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Pema Tseden (1969-2023): the Tibetan visionary filmmaker who gifted the world of cinema with his gushing ‘waterfall of youth’ by founding Tibetan cinema.

Mrudula Tuesday February 20, 2024

On September 7, 2023, at the Venice Biennale, I had the privilege of attending the screening of Snow Leopard, the last film by late Tibetan director Pema Tseden (1969-2023). His sudden demise on May 8, 2023, at the age of 53, left the world of cinema bereft of one of his most talented children. It was a deeply touching experience to witness the unceasing standing ovation at the end of the film, with Pema’s cast and crew (among them also his own son) receiving this heartfelt and sincere homage to the father of Tibetan cinema. During the last few years, Pema Tseden had been selected and presented three films at the Venice Biennale: his masterpieces Tharlo (2015) and Jinpa (2018) had premiered in the section Horizons, and now his ultimate artistic effort, Snow Leopard, was being presented, out of competition, at the 36th edition of the festival. The large Corinto Hall was packed with spectators who had discovered this gentle, discreet and gifted Tibetan filmmaker, gradually learning to love his films’ aesthetics and the ethics imbued in them. The hall was soon filled with emotion and a sense of great nostalgia for the loss of the artist whose literary and visual narratives on the conundrum of ‘modernity’ in Tibet had already enriched the world of Tibetan arts and global cinema at large. The bold acting and the delicate beauty of Snow Leopard’s composition reminded the audience that Pema Tseden had not been a fleeting star disappearing on an ephemeral horizon. On the contrary, he had successfully outlined his own trajectory as a shooting star who managed to fulfill the wish of projecting Tibet on screen through a new, provocative, and evocative language. 

From his debut film The Grassland (2004) to the emblematic The Silent Holy Stones (2005), from the soul-stirring The Search (2009)  to the tragic Old Dog (2011), from the challenging  Tharlo (2015) to the enigmatic Jinpa (2019), Pema Tseden’s cinema did not shy away from addressing the difficulties and the plight of Tibetans in a time of enforced transitions and dramatic change. As the Chairman of the Directors Association of China and one of the most respected members of China’s Filmmakers and Literary Societies, Pema worked alongside other brilliant minds with a passion and a courage matched only by his honesty and sense of dignity. He was a skillful filmmaker and an organic intellectual who operated in the experimental theatre of ‘modernity’, never falling pray to the vicious demands of politics or the pressures of commercializing his works. Gracefully taking up the challenge of bringing on screen also the arduous lives of Tibetan women caught in between religious demands and political imperatives, in his film Balloon (2019) Pema used his ability to  delicately tackle individual despair and conveyed a nuanced portrayal of a woman’s fight to reclaim agency on her own body. 

Applauding his wonderful achievements at the end of the screening of Snow Leopard (2023), possibly the most spiritual of his films, I felt a surge of uncontainable admiration for this acclaimed Tibetan director who had become an inspiration for young Tibetans dreaming of making films. Like other great Tibetan figures before him, Pema Tseden had become a master and a point of reference. Limitlessly visionary and yet pragmatic, jostling the balance between what the past teaches and the future promises, he inherited the iconoclastic but never cynical gaze of Gendün Chöphel (1903–1951) and the lyrical but never romanticized narrative style of Dhondup Gyal (1953–1985). With their roots strongly planted in the soil of Amdo and their branches and leaves reaching out for a global horizon, these iconic figures of modern Tibet lived short but intense lives dedicated to debunking the myth of a mystical Tibet. Their commitment towards finding original and path-breaking ways to write anew Tibetan history has been matched by Pema’s undaunted stance in portraying the complexity of Tibetan culture and society through his films and short stories. 

Pema shared with the renegade monk Gendün Chöphel the surgical precision of the cultural historian, while following the feral howl of Dhondup Gyal’s poetry in delivering heart wrenching narratives. Like Dhondup Gyal presaged in his celebrated poem “Waterfall of Youth”, “the sound of youthful waterfall does not fade away”. In the same manner, Pema Tseden’s film legacy and cinematic masterworks will not wane from the minds of cinema lovers. His films will continue to offer a powerful, refreshing, elegant, and intense portrait of contemporary Tibet, occupying a unique space in the history of world cinema.

