Bhutan: the “cool” side

Asian Window,20 May 2010


Bhutan: the “cool” side

Namita Bhandare from Thimphu on the last day of Bhutan’s first-ever literary festival:

Namgay Zam, Bhutan television anchor

Popular culture is often a measure of a country’s social priorities and Bhutan is no different. Television was first introduced in 1999 and several speakers at Bhutan’s first literary festival have pointed to what they see as its baleful influence. TV is being blamed from everything from changing role models (the King has been ousted by 50 Cent, though Long Live the King remains the general sentiment) to wanting more anglicized names with one schoolgirl apparently renaming herself Britney from Tshering.

Tishca Chopra

There’s a flipside. Television producer and anchor Namgay Zam spoke about how TV was giving voice to creativity in the national language Dzongkha. Zam anchors an American Idol-style show called Music Spotlight on BBS, the sole Bhutanese channel. When the programme first went on air, contestants did Elton John imitations. But in the last six months or so, Zam said, an increasing number of contestants have been composing their own lyrics in Dzongkha. “It’s cool to use our national language now,” she said.

At the Lit Fest, Bollywood emerged as villain #2, after television. Tashi Gyaltsen who produced a documentary film on the life of a young girl with HIV/AIDS criticized Bhutanese film-makers for ‘picking up a broken piece of mirror from Bollywood’s vanity case’. The big question, he said, was how to ‘shake off’ Bollywood.

Thimphu has two movie halls; I am told there are eight throughout the country. There is absolutely no evidence of Bollywood films showing anywhere in the city. But hoardings for Shhh…Galuya Mallap (Don’t tell anyone) by Tshering Wangyel look suspiciously like that for any Bollywood film, complete with rosy-cheeked heroine and anguished-looking hero with one significant difference: the heroine is dressed in the traditional Bhutanese kira, the hero wears a gho.

Wangyel had spoken at the festival the previous day, so I am really pleased to recognize his name on the hoardings. “We are often accused of copying Bollywood films, but please remember song and dance and perhaps singing around trees is part of our culture too.”

Wangyel (who said his role model was Karan Johar and 3 Idiots was his favourite Hindi film) spoke about the huge influence of Bollywood but said that Thimphu had been largely successful in ‘flushing out foreign films from our local theatres’. The next step, he said, was to ‘flush out Bollywood films from our homes’. I’m not sure how well that went down with Gulzar who along with Tishca Chopra (Taare Zameen Par) has been representing Bollywood at the festival.

Gulzar has been a huge hit with the audiences; every time he stepped out of the auditorium of the Tarayana Centre, he was besieged for autographs. Tischa Chopra has had her share of schoolgirl adulation too. Dressed in a traditional kira on the last day of the festival, she posed for photographs for schoolgirls from the Yangchenphug Higher Secondary School. Clearly, this woman is not about to be flushed out of Thimphu in a hurry.

And finally, who was the beautiful, slim and elegant woman who accompanied the Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck at the last day of the festival? A frisson of excitement ran through the audience, rumour has it that she could perhaps be the next queen of the world’s youngest democracy.