Are you ready for some FOOTBAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAetc
In the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh is Bir, a village for Tibetans in exile along with their children. And somewhere…not so near that village is a Buddhist monastery.
It is a seemingly normal day. Some youths are playing soccer with an empty soda can on the grounds, kind of interfering with the monks who are sweeping the grounds.
Oops. Here comes Geko, the monastery’s master of discipline. So, the kids just walk off as if they were not doing anything. Real smooth bunch, those. Geko doesn’t say anything, but he picks up the soda can as he walks across the grounds.
Geko goes to the Abbot’s room to see that he has been packing his stuff up. Apparently, he has done this before. Is he okay? Well, whatever. He puts the soda can down and moves the Abbot’s chest to the side of the room by the other chests.
The Abbot asks Geko whether there is news regarding the boy and his young uncle coming from Tibet. Nope, just like yesterday. The Abbot is worried, as they should have arrived by now. He gives Geko the letter from the mother/sister of the boys requesting that the monastery take them in. Geko agrees that it is concerning that they have not yet arrived, but there is nothing that they can do from here. He offers to consult the lama for another prediction, even though he says that the lama is a loony and his place stinks.
Three kids are drawing on a wall when Geko walks by. I guess none of them heard of appointing a lookout. Well, whatever, they run off and he doesn’t chase them. He does wipe down the wall a little.
Geko enters the lama’s house and offers him the soda can. I guess because the lama is weird like that, with that bag of soda cans behind him. He then asks for another prediction regarding the two boys from Tibet. The lama notes that he already made one, and cynically says that Geko just wants a good result. But he goes through the ritual again, though we do not hear the prediction.
Speaking of ritual, the monks have gathered to do perform a chant.
A young monk named Lodo, I guess gets bored and starts to turn a piece of paper into a birdy. He shows it to his friend down the row, a kid named Orgyen. Yes, the kid is named Orgyen; laugh it up.
While Geko throws rice on a monk behind him who had dozed off during the chant, Orgyen turns his own piece of paper into…well…this:
Geko has Orgyen go into the town for grocery shopping, ordering him to not hang around as he normally does. Orgyen goes off on the bike and…wow…it is actually a bit of a ways away.
Well, look who decided to show up. The Tibetan boys have finally arrived. Geko greets them and asks the…helper…what happened. The helper simply says that there was trouble at the border and Geko…doesn’t press the issue. He brings the three to the Abbot as other monks help with the luggage.
The helper and the older boy, Padlen, bow before the Abbot, but the helper has to sort of coax the younger boy, Nyima, into doing it. And also take off his cap. The Abbot expresses relief that they have arrived safely.
The helper recounts their journey leaving Tibet, and driving through Nepal. They had to avoid the Nepalese border guards, who would turn them back to China. The helper offers the Abbot some items. First, a pair of earrings that were previously worn by a girl who died in the recent uprising in Lhasa. Now, her parents are giving them to the monastery. Then he gives the Abbot a watch that Nyima’s mother said can be sold in case her son needs money.
The Abbot tells the boys that India has the densest population on Earth. And yet, the nation has welcomed the Tibetan exiles. So, they should study hard. After the helper pretty much says the same thing, the Abbot gives the watch back to Nyima and tells him to take good care of it. Geko reminds them that it is getting time for the ordination, so the Abbot thanks the helper and sends him on his way.
Geko escorts the helper back to his car. Apparently, he is to bring over two girls, whose parents want them to study near the Dalai Lama. He wakes up the car driver, who I guess had been sleeping the entire time. It does not start properly, so Geko gets a bunch of younger monks to push it until the driver can drive off.
It is time for the ordination of Nyima and Palden. All of the monks are gathered, though Orgyen arrives a little late because it takes a really long time to bike to the village and return. Though he probably did kind of hang around. It is unclear whether the grownups notice, but Lodo notices. And in the middle of the ceremony, they engage in a silent, but not-so-covert conversation, first by just mouthing words to each other. Then Orgyen writes a note and throws it to Lodo. Geko kind of senses that last one, but doesn’t do anything, especially while the ceremony is still going. Anyways, the note says Brazil vs. Argentina.
Apparently, he is referring to the “Friendly” soccer match that took place in 1998 before the World Cup.
