By Nyay Bhushan
NEW DELHI, India - Word to Richard Gere: Things ain't what they seem in Dharamsala, the idyllic abode in North India of the exiled Dalai Lama and home to many Tibetan refugees.
The wake-up call comes from a thirtysomething Tibetan filmmaker, Pema Dhondup, whose debut digital feature, "We're No Monks," attempts to deconstruct the image of Tibetans as peaceful monks awash in Technicolor glory in Hollywood splendors such as Jean-Jacques Annaud's "Seven Years in Tibet" and Martin Scorsese's "Kundun."
Dhondup, a 2002 USC Film School graduate, says, "The plot revolves around four young, disgruntled Tibetans in Dharamsala. When a robbery leads them to be suspected by a tough, local Indian cop, the incident triggers them to do something more dramatic: They plot a mission to come to Delhi to kidnap a Chinese diplomat."
Dhondup argues that the film's portrayal of young Tibetans doing something violent is a warning of what could happen if the world ignores the current frustrations of a generation brought up in exile in India that is beginning to question the peaceful ways and the "middle path" preached by the aging Dalai Lama.
"If His Holiness sees the film, he will be shocked, but that is not my intention," says Dhondup, who is trying to organize a screening for the Dalai Lama. "I want him to see this film to be more motivated to convince the world how the nonviolent Tibetan cause can take an ugly turn."
As for Hollywood's cookie-cutter Shangrila image of Tibet, Dhondup says that it has had its pros and cons but it is now time for Tibetans to offer a realistic view. "Every Tibetan is not a monk," he says. "We can have the same vices as anybody else."
With scenes depicting young Tibetans smoking and drinking, "We're No Monks" definitely shatters preconceived notions.
But Dhondup is also ready to expand his film-making vision. He is developing a story based on a legendary Tibetan king. "It's something like a Tibetan answer to 'Lord of the Rings,"' he says.
Dhondup will first gauge how the West responds to "Monks." "A lot of resistance to this film can come from Western audiences who may want to stick to their image of Tibet," Dhondup says. "It's not just the film's content, it's also the documentary-style visuals. There's hardly any monastery or temple in the film. So the visual image of Tibet is also being broken. But the recognition has to come from the content of the film."
Or maybe Gere and other Western visitors will warm up to the idea of seeing the other side of Dharamsala on their next visit.