Bhutanese filmmaker Khyentse Norbu’s feature directorial debut The Cup (1999) became an international sensation after its premiere screening at the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious Director’s Fortnight. It went on to win critical acclaim and awards at major festivals worldwide, including Sundance, Toronto, and Busan. Norbu’s second film, Travellers & Magicians (2003), was the first full-length feature film shot in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan. Travellers & Magicians premiered at the Venice International Film Festival and went on to the Toronto and Busan International Film Festivals, before its international release.
His latest films are Vara: A Blessing (2013) and most recently, Hema Hema: Sing Me a Song While I Wait (2017). He is the author of the books What Makes You Not a Buddhist (Shambhala, 2007); Not for Happiness: A Guide to the So-Called Preliminary Practices (Shambhala, 2012); The Guru Drinks Bourbon (Shambhala, 2016) and his other books like Teachings on Ngöndro, Parting from the Four Attachments, What to do at India’s Buddhist Holy Sites, Buddha Nature, Introduction to the Middle Way are also available in the publication mailing list for free distribution if requested at the website siddharthasintent. https://www.siddharthasintent.org/resources/publications/ He is the eldest son of Thinley Norbu grandson of Dudjom Jigdral Yeshe Dorje and mother Jamyang Choden. Rinpoche has teachers from all four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism and is the embodiment of Authentic Rime (Non-secterian) Master of our time and he considers Dilgo Khyentse as his main guru. He is the primary custodian of the teachings of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo.
“I am not a filmmaker exclusively, and I never could aspire to be. I am duty-bound by my first profession as a Buddhist teacher. But I have always been a dedicated fan of this art form—cinema. I can see the impact of the moving image and sound, how it can influence people on a conscious and subconscious level.
I am also a big fan of India, its culture and its profound wisdom traditions. There are some things you can experience there and no place else. Through this film, Vara, I hope to give the audience just a little sense of this incredible India.In India you meet people with an incredible power of devotion and trust, you see an acceptance of merging fantasy and reality. The average person has no problem believing that an elephant could ride on a mouse, for example. In my opinion, this ability to believe is a strength, not a weakness. Lack of it can make life very depressing and empty.
India is also where the Buddha was born, and I feel an affinity with many of the Hindu practices that still exist today. We share a lot of the same imagery and rituals. For example, there is deity named Saraswati who is shared by Hindus and Buddhists alike. She is the goddess of creativity. In a roundabout way I have her to thank for inspiring this story. In Vara you also will find the appearance of Krishna, who is not considered part of the Buddhist tradition.
I love Indian literature. Sunil Gangopadhyay is one of my favorite authors, and Vara is based on his short story Rakta Aar Kana (translated as Blood and Tears). But Blood and Tears doesn’t have that dance element, the whole Lila part of the story is not there. I could not make a tribute to India without including classical dance. I’ve always been fascinated by Bharatnatyam, such a beautiful art form. My knowledge of the tradition is almost nonexistent, but my feeling about it is inexpressibly vast.
I went to South India to visit several dance schools and that sealed my determination to incorporate the dance. But first we would have to find a dancer.
We tried to cast Lila, the lead character, first, and the first reel we saw was Shahana Goswami’s. We were so impressed, but we felt that we had to keep looking. How could we trust such beginner’s luck? We held many casting sessions from Mumbai to New York City and saw numerous beautiful and talented actresses, but none was perfect for Lila. Then we were in Sri Lanka for location scouting and Shahana happened to be there shooting Midnight’s Children. She managed to squeeze in some time to see me in person. When we saw her casually strolling up in her jeans, with her particular style and demeanor, her physical presence made such a strong impact. Even though we had continued looking for the right Lila, I realized we had actually been looking for Shanhana Goswami all along. She was the one.
Some people have asked why we chose to shoot in Sri Lanka when the story is set in India. This is mainly because there is this assumption that working in India is difficult with its bureaucracy. Sri Lanka proved not to be that easy either, but no doubt the landscape was so magnificent and spectacular, it was worth the headaches.
My two other films, The Cup, and Travellers and Magicians were essentially made in my backyard. I could practically roll out of bed and go to the set. The people I worked with were from a culture I know very well; I am always surrounded by monastic people, I am Bhutanese. But Vara was altogether a different ball game. As many know, it’s difficult to know a culture from the outside. On top of that, I picked the difficult subjects of caste and classical dance.
In my other films, the members of the cast were my neighbors or my monks or my friends. But in Vara for the first time I worked with professional actors. Also, the crew was made up of talented professionals from around the world, people I had never met and who did not view me as a Rinpoche or spiritual guide. This was a deliberate choice. I wanted to see what it was like to work with people who didn’t have certain fixed ideas about me because of my other job in the spiritual world. I learned so much from them.
Each of my films has added to my experience, broadening my understanding of telling stories through pictures. My hope is that this is leading me to my ultimate wish—to make a film about the life of the Buddha. It’s a big dream that will involve not only quite an expense if we are to do it right, but also a lot of skill, because the subject matter is just beyond concept. Nevertheless, this desire remains. In the meantime, I enjoy making small independent films. In my view, each one is a kind of a stepping stone to this ultimate project.
One of my biggest lessons working on this film came in the editing room. When we were searching for an editor, a friend told me that William Chang is an amazingly talented man, but, he warned, if you want to tell a story with a narrative, think twice. If, however, you would be happy with a film that doesn’t necessarily make sense but sends the audience out of the theater with an inexplicable haunting feeling, maybe William Chang is the best. I would say his advice was spot on. It seemed to me that William Chang is almost against making sense, or at least not in a conventional way. And I have to say that I learned a lot looking at the editing process through his eyes.
I do hope to continue living this double life as a teacher and filmmaker. My students have been very patient with me. After watching me make these films, and many other nontraditional things that I do, they seem to have gotten used to it. But over the recent years my responsibilities as a Buddhist have doubled and tripled. Often times it’s very challenging; but I must say that my religious duties will always take precedence. “