Buddha in films – a new message of amity in troubled world, says filmmaker Gautam Ghose

India-Cinema/Culture/Spirituality

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By Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi

The terrible violence racking the globe, human dilemmas about faith, cultures and the new technology that has created one world on the Internet have led to a strange dichotomy in acceptance of one another —understanding of faiths and cultures is still riddled with doubts over compatibility. In this troubled globalised milieu, Buddhism is providing a lifestyle shelter to young people, who are being increasingly drawn to the open faith, says Gautam Ghose, an internationally acclaimed filmmaker from Bengal.

Ghose, who was in New Delhi for the Inner Path- Festival of Buddhism from Sept 6 to Sept 10 walked the audience through his 2004 documentary, “Impermanence”, a 60-minute documentary on the life of Tenzin Gyatso or the Dalai Lama that addresses the question of suffering between life and death  through the discourses and wisdom of the Dalai Lama.

“I have a sort of feeling that young people are drawn to Buddhism because of the turbulence. The Internet might have brought the world together but there is still a lot of divide between caste, religion and communities. The clash of civilization is still on. The only alternative is peace,” Ghose told this writer in an interview.

Recalling an example from history, Ghose said “Someone had once asked Gandhiji, ‘could you tell us which way do we go for peace… That is the main reason why people are interested in Buddhism,” the filmmaker said. Ghose, a filmmaker of refined sensibilities, is known for his powerful narratives in socially-pertinent feature movies like Paar (1984), Antarjali Yatra (1987), Padma Nadir Manjhi (1992) and Yatra (2006). His documentaries on the life Ustad Bismillah Khan and the Dalai Lama have earned him critical fame.

In keeping with his fascination for story-telling, the 63-year-old filmmaker finds Buddhism a fertile repository of stories. At a time when most filmmakers have been scrambling to put together credible stories, “Buddhism is full of parables, fables and analogies”, he says.

“We must not forget that India was once a Buddhist country along with Afghanistan. People have been living through a system of centuries, Ghose points out to explain the relevance of Buddhism in the country’s culture and its popular showcases. People, who are Buddhist monks, “have their own contradictions like any other human race”. “Buddhist societies have their own inner conflicts. Attaining enlightenment is a very difficult path because we are born with dualities. That is human nature,” the filmmaker points out.

This conflict is also the essence of the emerging oeuvre of Buddhist cinema – an independent genre of films in Asia and around the world that is scooping out a strong toehold for itself in the mainstream cinema circuit on the strength of spiritually-relevant narrative, deep philosophies, spectacular locales, lyrical cinematography and haunting musical scores – the Buddhist chants and the quaint melodies of the Himalayas and the central Asian Buddhist plains where cultures flourished exclusive of urban interference in its pristine ethnicity, the filmmaker suggests.

The genre of Buddhist cinema – or movies with Buddhist themes – owes much of its creative growth to the west, especially Hollywood with die-hard votaries like Richard Gere, Sharon Stone, Steven Seagal, Oliver Stone, Tina Turner and Orlando Bloom, who have collaborated with the Tibetan Buddhist filmmakers and the Himachal Pradesh-based Dalai Lama to push creativity and Buddhist spirituality to chart new frontiers. Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Little Buddha” in 1993 opened large sections to European audiences to legacy of the 2500-year-old faith and its icon, Siddharth Gautama- the Buddha.               

The Buddhist Film Foundation, a California-based Buddhist film resource centre has been hosting the International Buddhist Film Festival (IBFF) for the last 10 years since 2003. The non-profit platform has a four objectives — exhibition of Buddhist movies and video footage, education in aspects of filmmaking, production aids to promote quality and generate resources and preservation — of Buddhist cinema. It works with a committee of expert volunteers from around the world like Richard Gere, Philip Glass, Pico Iyer and Michael O’ Keefe.

At the Inner Path – Festival of Buddhism 2013 in New Delhi, an independent showcase of Buddhist film by a forum of culture activists led by noted film writer and critic Aruna Vasudev (the spearhead of the Indian chapter of Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema – NETPAC), the draw was movies — nearly 25 movies screened over 4 days together with Buddhist music, art displays and discourses. It brought the latest and best from the international circuits like “The Silent Holy Stones”, “Kanzeon”, “Tulku”, “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter …And Spring”, “Three Marks of Existence” and “The Yellow Robe” and “Rolling Home With a Bull”.

Ghosh’s “Impermanence” was the concluding movie of the festival.

“Impermanence” for Ghose began on the silk route which he had traversed in the early Nineties for a five-hour feature on the ancient trade route. “I covered the length and breadth of Tibet in course of shooting the Silk Road. I realized that people still revered the Dalai Lama as a guru in Tibet,” Ghose recalled.

In a way, Tibet had changed, but the Dalai Lama was still the spiritual leader. “I thought I should meet him. I first shot the Dalai Lama in Dharamshala in 1998  – some interviews and discourses. I followed him for a couple of years in between my own movies. The documentary was produced by a friend of mine from Italy… He told me to take my time,” Ghosh said – walking down time.

The best part of the filmmaking process was the fact that Ghose met the Dalai Lama before and after 9/11. It marked a change in approach to life – the seer was more compassionate and “our lives had changed forever,” the filmmaker said.

While making the movie, Ghose realized the “impermanence of life and the need for compassion”. “That is why I decided to name my movie Impermanence based on the Buddhist tenet that everything is interdependent and nothing is permanent,” he said.

The filmmaker, who explores themes like caste, politics, social trends, domestic angst and cultural history in his movies, argues that “spirituality is coming to movies in new subtle ways”. “Globalisation has created new situations. There is a difference between internationalism and globalization. Internationalism is about exchange and understanding of culture spontaneously. Globalisation, on its part, is a headquartered in the west. The forces of globalization want top globalise the entire world into a homogenous cultural village based on markets. They want to globalise the markets,” Ghose contended.

The forces of globalization have their cultural backgrounds that clash with the cultures of their global colonies. “This leads to fundamentalism – because of the interference. Unknowingly, there is new resistance. This resistance is sometime positive, sometime negative,” he said.

Citing examples of counter-globalisation, Ghose points to Europe where Muslim girls “want their hijab back once again”. “It is a symbol of their identity- a resistance and spiritual backlash against the unilateral kind of approach to the world by powerful coteries of globalization. We have to preach the message of compassion and brotherhood so that you stop killing your own brother. Buddhism preaches this peace,” Ghose said, digging into the roots of contemporary conflicts that has crept into cinema, entertainment and arts as well.

The filmmaker objects to the segregation of cinema into regional, mainstream and art house. “The common people in India are not aware of their constitutional rights – the right to free speech. Each and every language is national and Constitutional, we have a couple of link languages. All regional cinema is national cinema. The point I am trying to make is that is distinction has been created by the markets – the strong industries like Hollywood and Bollywood have taken over weak industries. Cinema has a tremendous power, it could serve another purpose. Cinema could record the memories of people and time,” he said.

In 1924, Hollywood movie D.W. Griffith wrote in an article , “The Movies 100 Years from Now” that the new marvel could change world. He spoke of a different kind of globalization where people would come to know each other through films – his utopia. But since 1930s till date, the world has suffered conflicts from the World Wars, Korea Vietnam and Syria. “Griffith did not work. Instead American cinema conquered the world- it could not change the world,” Ghose added on a note of lament.

Buddhist cinema can bind – may be some day.

New Movie

Gautam Ghose is working on a new cross-over film- an Indo-Italian production, “Lala” – trilinguial production in English, Hindi and Italian, based on an Italian short story about a courageous Indian boy and his encounters with a sensitive writer. It is set in India.      

 

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