NEW DELHI — The silence of the lama has proved short-lived — Bhutanese spiritual leader-turned-film director Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, who won international acclaim in 2000 with his movie “The Cup,” is readying another dose of his Himalayan magic.
Unlike the offbeat “Cup,” which attempted to portray Buddhist monks as humans like anyone else — complete with a passion for World Cup football — “Travellers and Magicians” carries a more philosophic message, Rinpoche says.
“The message is that the grass often is not greener on the other side at all, but is in fact greener on your own side,” says the filmmaker, one of Himalayan Buddhism’s most revered lamas (believed to be the reincarnation of a 19th-century Tibetan saint).
He makes no apologies for the spiritual bias in the $1.8 million “Travellers.”
“I have been brainwashed by Buddhist society, so my stories will always be influenced by Buddhism,” Rinpoche told Variety in an interview in New Delhi.
The inspiration for “Travellers,” he says, came from observing groups of people awaiting scarce transport in eastern Bhutan, a little-explored Himalayan kingdom bordering India and Tibet.
“Sometimes they wait for days, but they are not frustrated. They appear quite happy, and they picnic and swap tales.”
In his film, which premieres Aug. 2 in the Bhutanese capital Thimphu, a young man fed up with life in his village decides to head for the U.S., where, he has heard, he can earn a fortune picking grapes.
On the roadside awaiting a lift, he meets a group of travelers, among them a Buddhist monk, who begins to interweave a story of travelers — one earthly, the other magical. The two-month shoot last October and November offered many challenges, mainly due to the difficult terrain facing trucks carrying the filming equipment, but according to those on the set, the 41-year-old Rinpoche was “unflappable.”
“He wore his robes and a baseball cap and was always talking into his walkie-talkie,” says U.S.-based Noa Jones, who is writing a book about the making of the movie.
“Every time something went wrong, he would just take it in his stride — at times even seeming gleeful. He never got tense.”
The main camera went crashing when the tripod slipped, a main actor who had been chosen by Rinpoche while he was selling souvenirs on a roadside disappeared and an 81-year-old apple farmer who was chosen to play the role of an 81-year-old apple farmer failed to realize he was in a movie.
“He thought it was all for real. When we had a scene where the truck broke down, which we had to repeat a number of times, he berated us, saying we should get a truck that didn’t keep breaking down,” says Rinpoche.
Rinpoche says he was inspired by the low-budget success “El Mariachi” to try his first film, “The Cup.”
He believes movies can be used to “carry a message” — but his major filmmaking goal is to make a movie on the life of Buddha.
“It will cost millions and it will be a financial flop, because I will not have someone like Brad Pitt playing the Buddha,” says the spiritual leader who offers teaching courses at various centers around the world.
“I will look for someone in India or Nepal or maybe even Bhutan to play the Buddha. No one will come to watch the movie — but it must be made,” he says.
“Travellers” was shot digitally in 16mm by American d.p. Alan Kozlowski and has been blown up to 35mm. Dialogue is in the Bhutanese national language, Dzongka, with English subtitles. Rinpoche says he has European, and to a lesser extent, U.S. audiences in mind.
Of the crew and cast of 108, only 16 were Westerners. Rinpoche wanted to promote Bhutan’s own filmmaking, which he says is “too heavily based on Bollywood.”
Rinpoche has seven other movie ideas in mind, which he says would be used to generate funds to finance his main project on the life of the Buddha.
“It’s going to take a lot of money because we have to do it properly. We are going to need 500 elephants, 500 horses and a cast of thousands. Right now I am merely building up my C.V.,” he says.