Banking on buddhism – India Today



It’s a bit like Little Italy in Kathmandu these days. Even the waiters of Yak and Yeti, the hotel the enigmatic director Bernardo Bertolucci and hisLittle Buddhafilm unit have made home for the last two months, have addedarrivedericis andgracias to their vocabulary.

A few are also trying their hand at being casting scouts – looking for two little “Brahmin boys with bright eyes” to play lamas in the film. And the pasta dishes have a nice zing these days.

As for Bertolucci himself, the tall and rugged-looking director sent the censor’s eyebrows skywards with provocative films like The Last Tango in Paris and La Luna, and made celluloid history with 1900 and The Last Emperor.

But he’s probably the most invisible VVIP in Kathmandu, leaving the hotel after dawn or staying holed up alone in the penthouse suite with his notes and faxes from Europe.

That is if he’s not disappearing into Bhutan on a location-hunting recce, as he did last fortnight. Part of the film may be shot in some Chinese monasteries. And the film unit was even considering shooting part of it in India.

the shrine at Bouddha

As for the stars and the story ofLittle Buddha, they must be the best-kept secrets in this little Hindu kingdom nestling in the foothills of the Himalayas. The Government of Nepal has not even asked for the script of the film.

A precedent. The hotel only lists “actor, actress…” in its reservations charts – and the buzz around town is that Kevin Costner is expected. Mystery surrounds the two young children coming from Seattle, Washington.

There is an impenetrable curtain of silence drawn across the Little Buddha. Yet, Bertolucci’s men work long days re-creating Kapilavastu in corners of Kathmandu and throughout Nepal. They are fanning out to the various Buddhist shrines and even erecting a set in Lumbini, 170 km south of Kathmandu, the birth place of the Buddha.

With Bertolucci like an ominous guild master from the days of the Renaissance, old worlds are conjured up in Patan, Bhaktapur, Gokurna Park, Bouddha and Lumbini, even in monasteries – as far away as Jomson.

Nearly 30 carpenters and craftsmen from Italy are working closely with Nepalese carpenters in the master workshop in Patan’s industrial estate, where entire palaces are being constructed to be shipped elsewhere. For example, Hanuman Dhoka in the heart of Kathmandu is being re-created here because it would be impossible to film in the busy square.

So while the workers chip away at the wood and bamboo – with an architect from London faxing detailed blueprints of the palaces to be re-created – the Nepalese Government is watching from a distance.

With great expectations. And with an unheard of carte blanche for Bertolucci. The director has had an audience with the King and Queen, and met the prime minister too. The ministeries concerned have waived cumbersome and costly procedures for importing film and certain duties.

Why is he being treated like an emperor? Vijay Kumar Gachchadar, the minister of state for communications, explains that the film will do wonders for tourism in Nepal. And also inject a significant amount of money into the economy: “They will spend about $44 million here. Almost 400 people will be employed by them and they have even set up a temporary film laboratory here.”

The minister, however, may be a little over-enthusiastic: the stars’ salaries could be included in the figure quoted, and some 20 Indians will also to be working in the film.

A senior bureaucrat is more candid: “The Little Buddha will do for Nepal what The Last Emperor did for China and what the Department of Tourism has never done for Nepal.” Certainly, the cash flow has begun.

The Yak and Yeti alone will have registered 9,000 tourists by the time the film shooting is over in mid-December. And when Bertolucci’s whole unit – nearly 500 from Europe – arrives in the third week of September, the cash registers won’t stop ringing.

The Nepalese expect a windfall, for they have implicit faith in the director’s ability to put Nepal on the international film-making map, and are impressed by the proven track record of the dynamic producer Jeremy Thomas, amajor galvanising figure behind The Last Emperor.

Sets being erected in Bhaktapur

Bertolucci has also been careful not to tread on any toes. The film unit made generous contributions to old Buddhist centres like Bouddha.

Gyan Bahadur Nyachain, mayor of Bhaktapur where a summer palace will be erected in the Darbar Square, told India Today that he was given an assurance that the film makers would respect their temple complex and sentiments. The Archaeological Survey of Nepal has insisted that the walls of temples and monasteries should not be touched – hence the plywood and fibreglass replicas.

The big mystery, of course, remains the story-line of the film. It is obviously not the life of the Buddha – no retreading Herman Hesse territory. In fact, only about a quarter of the film relates to the Buddha’s life, according to a Nepalese cineaste who has seen the synopsis.

And that too as part of a monk’s explanation of Buddhism to an American. Rather, the film is about Buddhism, a currently hot topic in the West with matinee idols like Richard Gere and Harrison Ford choosing the eightfold path and the number of occidental Buddhists growing rapidly.

Bertolucci’s certainly chosen a subject of wide and widening international appeal. And by bringing Americans into the picture, he has a ready-made international audience and Oscar possibilities. Apparently, the film revolves around an American who comes to the subcontinent and is fascinated by the lives of Buddhist monks.

But the real gist of the film may be something entirely different. The Nepalese grape-vine has it that the film is about an American child who is a reincarnated lama. The film’s title would certainly indicate so. In fact, brochures of the film show two of those startlingly blue eyes from the Bouddha shrine floating over the skyscrapers of New York. Little Buddha’s watching.

According to the reputed Italian newsmagazine, L’Espresso, the film is about an American child believed to be the reincarnation of an important lama. A Buddhist monk traces him to New York, brings him back and tutors him about his past and Buddhism.

The article claims Bertolucci was inspired by the story of the Spanish child who was taken to Dharamsala in the mid ’80s, supposedly because he was a reincarnated lama.

Whatever be the story, the irony is that Bertolucci chose the world’s only Hindu state to make a film on Buddhism.


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