Ethnologia Polona, vol. 37: 2016 (2017), 101 – 114
PL ISSN 0137 - 4079
WE ARE NO MONKS.
NARRATING THE SELF THROUGH
NEW TIBETAN EXILE CINEMA
DEPARTMENT OF ETHNOLOGY AND CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY
ADAM MICKIEWICZ UNIVERSITY IN POZNAŃ
e purpose of this article is to analyse responses given by the young generation of Tibetan ‘born refugees’
to imaginations of Tibet which exist in global culture. ey employ cinema as a medium for narrating
about themselves: going beyond the idealized image of Tibetans created both by Western popular culture
and the identity politics of Tibetan diaspora elites. is study presents an analysis of visual representations
of Tibetanness in the new Tibetan exile cinema which burst on scene in the last decade of the th century.
* * *
Zadaniem tego artykułu jest przeanalizowanie odpowiedzi, jakich udziela młode pokolenie tybetańskich
„urodzonych uchodźców” na istniejące wyobrażenie Tybetu. Wykorzystują oni kino jako medium do
opowiadania o sobie, wykraczając poza wyidealizowany obraz Tybetańczyków stworzony zarówno przez
zachodnią kulturę popularną, jak i politykę tożsamościową prezentowaną przez elity tybetańskiej diaspory.
W niniejszej pracy przedstawiam analizę wizualnych przedstawień tybetańskości w nowym tybetańskim
kinie na uchodźstwie, które objawiło się na scenie w ostatniej dekadzie XX wieku.
Keywords: Tibetans, diaspora, born refugees, Tibetan cinema, identity politics.
Tibet has been mythologized and romanticized in popular ‘global’ culture (Dodin
and Räther , see for example Bishop , McLagan ) and it has been cinema-
tography – primarily from Hollywood – that has largely contributed to the creation
and spread of the exotic and spiritualized image of the Tibetan Other (Schell ).
For many years, it was Westerners who made films about Tibetan people culture. ese
images made Tibetans recognizable, but at the same time idealized them in the global
See for example: Lost Horizon (, based on a James Hilton story), Golden Child (, a comedy
adventure with Eddie Murphy as star), Little Buddha (, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci), Seven
Years in Tibet (, a blockbuster starring Brad Pitt) and Kundun (, directed by Martin Scorsese).
imagination: depicted as mystical, inner-oriented, compassionate and peace-loving
beings. Donald S. Lopez Jr. () argues that Tibetans – as all of us – have become
“the prisoners of Shangri-La”, trapped in Western notions of Buddhism that reify
Tibetan culture and reduce it to a single religious dimension.
However, it is not just ‘the West’ that “orientalises” Tibet (Said ), constructing
it as essentially distinct from itself. Tibetan- diaspora- elites also create their own myths
about Tibetans, using stereotypes and expectations of who they are in order to promote
their political cause and win international support. In this form of identity politics,
which I will argue works as a “refugee identity regime” only one accepted articulation of
identity is allowed with Tibetans pictured, as opposed to their Chinese ‘Other’ counter-
parts, as nature-loving, peaceful, kind, and religious (Bloch ). Such image-making,
which skilfully plays on and exploits existing notions of Tibet, has ‘’invisibilized’ certain
groups of Tibetans. A case in point being the many young, secular Tibetans from India;
a generation already born in exile, whose voices have not been represented in official
representations created by both Tibetan- exile- elites and the outside world.
ese young Tibetan ‘born refugees’ have therefore being searching for alternative
means of self-expression which would allow them recover their silenced voices. Iargue
that film – along with music and literature (prose, poetry, and essays) – have provided
their voices with such an avenue for expression. A lot has been written on the Western
creation of Tibetanness. In this article however I analyse responses given by young
Tibetan generation living in exile to the existing imaginations of Tibet in global cul-
ture. ey employ cinema as a medium for narrating their own self, which goes beyond
the idealized image of Tibetans created both by Western popular culture and Tibetan
diaspora-elite identity politics. is study presents an analysis of visual representations
of Tibetanness in the new Tibetan exile cinema which burst on the scene in the last
decade of the th century: We’re No Monks. A Struggle for Identity () by Pema
Dhondup, Dreaming Lhasa () by Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, Tsampa to Pizza
() by Sonam Tseten, Richard Gere Is My Hero () by Tashi Wangchuk and
Tsultrim Dorjee, and Seeds () by Dazel, all have three things in common. Firstly,
all were made by a young generation of Tibetans brought up outside Tibet (three of
whom studied filmmaking in the United States of America). Among these directors
only Sonam Tseten is not a ‘nd generation ‘refugee’ as he came to India at a tender
It was mostly Hilton who contributed to the invention of Shangri la, a Western paraphrase of Shambhala
(Wylie: Sham bha la) – a hidden Buddhist kingdom, more spiritual than real. Shangri la is a myth that
associates Tibet with a land of eternal happiness, peace and spirituality.