Geko catches Lodo and Orgyen after the ceremony. He scolds them for whatever they were doing and tells them to wash the monks’ robes. I am not sure whether that is punishment for their misbehaving or just an assignment. He also tells them to shave the hair of the newcomers and help them with their robes. Oh, and Palden will be rooming with Orgyen while Nyima will be with the young youngins.
Lodo is shaving Palden’s hair, explaining that this practice is to make girls think that the monks are ugly, though he says that it doesn’t work. As Orgyen washes the robes, he asks Lodo whether people in Tibet shave only once in their lives. I guess that Orgyen never actually lived there. Palden corrects him: every New Year. Orgyen says that Tibetans here wash every day.
Orgyen asks Lodo start talking about watching the football matches. Orgyen wants to watch the matches with France in particular, saying that France is the only country that loyally supports Tibet. As he starts with Nyima’s head, Lodo asks whether America is playing, and Orgyen teasingly says that it is because Lodo has an American sponsor who sends him $3.00 a month. Lodo then asks about India, and Orgyen says that they got thrown out for trying to bribe a referee.
I guess that Orgyen finished the laundry before Lodo finished the shaving, so Orgyen says that he is going to take a bath, which is more pouring a bucket of water over his head and rubbing soap everywhere. He takes off his robes and…okay, so that is what he was wearing underneath, sure.
And, look. Palden and Nyima are monks now. And saying that he is no longer in China, Lodo throws away Nyima’s red star cap.
The four come across the lama, who appears to be sleeping. Orgyen wakes him up and requests that he says a prayer for France? Why? Are they sick? No, they are playing football tomorrow. The lama calls that a waste of a prayer, so Lodo says that they should leave him alone.
Orgyen brings Palden to his room and woooow.
Orgyen even calls that his shrine. That is…allowed? He points to the picture of Cristiano Ronaldo, and mentions that his head is also shaved despite not being a monk. Orgyen says that he will take Palden to a game one day, whatever that entails.
And here is the bed where Palden will sleep. Lovely.
As the Abbot writes a letter to Niyma’s mother to tell her that the boys are safe and adjusting, Lodo shows Nyima a sports magazine, pointing him specifically to the soccer section. He tells them to keep reciting their chants as he keeps an eye out for Geko, who is patrolling the grounds.
Orgyen asks Lodo for the other magazine. Lodo does not give it to them, but he shows them some pages…is that a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue? Uh oh. Geko is walking past. So, the boys hide the magazines and chant really loudly. Yeah, THAT gets Geko’s attention, but he still passes them. I guess that they are in the clear.
Morning comes and Lodo goes into Orgyen’s room to wake him up. He asks Palden if Orgyen went last night, but Palden doesn’t know. He also might not know what Lodo is asking. After more attempts to get Orgyen up, Lodo asks him how the game went. That gets Orgyen up, as he says that Brazil missed by so little. In any case, Lodo tells Orgyen that it is his turn to carry the incense. That gets Orgyen to hurry up. Perhaps Lodo should have led with that.
And how do Lodo and Orgyen even watch the soccer matches anyways? Well, in any case, I will just stop here.
This movie was made in the late 1990s, back when interest in Tibetan Buddhism was high in the West. So, while there were quite a few people from Tibet and surrounding countries behind the scenes, there were also a lot of people from Australia and the UK involved. I briefly wondered whether Richard Gere was involved, but it does not seem so. In any case, just like with a lot of these one-off movies, one may wonder how much of the movie was influenced by its Western support. I don’t know.
There is a bit of dichotomy if one views the film through Western appeal. Pretty much none of the Buddhist rituals are explained in any way, not even through exposition dumps given to the new arrivals. If you don’t already know what they are doing, then either you learn later or not at all; the movie does not really (ahem) enlighten the viewer. On the one hand, it keeps that aspect of the movie mysterious and exotic. On the other hand, they are presented as just things that the characters do, representative of their beliefs and daily life. It does not need to be explained, it is just normalized. If the viewer doesn’t understand what they are doing, well, that is not the movie’s problem. It may help that Buddhist monks had direct involvement in the process. I am not sure how many were, but I gather that Orgyen Tobgyal, who played Geko, had been the caretaker for a monastery in northern India for twenty-four years at the time this movie was made. He is also a lama among other things, but anyways, I am almost 100% certain that the movie was filmed at that very monastery. I have no idea whether the character of Orgyen was named after him, though.
