Unreading happiness in Bhutan
Bhutanese filmmaker Dechen Roder insists there is much more to Bhutan than the popular happiness narrative.
Her five friends pooled in money to give her a handy cam as a farewell gift as she was set to board her flight to Bhutan from the US. That is how this filmmaker’s journey started.
Roder, who completed her graduation in History from Macalester College in Minnesota in 2004, set out to shoot solo, ignoring all the `prescribed’ norms of filmmaking in the country and without any formal film education, which she insists helped her develop her own style. “I have never regretted not studying cinema. The lack of formal education has helped me see visuals in a peculiar and intimate manner,” says this 35-year-old.
What emerged on the edit table were more than moving visuals. “I could see a strange interplay of my conscious and subconscious. I was hooked, and there was no looking back,” says Roder, whose first fiction short film, An Original Photocopy of Happiness, was nominated for Best Short Film at the Brussels International Independent Film Festival in 2012 and won the Jury Mention at the same festival. In a country strongly influenced by the Hindi film industry, complete with long song and dance sequences, telling tales in an alternate voice has always had its challenges for Roder, who admits she can count alternate filmmakers on her fingers.
“It is always tough to break norms for the fear that you may be dismissed as a rebel without a cause. But I have always wanted to tell a true tale without any ornamentation that distracts the viewer from the core. It is really tough not to follow the mainstream, especially in the face of no standardised state support and negligible corporate support,” says the filmmaker, who showed her short film, Lo Sum Choe Sum, at the Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF) held at McLeod Ganj in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, in November.
As the conversation veers towards the much hyped `happiness quotient’ in her country, the filmmaker says that though she is glad that the factor is important in the country’s scheme of things, it is high time that the international community looked at Bhutan beyond the same. “Also, internally the happiness rhetoric can really create a fatigue. Isn’t it some- thing difficult to measure? Frankly, the outside world is keeping up this rhetoric. The west really seems to be infatuated by it. I get mails from several filmmakers across the world who want to come to Bhutan and work on the happiness theme,” she says.
Roder, who co-founded and organised Bhutan’s first and only documentary and short film festival, Beskop Tshechu, which started in 2011, and is currently developing her first feature film, admits she does miss making documentary films now. “I shifted to fiction but now I miss the former for the intimacy it offered. Not to mention the fact that it offered immense scope for experimentation and did not involve many people.” Roder’s fascination towards the arts started when she was a student at Woodstock in Mussoorie, from where she graduated in 1998. “I loved the idea of producing plays. Creative communication always thrilled me at school. I guess the seeds of cinema were sown in my mind in that tiny Indian hill station.”