I use this term when referring to Tibetans who are nd generation ‘refugees’, who were already born
in exile and therefore are not refugees in a direct sense (as they have never ed any country). However,
they ‘feel exiled’ and intentionally maintain their statelessness by not acquiring Indian citizenship. e
refugee status, which they identify with, is an imagined one and as such has been ‘inherited’ by them
from their exiled parents. In other words, they were ‘born as refugees’ (Bloch ).
WE ARE NO MONKS. NARRATING THE SELF THROUGH NEW TIBETAN EXILE CINEMA
age and was raised in the diaspora. Secondly, all of them were filmed in India and tell
the everyday stories of Tibetan youths who live in exile: a topic entirely ignored by
Western artists. And thirdly, they all break with the perfect image of Tibetans, and
instead attempt to deal with the real thoughts, desires, doubts and problems of young
people. e Tibetans portrayed in these pictures do not go to gompa nor say mantras
every day; instead they play rock music, drink alcohol, pick up Western girls, argue
with their parents and discuss the use of violence in their political struggle, without
sacrificing their feelings of being very much Tibetan.
Analysis of the films is supported by ethnographic fieldwork which I have been
conducting among the Tibetan diaspora in India since . It focuses on young Tibet-
ans born in exile and living in dierent Tibetan settlements in the states of Karnataka,
Orissa, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir. Included also are the cities of New
Delhi and Bangalore. Two of the analysed films I had the opportunity to watch during
field research included, Richard Gere Is My Hero, which I saw at a premiere show in
Dharamsala, and where I could observe the very spontaneous reactions of the audience
to the scenes they knew from their own lives. Tsampa to Pizza was shown to me at its
director’s home in New Delhi. With the exception of Pema Dhondup – who, though
raised in India, lives in the United States – I had the opportunity to personally meet
all the directors, while some of the actors became research partners and friends. Istill
remember to this present day how moved I was when I saw We’re No Monks for the
first time, the film which, in my opinion, initiated new Tibetan exile cinema. Having
already been working for some time in a Tibetan world of perfectly polished images,
Iwas really shocked by the frankness and directness with which the filmmakers unveiled
the world of young Tibetan exiles that had hitherto been invisible in public discourse.
BEING TRAPPED IN AN IDEALIZED IMAGE: “A STRUGGLE FOR IDENTITY”
With reference to non-Tibetans’ expectations of Tibetans as being so gentle that
they are incapable of venting their anger during street protests, Lobsang Yeshi, a then
member of the Central Executive Committee of the Tibetan Youth Congress, con-
cluded that “[n]ot only are the Chinese oppressing us, so are the rest of the world”
(following Susan , ). One of my research partners, a Bangalore-based activist
with “Friends of Tibet. India” NGO, expressed this feeling of being suppressed by the
outside world’s expectations in a similar way:
Wylie: dgon pa – a Buddhist temple or monastery.
Sanskrit: an invocation to a deity and a kind of a short prayer repeated multiply.
e findings of this research have been published in a book based on my PhD thesis (Bloch ).
It was advertised as the “first Indo-Tibetan feature film” as it was made in cooperation with an Indian
production company (with a famous Indian actor playing one of the main characters).
“I’m sick of people’s expectations. People in the West would like to see us always smiling, with an
empathetic heart and peaceful. But these are their imaginations, not the truth. ey need to get rid
of these images and see the reality. In the depth of my heart – I assure you – this compassion is there.
But we have to be very practical and circumstances play an important role. If the circumstances are
O.K., then – I’m sure – Tibetans will smile all the time (...). But we are not happy here so who is to
laugh? If we feel disappointment, anger”.