What is important for the movie to mention is the suppression of Tibetan culture in Tibet by Chinese authorities, which is why these characters are in India in the first place. The movie does not go into too many details, but just enough for the viewer to know that things are bad. The practice of Tibetan Buddhism is harshly controlled and images of the Dalai Lama are banned for one thing. And the whole uprising stuff. Even fleeing is dangerous, as Geko and the Abbot worry about the fate of the two boys before they arrive. Border guards can turn them back to China, even in Nepal. Geko makes a rather unprompted assertion in the middle of a conversation between two other people that Tibetan women caught by Nepalese guards…fare worse. Not exactly a moment of subtle writing.
On the other side of the dichotomy is the international language of FOOTBALL! Of course, soccer is something that English audiences would know all about…and Australians to a lesser extent. So, what is more relatable than shirking one’s responsibilities to obsess over the World Cup? Now, of course, Tibet was not one of the teams, but I gather that England was knocked out early in the knockout stage and Australia did not even qualify. So, they are all in the same boat, having to come up with a reason to support one team over the others. And I am sure trying to watch a soccer match where your team is not competing is totally the same as trying to watch a soccer match when you are in a monastery that does not have a television.
I am not sure if I am reading too much into things, but there does seem to be a difference between the Tibetan-born Tibetans and the ones born in India. The adults appear to be more serious and dedicated to Buddhism, having seen firsthand what the stakes are on an ethnic, cultural, spiritual, and human level. The two boys Nyima and Palden seemed to be very sad, at least at the beginning. Perhaps most of it is due to them being shy in this new environment, having left their family and their home and their everything. But there is also a sense that they have seen their family and their home and their everything disappearing even before they left. Meanwhile, the Indian-born kids like Orgyen and Lodo seem to take their environment for granted, being a little more carefree and mischievous, having only secondhand understanding at best of the oppression going on in Tibet. It is as if they are just different enough to be strange.
I suppose that, most importantly, the movie shows that these guys are just normal people. Yes, they place a lot of value onto their beliefs and rituals, but the movie does not venerate them as having glorious abilities. The boys do not stand up to Geko, let alone the Abbot, but they get away with a bit of mischief here and there, as well as transferring their own responsibilities onto others whenever they can.
Geko, to his credit, knows that the kids are acting up. They are not exactly as slick about hiding their misdeeds as they may like to believe. But, unless he can actually catch them and prevent them from running off, he usually does not punish them. He is kind of like a camp counselor or headmaster of a boarding school, but less strict. Is that how Tobgyal normally was? I don’t know. The Abbot is kind of off in his world and the lama is…kind of unpleasant, but they are just men, as human as everyone else. It is a bit amusing when it is revealed that the Abbot is unfamiliar with the World Cup and Geko has to explain the concept. It shows that Geko is quite aware of the world, and not just the experiences of Tibetans and Buddhism.
Well, you may have noticed that I have been talking about boys and men. Sure, this monastery seems to be primarily geared towards boys and men. Nevertheless, it is noticeable nonetheless, there are not many female characters in the movie and the ones who are do not get much screentime. The voice of Niyma’s mother recites the letter that she wrote for the monastery, but that is it. The two girls driven from Tibet do show up for a brief appearance and then do not show up again. I cannot tell if it is just the particular environment of the story that prevented the movie to feature women more prominently or whether there were real-world (religious?) reasons. A semi-related movie from 2003 called Travellers and Magicians does feature a female character rather prominently, but…well, that is still a different movie. Oh well…
Within a larger story of loss, sadness, and darkness, this movie teases out a small, amusing, and low-stakes tale of normal people doing normal things. And I very much enjoyed it. One day may come enlightenment beyond the tragedies of the world. One day may come a resolution to the tragedies that befall these people. But now…it is time for football.
WTF ASIA 190: Sanjuro (Japan: 1962, approx. 96 minutes)
WTF ASIA 191: Show Me Your Love (Hong Kong: 2016, approx. 99 minutes)