Drapchi. For the uninitiated, a lyrical-sounding word. But for those who have been inside it, Drapchi is one of the most-dreaded places on the earth. Drapchi is the name of Lhasa’s Prison No. 1, the largest in Tibet. Converted from a Tibetan military garrison into a prison following the 1959 Tibetan uprising (officially it was made into a prison in 1965) and the flight of the Dalai Lama to India, it is where most of the political prisoners of Tibet are incarcerated. Tibetan exile groups have often alleged brutal excesses committed by the Chinese jail personnel on the inmates.
But now, the word Drapchi has another meaning too. It is the name of a new movie directed by indie filmmaker Arvind Iyer, and starring famous Tibetan singer Namgyal Lhamo. The 77-minute movie is an interesting experiment in filmmaking. The narrative taken forward by a gruff voice, a voice that the film’s end reveals belong to a former espionage officer from another country. The officer is not identified in this fictional story where the real and the fictional merge seamlessly, but it is believed that he is a real-life Army man from a Western country who spent nearly a decade inside Drapchi after having been caught for alleged spying in Tibet.
The film, with a quiet dignity that is carried on her shoulders by Lhamo, tries to explore the inner turmoil in all those Tibetans who leave their homeland knowing fully well that perhaps they would never see it again in their lifetime. The emotional turmoil in Yiga comes through in the film through Yiga’s melancholic demeanour, and through some superb compositions that form the background score.
The film opens at a point when Yiga and a few other Tibetans are walking across a bridge over the Kosi river in Nepal, the point where the 16-km no-man’s land between Tibet and Nepal ends. It is the same place where Yiga returns to from Kathmandu towards the end of the film, before she flies off to Europe to seek an unknown future as an important political refugee. Or is it her spirit that visits the place in her dream, yearning to return home? In the interregnum, Yiga has been befriended by a British rocker named Jack Cassady, played by Chris Constantinou, a relationship which does not follow the expected path of the two falling in love, and also by a young monk Tashi with whom she develops sort of a spiritual bonding. We hear the story of Yiga from the narrator mostly, but when it is time for the finale, one does not need words to understand the turmoil in Yiga’s mind as she longingly looks at the mountains across the bridge, where her homeland lies. She knows it is as elusive as the mountain goat whose brief glimpse she gets. She also knows she cannot return to that homeland again, unlike the pack of geese flying across the mountains for whom man-made political boundaries are meaningless. She philosophically accepts her fate and continues with her voice of protest through her powerful songs that make her popular in Europe.
Even though Lhamo herself had got her training in music at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) in Dharamsala before migrating to Europe, one gets the feeling while watching Drapchi that Yiga is her alter ego. In fact, at many places during the course of the film, it is hard to separate the real from the reel. Iyer must be given credit for the courage shown in not treading the usual path of narrative storytelling. In the tradition of true indie filmmaking, he seeks to create a world of solitude, silence and sound of music in Drapchi. And he succeeds to a great extent in his effort. Yes,Drapchi is not your usual fare on the big screen. It is experimental, and unapologetically so. It’s not a film for everyone, but those who like moody, philosophical cinema.To her credit, scriptwriter Pooja Ladha Surti, who wrote Sriram Raghavan’s Ek Hasina Thi and Johnny Gaddar has completely been able to leave her Bollywood baggage behind to create something that is beyond the ordinary. The film has some amazing cinematography by Trevor Tweeten, and for those who have heard and loved Lhamo’s music, it offers several treats in the background score. It is a film more felt than watched.
Utpal Borpujari is a Film Critic/Journalist based in New Delhi,INDIA.He is the Winner of the Swarna Kamal (Golden Lotus)Award for the Best Film Critic at the 50th National Film Awards of India, 2003 and a member of the FIPRESCI jury at the 34th Montreal World Film Festival, Aug 26-Sept 6, 2010.Mr Borpujari is a member of the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI), he has served on several prestigious film juries across the world.
Drapchi, which was screened at the 12. Osian’s Cinefan Film Festival in Delhi, in the Indian Mosaic Section and was greeted with an emotional response by the audience.