However, as Paul Christiaan Klieger argues, Tibetan refugees are not merely the
passive victims of our (Western) imaginative constructs but they actively and con-
sciously make selective self-representations of their culture (Klieger ). I wish to
argue that the contemporary image of Tibetans is a product of bilateral idealization:
that of romanticized notions of Tibetanness created in the Western world and that of
identity politics created by Tibetan- diaspora- elites. Although the latter can be read
as the collective agency of a subaltern group, it also works as a regime by classifying
certain attitudes and behaviors as ‘non-Tibetan’, and therefore employing authenticity
as an exclusionary category (such as being violent connoting being non-Buddhist and
thus not being an ‘authentic Tibetan’). is involves the condemning attitude of many
Tibetan exile elites towards the ‘Westernization’ that the Tibetan youth are supposed
to be undergoing, although many Tibetan traditions now so celebrated were invented
in exile (Bloch , –).
In the film Tsampa to Pizza – itself a telling title – there is a scene in which an
elder Tibetan tells his few-years- old grandson: “You have to preserve it [the culture
and tradition]; otherwise who will do it?” I find this scene representative of the pressure
that the community – family, school, government – puts on ‘born refugees’(ndgen-
eration) who are expected to be part of a ‘living heritage’ or an ‘open-air museum’ of
traditional Tibetan culture. e “traditional Tibetan culture” is believed to survive only
in exile and such an assumption is a source of cultural ‘neo-puritanism’ (Nowak ).
However, as I observe during my fieldwork, many young Tibetans are increasingly
tired of this idealized, neo-puritanist image. I argue that there are two main reasons
behind that. First of all, young Tibetans, educated in modern schools and living in
exile believe that this pacifist and spiritual image has yet to bring any significant
political change to the Tibetan cause. ey expect their government to be pragmatic
and not idealistic. In the monologue opening the film, one of the characters in We’ re
No Monks asks acrucial question in this regard and answers it himself: “What has the
ere is also a fear of “Bollywoodization”, but as a result of the separation strategy consequently
employed by the Tibetan exile government this impact has become more limited (Bloch ).
See for example Huber () for environmentalism. See Calkowski () for performance arts.
Tsampa (Wylie: rtsam pa) is a roasted barley our, usually mixed and drank with salted butter tea, with
the alcoholic drink chang, or simply with water; it can be accompanied by yak cheese or meat. In the
process of Tibetan nation-building, tsampa is considered to be a ‘traditional’ Tibetan food as opposed
to Chinese rice-eaters (see Shakya ).
WE ARE NO MONKS. NARRATING THE SELF THROUGH NEW TIBETAN EXILE CINEMA
world given us? Only empty sympathy!” Secondly, the ‘born refugees’ want to be active
participants in global culture and initiators of cultural change. ey demand the right
to wear jeans, listen to rock music, drink beer and still be considered Tibetans. In other
words, they strive for agency in the process of self-identification and they search for
aspace to create their own articulations of Tibetanness, instead of simply adjusting to
the image of a‘good traditional Tibetan’.
However, such articulations have been mostly refused to them. e generation of
young, secular Tibetans born in exile is not represented in either popular ‘global’ cul-
ture or the official publications of the Central Tibetan Administration. On websites,
in photo albums and in movies it is rare to see young people – wearing baseball caps,
leather jackets, hip-hop pants, jeans or Nike trainers. eir broadly smiling parents
and grandparents are widely represented – dressed ‘traditionally’ while carrying a prayer
wheel in one hand and a mala in the other. If any youths perchance to appear in
these visual representations, they are mostly monks or school-uniformed children. e
fact that young, secular Tibetans have been erased from mainstream representations
proves that they are not considered representative of Tibetan culture. When speaking
of Tibetan youths, senior diaspora elites employ either narratives of expectation or
critique. In the former, young Tibetans are expected to be “the seedlings of a future
Tibet”, and it is this pressure that the film Seeds refers to in its title. Similarly, when
they fail to meet these expectations, they are often condemned, especially by Tibetan
educators, such as Tsepak Rigzin, the long-term principal of the Central School for
Tibetans in Mundgod settlement (Karnataka state):
“e drive and interest of the younger generation towards modern rock music and Indian cinema
overshadows their interest and love of Tibetan culture and tradition. Complaints of the poor standard
of the Tibetan language, a lack of interest in religious and cultural activities, rising cases of indiscipline
and the formation of undesirable social habits to name but a few are causing concerns. (...) ere is
a growing trend among the Tibetan youth of today to look for quick money and luxurious lifestyles”
(Rigzin , –).
