A Growing Industry
Small countries like Bhutan consider the film industry as an outstanding opportunity to develop its art and culture. There is growing interest in embracing new techniques, engaging new audiences and gaining new markets towards building a stronger nationa
Bhutan predominantly stayed in isolation and was not exposed to the outside world until lately. It is one of the least developed countries in South Asia, with poverty, lack of human resources, little progress and economic vulnerability. It follows the gross national happiness (GNH) index instead of the standard gross domestic product (GDP) formula to measure the well-being and happiness of its people. The GNH concept was evolved in 1972 by Bhutan’s fourth king and it adopted GNH as its main development indicator. In 2011, The UN General Assembly passed a resolution inspired by Bhutan’s vision of the happiness of its people. Bhutan’s major industries are agriculture and forestry but the film industry has also played a vital role in connecting and shaping the country’s perception in the world. In a short span, films have become a leading industry in the country.
Bhutanese cinema is young but modestly diverse compared to neighbouring countries and employs hundreds of people. What is interesting is that it is playing a strong role in establishing local content and in promoting Dzongkha (the Bhutanese language) and culture.
Bhutan's association with films began in 1989. Gasa Lamai Singye was the first film made in the local Dzongkha language by Ugyen Wangdi, the pioneer of the country's cinema. The film was based on a tragic love story and was compared to William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. After this, many local filmmakers started making films.
In 1999, Khyentse Norbu, a Tibetan lama (teacher) and filmmaker took Bhutanese cinema to America which was a feature film called ‘Phorpa’ (The Cup). It was based on the true story of a young Buddhist monk's passion for watching the world cup soccer finals on TV. Phorpa was selected for awards at the Pusan, Munich and Toronto film festivals and Norbu was mentioned as "a born filmmaker" by the New York Times.
Another film ‘Travellers and Magicians‘ was made by Norbu in 2003 which received critical acclaim. It was the first film to be shot in Bhutan. It was in the Dzongkha language with English subtitles. Some sources say that in the same year, a documentary “School Among Glaciers (Bhutan 2003)” won international awards such as “Hoso Bunka Foundation” and “Audience.” “The holder” a short film was shown at the Cannes and Brussels Film Festival.
From then onwards, the film industry in Bhutan has flourished.
The industry is generally inspired by Indian films. The mainstream cinema is primarily based on commercial films involving love themes. Some films are combinations of social issues, traditional central plots, songs, dances, complicated relations and fights. The art film has also shown some progress in Bhutan.
Since 2010, films from Bhutan have appeared more frequently at film festivals. The “Beskop Film Festival” is organised by local filmmakers for short Bhutanese films. It opens a gateway for film professionals and cultural entrepreneurs from Australia, USA, South Korea, Japan, Denmark and other countries.
The film “Jig Drel” made in 1997 had songs and music like Indian films. The film actually transformed the film scenario in Bhutan. It was then that the Bhutanese cinema became an industry and also gave some kind of a star status to actors, according to Sherub Gyaltshen, general secretary of thehe Motion Picture Association of Bhutan. .
A boom followed, mainly because se of independent filmmakers and d the Bhutan Film Trust, a non-profit fit organisation which supports talented d Bhutanese film professionals. A new w film association, Cine Bhutan, was s launched in 2015 to promote and d protect films. The information andd communications minister of Bhutan also established a film commission responsible for advertising, development and support for the audio-visual and film industry.
Funded by the government, the construction of a four-storey complex specifically for filmmaking is another milestone of the film industry in Bhutan. It houses offices es of the Bhutan Film Association, classrooms, a conference centre, film studios, etc. It has been designed to provide filmmakers with a controlled environment in which to shoot films and to further improve filmmaking in Bhutan.
“We have been working on our computers for sound designing and when shown on the big screen, the sound is different. The same goes with colour grading. This is challenging because if we screen our movies abroad, the colour and sound really matter,” says Mila Tobgyel, President of the Bhutan Film Association.
The Bhutan Film Association (BFA) is persuading the government to amend the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) policy to remove films from the negative list which is a hurdle to attracting international investment in the film sector and open up foreign markets for Bhutanese films. The demand for local films is rising in the major cities of Bhutan and Indian and American films are mainly being watched in the rural areas. Foreign films are largely not shown in Thimphu (capital city) cinemas because Bhutanese audiences demand their own films.
A good way to progress in filmmaking is international collaborations and coproductions. Bhutanese filmmakers have been recognized internationally and their films are shown at notable international film festival venues such as Cannes, Brussels, South Korea and Busan.
The Bhutan film industry has certainly evolved but it faces the same old challenges such as lack of financial resources and absence of theatres outside major cities (Thimphu, Paro Phuentsholing and Gelephu). The industry has to come up with films that would connect local audiences and also not go in India’s footsteps.
The four-storey complex will help improve the technical quality of films Made in Bhutan and will also efficiently draw attention of overseas filmmakers, investors and film professionals. This would go a long way in improving Bhutanese tourism, language and culture.
Says Pema Rinzin, a well-known Bhutanese filmmaker: "The Bhutanese film industry is growing, committed and the zeal to make films focusing on culture and traditions is our hallmark.”
A country where filmmaking started as a leisure pursuit mainly on handheld camcorders, is now being being acknowledged and appreciated worldwide. The film industry in Bhutan has become a lucrative business.