- Written by Mara Matta

Jean-Marc Thérouanne on Prasanna Vithanage's Paradise

Mrudula Wednesday December 20, 2023

I first met Prasanna Vithanage in 1997 at the Fribourg International Film Festival. He was presenting "Death on a Full Moon Day," and it was, for me, an aesthetic shock. I admired Prasanna Vithanage's subtle analysis of the complexity of feelings and the subtlety of his direction. 

Since then, several of his films have been shown at the Vesoul International Film Festival of Asian Cinema: "Walls Within," "August Sun," "Flowers of the Sky," "With you, Without you," "Children of the Sun," where he won numerous awards: Cyclo d'Or, Jury Prize,  Netpac Prize, ... I couldn't wait to see the world premiere of his latest opus, "Paradise," at the 28th Busan International Film Festival in early October 2023. Comfortably seated in an armchair at the Busan Cinema Center, I was initially taken aback by the first images, which seemed to come out of a tourist advertising clip. Very quickly, behind the travel agency clichés, the harsh reality experienced by the Sri Lankan population was revealed. 

Director, Prasanna Vithanage
Director, Prasanna Vithanage

A country that declared itself bankrupt in April 2022. Prasanna Vithanage deftly chooses to tell the story of an upper-middle-class Indian tourist couple on vacation in Sri Lanka. The husband is an Indian producer, aware of his class and caste, while the wife is a journalist with a humanistic view of the world. She is the gaze of innocence on the brutality of the world. The husband seems more preoccupied with his business than discovering Sri Lanka's mystical historical sites. A cultured driver takes them from site to site. At the very start of their trip, they are attacked in their hotel room. The thieves took all the couple's audiovisual equipment. The couple went to the police station. What follows is a meticulous description of the husband's behavior: too assertive, too sure of himself, too domineering, too full of himself, confusing rigidity with rigor. In counterpoint, his wife is restrained, sensitive to the injustice that could result from a peremptory accusation. The husband's supposed identification of a group of suspects from the lumpenproletariat as the alleged thieves sets off a spiral of violence. Suspicion and unjustified brutality towards members of ethnic or religious minorities on the part of state officials fueled by class and race prejudices are analyzed with a masterly scalpel. 

Paradise movie poster
Paradise movie poster

The contrast between the beauty of nature, the majesty of a mountain deer, and the corruption of society is striking. The lies and bestiality of human beings fuel their downfall. They create a revolt against the established order. The build-up of social tension is palpable throughout the film, right up to the fatal epilogue where innocence unwillingly becomes criminal in the face of unbearable injustice. This film is by the great Prasanna Vithanage, rightly awarded the Jiseok Award. 

Aribam Syam Sharma: A Maestro of Manipuri Cinema and the Timeless Beauty of "Ishanou"

Mrudula Sunday July 16, 2023

The North East region of India is renowned for its rich cultural heritage and artistic  contributions, and the veteran film maker Aribam Syam Sharma stands as a prominent  figure in the realm of Manipuri cinema. With a celebrated career spanning several  decades, Sharma has made invaluable contributions to the world of filmmaking, capturing the essence of Manipuri culture and presenting it to a global audience. One of his seminal works, Ishanou, recently garnered international recognition when a restored print of the film was screened at the illustrious 76th Cannes International Film Festival in May 2023, thanks to the efforts of the India Heritage Foundation. It however had already the honour of being screened in the Un Certain Regard section of the festival in 1991, and had the privilege of being invited to a number of International film festivals at that time of its release. 

Born on July 6, 1936, in Imphal, Manipur, Aribam Syam Sharma's artistic journey began in  the early 1960s. He graduated with a degree in Political Science from St. Edmund's  College, Shillong, and later pursued a diploma in Film Direction from the Film and  Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune. Sharma's passion for storytelling and his deep rooted connection to Manipuri culture fueled his drive to bring Manipuri cinema to the  forefront of the Independent Indian films of Artistic merit. 