In order to counteract these negative inuences, books have been published which
aim to admonish young Tibetans for deviating onto the wrong path’. One such book
recounts the story of a young girl, Yungtso, who rather than focusing on her col-
lege studies, abandons herself to the nightlife of an Indian city: starting an informal
relationship with seductive Nyima. As a result she falls pregnant, is abandoned and
finally expelled from college (Khedup ). In the introduction to this moralizing
story, Tsewang Gyalpo writes:
It is the official name used by the Tibetan government in exile since the Indian state has never recognized
Sanskrit: a Buddhist rosary consisting of beads.
“[e] media and the demonstrative eect of this modern world is taking our youngsters for a ride.
Besides the academic syllabus, we need to evoke and cultivate in our children the essentials of our
social and moral values, so that a good girl like Yungtso (our generation) do[es] not become con-
fused in the middle [in itself] and degenerate. We cannot aord this at this moment of history (...).
Isincerely hope that the story of Yungtso will serve as a rein and a reminder to all those youngsters
galloping to the path of degeneration that it is better to come into the fold of our society and serve
our common cause” (following Khedup , ).
BREAKING THOUGH: “A VOYAGE TO TIBET LIKE YOU’VE NEVER SEEN”
roughout my fieldwork, I was in a position to observe the appearance of young
Tibetans who wandered through the narrow streets of McLeod Ganj and Majnu Ka
Tila armed with camcorders and experimenting with film-making (spelling). Such
characters have been depicted before in films made by young Tibetan exiles. Cases in
point being mute Damdul from We’re No Monks who documents the everyday life of
his friends with a small digital camera and Karma from Dreaming Lhasa who comes
to Dharamsala to make a documentary film about former political prisoners from
Tibet. Scenes shot by them have been included in their films, which – along with
the ‘natural’ settings of the Tibetan diaspora in India (settlements, districts, markets)
–strengthens the reality of the images. More and more young Tibetans who I came
to know during my research graduated in filmmaking from mainly North American
universities, taking advantage of scholarships provided to them (especially from the
Fulbright Program). Others were self-taught directors and learnt the art of filmmaking
with the support of foreign friends.
We’re No Monks. A Struggle for Identity, as its title clearly states, is a manifesto of
sorts for the young generation of Tibetans brought up in exile. It tells the story of four
Tibetan friends in their twenties and thirties from Dharamsala who deny involvement
in a series of robberies from a local shop; the investigation of which is led by a thug-
gish Indian policeman. e four protagonists are definitely not monks and pass their
time hanging out, guzzling beer and getting high on marijuana. is monotony is
interrupted from time to time by an interstate bus which brings young female tourists.
e director portrays his generation accurately such as. Tenzin, the main character,
who is a figure that can often be met among Tibetan youths: an unemployed college
graduate dreaming of “greener pastures” in the United States. He does everything not
to follow in the footsteps of his father – an employee of the Tibetan government. Tser-
ing, also unemployed, is the father of a girl whose mother emigrated to the US where
she became involved with another man. e woman’s father, however, perceives his
e upper part of Dharamsala in the state of Himachal Pradesh, north India. Dharamsala has become
the ‘capital’ of the Tibetan diaspora in India.
e name of the district in the northern part of New Delhi inhabited by Tibetans.
WE ARE NO MONKS. NARRATING THE SELF THROUGH NEW TIBETAN EXILE CINEMA
son-in-law to be an irresponsible idler and restricts his contact with the sick daughter.
Damdul, the aforementioned self-taught filmmaker, sells bread from the roadside. e
fourth protagonist, Pasang, is the only one born in Tibet. He runs a small eatery in
McLeod Ganj and takes care of his sister, a former political prisoner who has just ed
Tibet. In his spare time Pasang writes a play devoted to the Tibetan cause. He strongly
supports the radical methods of political struggle against the Chinese presence in Tibet
and condemns the complacency of ‘born refugees’. e film poses a question about
the possibility of the Tibetan freedom movement turning violent.
e nostalgic Dreaming Lhasa was directed by the most famous Tibetan-Indian
duo of filmmakers, the couple that is Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin, who started
their own production company, White Crane Films. e film tells the story of three
young Tibetans in their thirties who belong to three dierent worlds. Karma who
has grown up in the United States is a director working in New York. She comes to
Dharamsala to make a documentary feature about former political prisoners. How-
ever, the main purpose of her trip to the exiled ‘Tibet’ in India is a search for identity
but also an attempt to escape from a failing relationship to her American boyfriend.
