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Osian’s Cinefan 2012 Review: Arvind Iyer’s “Drapchi”

By Utpal Borpujari • Published on July 30, 2012

[D]rapchi. For the uninitiated, a lyrical-sounding word. But for those who have been inside it, Drapchi is one of the most-dreaded places on the earth. Drapchi is the name of Lhasa’s Prison No. 1, the largest in Tibet. Converted from a Tibetan military garrison into a prison following the 1959 Tibetan uprising (officially it was made into a prison in 1965) and the flight of the Dalai Lama to India, it is where most of the political prisoners of Tibet are incarcerated. Tibetan exile groups have often alleged brutal excesses committed by the Chinese jail personnel on the inmates.

But now, the word Drapchi has another meaning too. It is the name of a new movie directed by indie filmmaker Arvind Iyer, and starring famous Tibetan singer Namgyal Lhamo. The 77-minute movie is an interesting experiment in filmmaking. It uses the format of a docu-fiction, with the characters barely speaking to each other and the narrative taken forward by a gruff voice, a voice that the film’s end reveals belong to a former espionage officer from another country. The officer is not identified in this fictional story where the real and the fictional merge seamlessly, but it is believed that he is a real-life Army man from a Western country who spent nearly a decade inside Drapchi after having been caught for alleged spying in Tibet.

It’s a film that has fictional characters who can be real Tibetan refugees fleeing their homeland. In fact, if one had not been told that the lead character of Yiga Gyalnang has been played by the Netherlands-based Lhamo, and had it not for portions where the characters briefly speak with one another, one could have easily termed this film as in intensely personal documentary where the protagonist symbolises the quiet suffering of thousands of Tibetans who trudge across the Himalayas to seek political refuge in another country.

Iyer, a noted designer who has worked with the likes of Santosh Sivan, has eschewed the path of a normal narrative in his first feature film.  He has not even spelt out clearly that Yiga, a noted traditional Tibetan opera singer, is an escapee from Drapchi. These are information that one can either guess about or find indications about in the film. For Iyer the director, these things are not overtly important in the course of the narrative, as it is already quite well-known that the Tibetans who flee their homeland are almost always political refugees, victims of persecution in their homeland.

Rather, the film, with a quiet dignity that is carried on her shoulders by Lhamo, tries to explore the inner turmoil in all those Tibetans who leave their homeland knowing fully well that perhaps they would never see it again in their lifetime. The emotional turmoil in Yiga comes through in the film through Yiga’s melancholic demeanour, and through some superb compositions that form the background score.

The film opens at a point when Yiga and a few other Tibetans are walking across a bridge over the Kosi river in Nepal, the point where the 16-km no-man’s land between Tibet and Nepal ends. It is the same place where Yiga returns to from Kathmandu towards the end of the film, before she flies off to Europe to seek an unknown future as an important political refugee. Or is it her spirit that visits the place in her dream, yearning to return home?  In the interregnum, Yiga has been befriended by a British rocker named Jack Cassady, played by Chris Constantinou, a relationship which does not follow the expected path of the two falling in love, and also by a young monk Tashi with whom she develops sort of a spiritual bonding. We hear the story of Yiga from the narrator mostly, but when it is time for the finale, one does not need words to understand the turmoil in Yiga’s mind as she longingly looks at the mountains across the bridge, where her homeland lies. She knows it is as elusive as the mountain goat whose brief glimpse she gets. She also knows she cannot return to that homeland again, unlike the pack of geese flying across the mountains for whom man-made political boundaries are meaningless. She philosophically accepts her fate and continues with her voice of protest through her powerful songs that make her popular in Europe.

Even though Lhamo herself had got her training in music at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) in Dharamsala before migrating to Europe, one gets the feeling while watching Drapchi that Yiga is her alter ego. In fact, at many places during the course of the film, it is hard to separate the real from the reel. Iyer must be given credit for the courage shown in not treading the usual path of narrative storytelling. In the tradition of true indie filmmaking, he seeks to create a world of solitude, silence and sound of music in Drapchi. And he succeeds to a great extent in his effort. Yes, Drapchi is not your usual fare on the big screen. It is experimental, and unapologetically so. It’s not a film for everyone, but those who like moody, philosophical cinema. Drapchi, which was screened at the 12thOsian’s Cinefan Film Festival in Delhi, offers several layers of thought pointers. To her credit, scriptwriter Pooja Ladha Surti, who wrote Sriram Raghavan’s Ek Hasina Thi, Johnny Gaddar and the recent Agent Vinod, has completely been able to leave her Bollywood baggage behind to create something that is beyond the ordinary.  The film has some amazing cinematography by Trevor Tweeten, and for those who have heard and loved Lhamo’s music, it offers several treats in the background score. It is a film more felt than watched.

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