Maestro of Manipuri Cinema Aribam Syam Sharma's movie "Ishanou" poster
Maestro of Manipuri Cinema Aribam Syam Sharma's movie "Ishanou" poster

 

Aribam Syam Sharma's filmography boasts a diverse range of films, characterised by his  distinct directorial style and a profound exploration of social and cultural issues. Some of  his notable works include Imagi Ningthem (My Son, My Precious, 1981), Ishanou (The  Chosen One, 1990), Sangai: The Dancing Deer of Manipur (2016), and Gun for Sale  (2020). Through his films, Sharma has successfully portrayed the struggles, aspirations,  and beauty of Manipuri society. 

Among his numerous works, Ishanou holds a special place in Aribam Syam Sharma's  filmography. Released in 1990, the film captures the essence of Manipuri society through a poignant story of love and sorrow set with a background of Manipur’s traditional Music, ethnic daily life of Maibi sect deeply rooted in faith and beliefs bordering on Occult and even some irrationalities. It is special because it not only showcases the entire spectrum of talents in the domains of Music, Song writing, Singing, Theatre Direction, Philosophical Explorations etc., of the film maker but also blends it into a holistic expression through organic imagery of ethnographic documentation. 

Ishanou beautifully explores themes of tradition, social hierarchy, and also the artistic possibilities of the film medium. Sharma's masterful storytelling, coupled with a rich screenplay by the famed Manipuri writer M. K. Binodini, the vibrant performances of the  lead actors, breathes life into the characters and their struggles. The film's meticulous  attention to detail in depicting Manipuri cultural practices and rituals adds to its  authenticity and emotional depth. Ishanou not only showcases Sharma's directorial  finesse but also serves as a testament to the rich cultural heritage of Manipur. 

The restoration of Ishanou by the India Heritage Foundation breathed new life into the  film, ensuring its preservation for future generations. The Foundation's commitment to  safeguarding India's cinematic heritage is commendable, and their collaboration with  Aribam Syam Sharma allowed the film to reach a wider audience on a global platform after a gap of three decades. 

The screening of the restored print of Ishanou at the 76th Cannes International Film Festival marked a momentous occasion for not only Manipuri cinema but for the entire  Indian Cinema of different regions which in reality is the representative of Indian life in  plurality and cultural diversity. The film's inclusion in such a prestigious event not only  highlights the talent and vision of Aribam Syam Sharma but also emphasises the need to  spread the range and varied canvas of Indian Cinema in such global platforms. Incidentally, it is good to remember that Film Heritage Foundation’s restored version of  illustrious Malayalam film maker G. Aravindan’s 1978 film Thamp̄u was screened at the Cannes Classics section in 2022. 

 

By N. Vidyashankar 

Talking Asian Cinema - With Aruna Vasudev

System Administrator Tuesday December 21, 2021
The seed for starting a journal on the cinemas of Asia - with contributors from the various countries like Tadao Sato from Japan, Li Cheuk to from Hong Kong, Ashley from Sri Lanka etc - was planted and became a driving passion. The information available in the pages of Cinemaya is invaluable.

Embracing the Unknowable 

System Administrator Tuesday September 7, 2021
Even for many of us who are followers of South-east Asian cinema, the terrain can still remain unfamiliar, even though well-trodden. When you encounter a film such as Anatomy of Time (World Premiere at the Venice Film Festival on Sept 9, 2021) that encompasses religion, philosophy, politics, history, cinema and more, one feels the pleasure of swimming in unknown waters yet again. Philip Cheah speaks to the film’s director, Jakrawal Nilthamrong, about his cinematic tapestry.

Buddhadeb Dasgupta - A Talented Filmmaker

System Administrator Tuesday July 6, 2021
Apart from being a highly gifted and resourceful film director, he was also a sensitive poet. Indeed, his love for poetry inflected many of his films in interesting and complex ways. In many of Dasgupta’s films there are wonderful poetic sequences. In addition, in some of his cinematic creations the basic framework has been conceived of in poetic terms.

Interview

Supriya Suri's Interview with Muhiddin Muzaffar

Director Muhiddin Muzaffar (1) 2 Min

1. I entered the cinema through the theatre. I was an actor in our local theatre called Kanibadam, named after Tuhfa Fozilova. After working for five years, I decided to do a theatre director course. I graduated with honors and became a director. We successfully staged performances at international festivals.

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