One day Karma interviews Dhondup, an enigmatic ex-monk, and a recent arrival
from Tibet. e real reason behind his stay in India is to fulfill his dying mother’s last
wish to deliver a charm box to a long-missing guerilla fighter. Karma falls in love with
Dhondup and decides to help him search for the mysterious soldier. ey start their
journey into the Tibetan diaspora – through the dark streets of Majnu Ka Tila and
the sweater sellers’ stalls in Jaipur. Also present is Jimmy, Karma’s assistant (played by
a musician from the JJI Exile Brothers, a Dharamsala-based band very popular among
young Tibetans). Jimmy is a typical vagabond of Dharamsala and the permanently
unemployed leader of a local rock band who is trying to pick up Karma. e film was
publicized as “a voyage to Tibet like you’ve never seen”.
Tsampa to Pizza is a short feature film which was shot in New Delhi and tells the
story of Tenzin and Dhondup who have just graduated from a Tibetan school and are
admitted to an Indian college to pursue their studies. is is the first time they have
lived outside their Tibetan community. However, their interest in education pales into
insignificance when compared to their interest in girls, music, fashionable clothes,
and sport. ey share a room, the rent of which is paid for, by their parents. ey are
carefree and clueless until they meet a former political prisoner and an Indian Tibet
supporter, sparking Tenzin into thinking about the meaning of his life.
Richard Gere is My Hero is a funny yet bold production with a challenging title. It
is again a story of four young Tibetans and their daily lives in Mcleod Ganj: hanging
around, playing snooker, drinking alcohol, fighting with other Tibetans and trying to
pick up female tourists. Nyima, the main character, is a diehard fan of Richard Gere
and awaits the arrival of his idol in the town (which is not such an unrealistic dream
considering Gere’s friendship with the th Dalai Lama and his constant support for the
Tibetan cause). Nyima wants to be a famous actor himself but does absolutely nothing
to accomplish this. e main plot focuses on the annual drama competition that teams
from dierent Tibetan settlements take part in. Nyima’s friends prepare a play –they do
not want to lose the competition as they do every year. A beautiful Tibetan girl comes
from New Delhi to support the boys in their acting endeavours and problems arise
when two of them fall in love with her which gives the film a romantic comedy element.
e film Seeds is the first to present a female perspective, as it was directed and
produced by a young Tibetan woman, born and raised in India, although then living
in Paris. e titular “seeds” are a group of young Tibetans who live in New Delhi.
Unlike Tsampa to Pizza they are not students but graduates who are trying to find their
place in an Indian metropolis, outside their Tibetan community. ey mainly work for
transnational companies which have outsourced their customer services to the coun-
tries of the Global South where labour costs are lower. ey live in the Amar Colony,
aneighborhood frequently inhabited by young Tibetans and where my research was
conducted (two of the actors are my longtime research partners whom I have known
from the time when they lived in the Dolanji settlement in the state of Himachal
Pradesh). is short black-and-white feature film recounts the story of one day of
their life in the spring of , when a demonstration against the upcoming Olympic
Games in Beijing and a crackdown on protests in Tibet were taking place in the city.
Politics provides a backdrop for the everyday activities of the young Tibetans living in
a big city: boys speeding on motorbikes: lifting weights at the gym; passing time on
the rooftops of a crowded metropolis taking photos of their tattoos and hairstyles for
social media and girls doing makeup in front of the camera as if in front of a mirror.
One of the former falls pregnant and her Tibetan boyfriend vanishes.
WE ARE NO MONKS BUT WHO ARE WE?
What you may ask is the image of the young generation of Tibetans living in exile
in India that emerges from these very autobiographical films. Other questions worth
posing include what kind of self-representations have they created and what do young
Tibetans want to tell us about themselves. First of all, they are not monks and do not
want to be perceived as such. What is really striking in these productions is the lack
of Buddhist-related- images which are so strongly associated with Tibet in the global
imagination: no prayer wheels, no butter lamps, no mantras, no gompas, and no monks.
Tenzin from We’re No Monks says: “Praying for all sentient being[s] is outdated”. If there
are any manifestations of religiosity in all the films, they refer only to the newcomers
from Tibet: Dhondup from Dreaming Lhasa, believes in the prophecy of the oracle
(for which he is roundly ridiculed by Jimmy) and Pasang from We’re No Monks, carries
amala as a matter of course. e critical attitude held by ‘born refugees’ towards the
WE ARE NO MONKS. NARRATING THE SELF THROUGH NEW TIBETAN EXILE CINEMA
way Buddhism is practiced by the older generation has been captured in We’re No Monks
where there is the grotesquely portrayed character of an old woman who each morning
walks through the streets of McLeod Ganj with a conspicuous prayer wheel in her hand.
