his conflicts with a rival gang and his tender relationship with his wayward (“degenerate,” he describes him) younger brother. In a Brandoesque voiceover (Khymsar’s), we are told Singye’s and his enemy’s gangs are behind much of the illegal operations throughout the city. Drugs, extortion, money laundering, illegal immigration, you name it. The struggle over territories have now spilled into threats and attacks on each other’s persons and close relations. There is no escaping the coming bloodshed. As the jungle law will have it: only the strong will survive.
If the film is formulaic, it is less a failing of Khymsar as it is the default trapping of any crime drama: the protagonist, looking menacing, surrounded by men in leather jackets holding shotguns; the protagonist, walking around menacingly, surrounded by men in leather jackets holding shotguns; the protagonist, barkingly menacingly into the phone, surrounded by men in leather jackets holding shotguns.
Like most pastiches, the film is compromised by its overlooking of details. A gangster film is, by essence, a procedural edifice. Behind every outburst, every act of violence, is a changing of hands (of contraband, of attaches full of dollar bills, etc.). Further behind is the scheming and planning and devising of ways. In these moments words are spoken, physical gestures made, tics and habits betrayed. These make the characters real and the interactions believable. They provide a window to a localized version of reality, a native side of human conditions, an indigenous aspect of code and honor. These, finally, make for a singular perspective, a distinct interpretation, translating into, for the audience, a refreshing viewing.
The melting pot of Queens with its teeming multitude of Tibetan and Nepalese denizens would have presented a delicious opportunity for any writer set upon fleshing out a fictional gangster world. A wondrous array of stories, of people and places, would have offered themselves up from which to mine memorable narratives, ripe to be chiseled into images of palpable pathos and urgent angst. Instead, the film largely occupies itself with filling Khymsar in the frame.
Had it been for a lesser and more self-conscious actor, this would have been disastrous. Khymsar, however, holds strong with his ferocious performance. His stare, his gait, even the pause in his speech belie an explosion waiting to happen; it is evident Khymsar has studied the likes of Brando, Pacino and De Niro. Khymsar also scores with his voiceover: his Brooklyn accent is steely of tenor, frayed at the edges, and words tumble out almost in a mumble, ala Marlon Brando. The best part about the film’s writing is the voiceover which is clever and taut and which makes for an effective introduction. You could tell Khymsar was having fun while writing the lines.
The cinematography and editing are the film’s other stronger points.
The film’s title, while mouthful, points to the filmmaker’s aspiration to attach a metaphysical, even spiritual, meaning to the drama. One scene particularly betrays that ambition. Surrounded by his coterie around the kitchen counter, Singye launches into a half speech, half stream of consciousness about the six realms of existence (Khorwa). Identifying the levels of rebirths, he, with great deliberation, enumerates the six emanations: Gods, Demon, Human, Animal, Hungry Ghost and Hell. The bombast, while being mildly delectable, in the absence of a context, peters into a let-down. You’d suspect his gang members feeling the same befuddlement when, at his parting order, they only too happily jump to their feet.
Ultimately, “Jigden” the film pales compared to the brand in the filmmaker himself. The sum of all the hustlers in the film is smaller than the hustler in Khymsar himself. There have been a few well-made and legitimately feature-length Tibetan movies, like “Dreaming Lhasa” and “We Are No Monks.” But, at least on social media, none have been marketed as brilliantly as “Jigden.” Besides Khymsar’s own heavily tagged postings, many recognizable names from our activist/writer/artist lot have helped plug the film through glowing endorsements; some, for gravitas’ sake, have thrown in names such as Michael Corleone and Akira Kurosawa. Scores of Nepalese musicians and celebrities have rallied support for the film. Even Bollywood’s Boman Irani (the actor who is in every other Indian film like Samuel L. Jackson is in every other Hollywood movie) and Leena Yadav (the acclaimed maker of “Parched”) have joined in the effort.
By comparison, Richard Gere failed to lend even a squeak when Tashi Wangchuk and his collaborators came out with their film, “Richard Gere is My Hero.”
If Khymsar is an effortless hustler, it is because he works very hard. The man is nothing if not for ideas and vision and an absolute commitment to his art. This bodes well for his future endeavors, among them, a sequel to “Jigden” that he wants to start shooting sometime soon. It is no easy job to shoot for even a 15-minute film with a cast as big and in New York, of all the places. And for a fictional drama debut, Khymsar pulls off a commendable feat (he has earlier written and directed a much superior “Journey of a Dream,” a documentary about his own life as a rock musician and activist).
Here’s hoping that the filmmaker’s next film achieves the gravitas and soul that he wanted to capture with “Jigden.”