However, instead of praying, the woman spreads gossip about others throughout the
town. Even the th Dalai Lama, an icon of Tibet and a global “spiritual celebrity” (Iyer
), is barely referred to and, if he is, then only as an image that in fact veils the real
feelings and desires of Tibetans. Tenzin tells an American female tourist whom he picks
up: “He [the Dalai Lama] is enlightened. I’m not”, as if he wanted to make her see him
as a man of esh and blood. Tenzin Tsundue, a poet and activist among the youthful
generation of Tibetans born in exile, speaks in a similar vein:
“(...) His Holiness’ sense of compassion is that of the Buddha. I’m a human being looking for freedom
in this world. As a Buddhist, my attempt is to be a better person and not to renounce the world”
(following Chaudhury , –).
I have to admit that I myself have been guilty of perpetrating reductionist simplifica-
tions. Once I asked the aforementioned activist from the “Friends of Tibet. India”
NGO whether in his opinion the fact that Tibetans serve in the Indian army did not
directly contradict the Buddhist principle of ahimsa and the political concept of
non-violence both built on it and promoted by the government in exile. My research
partner looked really disappointed and irritated with my question: “When you say this,
it seems that all Tibetan boys and girls should be monks and nuns! Only then would
everything fit, but we are human beings!” Tsering Namgyal, a Tibetan journalist born
in India and now living in Taiwan, the author of one of the first literary self-reections
on the generation of ‘born refugees’, published in India at the same time when the
new Tibetan exile cinema was born, expressed his irritation with the fact that religious
identity has completely overshadowed all other marks of Tibetan identification and
belonging, such as profession, ethnicity or gender: “Whenever Ihave been abroad
(...) when I said that Iwas Tibetan, it was a given that I would be asked a question
about Buddhism” (Namgyal , ). Young Tibetans are aware of the exclusionary
workings of a “refugee identity regime”. One of my research partners, an employee of
acall centre in New Delhi and one of the actors in Seeds, told me once that his parents
“say that I’m a communist because I don’t go to gompa”. e film Seeds illustrates
well the pressure that is imposed, particularly on young women, to behave properly.
In one scene a girl’s brother warns her against going out in a miniskirt: “You are embar-
rassing your community and your family”. She fights back: “All girls in the world dress
like this. Why not me?”
e young Tibetans portrayed in these analysed films are undoubtedly not renounc-
ing the world. ey binge drink, smoke marijuana, chase Western girls, hang around
Sanskrit: not causing suering, non-violence.
on motorbikes, listen to hip-hop and play rock music. Moreover, they dream about
emigrating to the ‘West’. Tenzin from We’re No Monks carries a one-dollar banknote
in his wallet and wears a T-shirt emblazoned with an American ag. He says: “I must
have done something very wrong in a previous life, that I got stuck here [in India]”.
One of the characters in Seeds says: “Whatever [America] is, I am sure, it’s much, much
better out there than here”. In order to obtain a visa to the United States, Jimmy from
Dreaming Lhasa shaves his head and pretends to be a monk; the success of this highly
agentic use of Tibetan’s global image was lavishly celebrated in a pub in McLeod Ganj.
Contrary to what supporters of Tibet from Western countries imagine, and against
the wishes of exile elites, the daily lives of young Tibetans from India do not encompass
a space between home and gompa. ese are rather marked in settlement-landscapes
by such sites as snooker clubs (from time to time shut by camp authorities), football
grounds and areas on the outskirts of the settlements where young people congregate
on their motorbikes after dark in order to chat and have a drink. In Dharamsala, like
in many Indian cities, they gather in pubs and discos. We’re No Monks opens up with
a scene at Shiva Café, a popular spot located above a waterfall, about half-an-hour
walk from McLeod Ganj where Tibetans and tourists meet to enjoy music, alcohol
and marijuana (the place has a habit of being repeatedly shut by the Indian police).
One of the main protagonists in the film says: “My friends and I were enjoying the
night as usual at Shiva Café. at is our life and also our world”. Commenting on
the Tibetan youth enjoying themselves, one Tibetan activist says: “People can’t carry
pain all the time. e wounds are there and when the times comes the people will rise
and they will rise strong” (following Susan , ). In Tsampa to Pizza,Tenzin and
Dhondup hang both a poster of Eminem and the national Tibetan ag on the wall of
their rented room. For them, as for many young Tibetans among whom I conducted
research, entertainment and so called ‘Western cultural inuences’ do not conict
with patriotism. In other words, what the analyzed films attempt to tell us, is that one
can listen to hip-hop music and be a Tibetan at the same time, which is something
denied by the neo-puritanist-identity politics of the exile elites. It seems that although
Tibetan elites are very afraid of ‘Westernisation’, for many young Tibetans this does not
mean the vanishing of Tibetanness because their Tibetanness is more defined in terms
of political engagement than cultural ‘purity’.
e third motif common to all the films is political engagement as a core charac-
terising the Tibetanness in exile. e characters portrayed in all the films may not be
religious and may waste their time at parties, but they cannot escape politics, although
one of the protagonists in We’re No Monks says in despair: “Forget all this bull-shit
politics”. As one of my research partners, a ‘born refugee’, says: “When you are arefu-
gee, everything is about politics”. is is why, despite eeing the candle-lit protest
organized each year to commemorate the uprising in Tibet, the four friends from
Richard Gere Is My Hero engage themselves in a drama competition, preparing a play
WE ARE NO MONKS. NARRATING THE SELF THROUGH NEW TIBETAN EXILE CINEMA
about the ‘independence versus Middle Way’ dilemma. is is why Tenzin from
We’re No Monks decides to go to New Delhi to abduct a Chinese diplomat in order to
exchange him for Tibetan political prisoners. is is also why Tenzin from Tsampa to
Pizza discovers his ‘true self ’ through political awareness when he says to a journalist:
“We are born as refugees but we are not gonna die as refugees”; and the film’s director
adds: “Never give up!”. is is why all the friends from Seeds – although they risk los-
ing their jobs and being detained which would put them at risk of being refused visas
to the United States – decide to take part in a demonstration. is is also why one of
the female protagonists in Seeds has a nightmare in which she is in the middle of an
empty road wearing a wedding-style dress made out of the Tibetan national ag that
starts bleeding. In all the films the Tibetan cause is shown as an integral part of the
‘born refugees’’ everyday life – lived, experienced, felt, and discussed over a bottle of
beer. is sense of belonging to the ‘cause’ makes exiled Tibetanness highly political.
e imagined, ‘inherited’ refugee status seems to be the most significant factor behind
Tibetan identity-making in India. Tibetans born and brought up there emphasize
their constant consciousness of living with the big ‘R’ (standing for ‘Refugee’) written
on their foreheads. Being refugees makes them Tibetans (Bloch ; see Mountcastle
, –; Anand , ; Yeh , ).
e politicization of self in exile is related to the question of violence – the fourth
motif omnipresent in new Tibetan exile cinema. Violence appears in all the films as
apolitical means vis-à-vis the non-violence policy of the government in exile, as well as
the daily violence which occurs – in relations with Indians and other Tibetans –which
is present in the life of ‘born refugees’. is of course directly contrasts with the pacifist
global image of Tibetans which ‘invisibilizes’ such violence. However, violence seems
to be the axis of We’re No Monks. Its director employed similar means to debate the
legitimacy and eectiveness of the non-violence principle in the Tibetan freedom
struggle in Richard Gere Is My Hero by putting into the mouths of his characters such
words as: “If we struggle just for our stomach every day, one day we will die” and
“Either you kill or get killed”. Domestic violence is shown in the film as resulting from
the growing generation gap between the ‘born refugees’ and their parents who have
ceased to be authority figures to their kids because of both political helplessness and
low material status. Tenzin, the main character of We’re No Monks, does not want to be
like his father. He says that over the course of his years working for the government in
exile he has got nowhere. Once, when he returns home drunk, late at night, his father
threatens that: “I can kill him if I want”. Tenzin does not remain beholden and says:
“I can kill too”. In Seeds, there is a young Tibetan man who threatens to use violence
ere is an ongoing dispute in the diaspora whether the Tibetan struggle should aim at full political
independence or autonomy within the People’s Republic of China; the latter is strongly supported by
the th Dalai Lama, the government in exile and most elder Tibetan elites.
in order to discipline his sister for whom he feels responsible for as they live together
under the same roof in an Indian city. In one scene his friends are playing with agun
on aNew Delhi-rooftop. “Who would you shoot first?” – asks one of them and then
furnishes the following answer: “For me, the first would be a Chinese”.
It seems that for ‘born refugees’ the idealized image of a peaceful Tibetan underes-
timates Tibet’s cause, as a result weakening the political agency of Tibetans. Tibetans
portrayed as unreal creatures obsessed with religion are not taken seriously in the world
of realpolitik (Anand , ). Although widely admired, the Dalai Lama does not
pose any concrete threat to anyone; therefore his political aspirations are ignored.
e protagonist in Pasang’s play argues that unless Tibetans are more radical in their
actions, “nobody will sympathize or hate us”. We’re No Monks ends with a scene in
which Damdul tries on a suicide belt with sticks of dynamite. e screen then darkens
and finally sound erupts in the form of an explosion and the nervous chatter of Indian
policemen on CB radios. e director thus, returns full circle as the film opens with
ascene on the media coverage of a suicide attack on a Chinese diplomat in New Delhi.
e question of violence is, in my opinion, more an issue of eectiveness. Pasang,
who urges his friends to employ more radical methods in the political struggle, says: “It
is time to finally do something!” and points to the examples of Palestine and Kashmir.
Such thoughts were often raised during my fieldwork, although most often in informal
talks. Many young ‘born refugees’ doubt whether the idea of non-violence is a viable
and successful strategy in relation to the People’s Republic of China, for which it can
be read as a sign of weakness. at is why one of the protagonists in Seeds urges his
friend: “Never mix politics and religion together. It never worked”. My research partner,
a-year old monk from a big Tibetan monastery reconstructed in southern India, says:
“If the Chinese were smarter, they would manage the Tibetan cause as long as His Holiness is still alive.
He is the only one who Tibetans are obliged to. Otherwise, we are savage and we are like Spanish bulls!
We can easily kill. In the past we used to carry knives on daily basis. Tibetans were precisely like that”.
Meanwhile ‘the West’ – here represented by a Hollywood actor and supporter of
the Tibetan cause, Richard Gere – admonishes the Tibetans:
“You must maintain that sense of uniqueness and that genuine cultural commitment to nonviolence.
If you pick up arms and become like Palestinians, you’ll lose your special status” (following Schell
It seems that the ‘born refugees’ are aware that if they go beyond the framework
of the identity politics designed by their elites in response to the expectations of the
outside world, they might be denied the right to be perceived as ‘real Tibetans’ (Yeh
). ese concerns are reected in the final scene of Pasang’s play: in reaction to the
main character’s detention after he had cut o the abducted Chinese hostage’s hand, the
Tibetan protesters enter the stage, carrying a banner which reads: “He is not Tibetan”.
WE ARE NO MONKS. NARRATING THE SELF THROUGH NEW TIBETAN EXILE CINEMA
e new Tibetan exile cinema which emerged in the last decade of the th century
has become a platform for a young generation of Tibetan ‘born refugees’ who have
not previously been represented in either the ‘global’ imaginations of Tibet (to a great
extent shaped by cinematography itself) or in official representations created within
diaspora elite- identity politics. As such it oers an insight into alternative, “unofficial”
versions of Tibetanness. Film has become a means to recover silenced narratives and
amedium to create self-articulations which go beyond the idealized image of Tibetans
and their culture.
e analysed films unveil the hitherto invisible world of young, secular Tibetans
born and raised in India. Four motifs seem to percolate through these productions.
Firstly, there is the reluctance towards reducing Tibetanness to Buddhism. Secondly,
there is a resistance against cultural ‘neo-puritanism’ and a demand for the right to
enjoy life and global culture. irdly, there is a sense of belonging to the ‘cause’ which
makes political engagement the core of Tibetanness in exile (here being a refugee
equates to being Tibetan). And fourthly, there is a rejection of the pacifist global image
of Tibetans which ignores the presence of violence in the diaspora, both as a debated
political method vis-à-vis the non-violence policy of the government in exile and every-
day violence. e analyzed films capture the complexity of the young generation of
Tibetan exiles clearly, making people aware that there is no single story of Tibetanness.
Finally, it is worth noting that the directors of all these films have decided to speak
openly about topics mostly silenced in external self-representations created by the
Tibetan diaspora. I find this to be very courageous as by airing them they have risked
accusations of breaking the idealized image of the Tibetan community and therefore
harming the Tibetan cause.
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Natalia Bloch, Ph. D.
Department of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology
Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań
ul. Umultowska D
- Poznań, POLAND