travelers and magicians

(Welcome to A Passage to India, a new series where we explore great works from all over South Asia for unacquainted viewers, all of them available to stream.)

To cinema, he’s Khyenste Norbu, New York Film Academy alumnus, consultant to Bertolucci on Little Buddha and Bhutan’s premier director. His second feature, Travelers and Magicians, was the first to be shot entirely in the Kingdom; his third, Vara: A Blessing, was the first Bhutanese film in the English language.

To Tibetan and Bhutanese Buddhism however, he’s Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, a reincarnate lama and the grandson of spiritual leader Dudjom Jigdral Yeshe Dorje, the first supreme head of the Nyingma lineage appointed by none other than the fourteenth and current Dalai Lama. Few filmmakers occupy such a unique cultural space.

It would be natural to think these worlds incompatible. One some level, Norbu himself might agree; such is the tragedy of modernity, captured here on celluloid in ways that attempt to reconcile two warning halves of the soul. Dzongkha-language Travelers and Magicians (2003) tells the tale of a man trapped similarly between realities. A city dweller, appointed to a tiny village in the Kingdom of Bhutan on India’s north-eastern border, making his way to America in a tale that feels both fundamentally Buddhist, and yet fundamentally Western. An internal struggle, externalized ethereally, in the form of stories within stories.

Dondup, the Discontented

Bhutan is often considered the world’s happiest country — usually by its own metric. Travelers and Magicians opens with a tour of this characteristic joy. A rural happiness, born from breathing in the pure air of the lush-green mountains. A traditional warmth, bouncing between men dressed in colourful gho shooting arrows at targets, not for competition or sport, but for each other’s enjoyment. These villagers are simple, but buoyant, partaking in simple rituals for the sake of togetherness. Their happiness is that of neighbors who bid even village newcomers farewell, with gifts of cheese and words of comfort.

One such newcomer, on his way out the door no sooner than he arrives, is Dondup (Tshewang Dendup), who stands apart from the rest of the village. His hair is long. He smokes in secret. His gho is black; it droops, as if neglected. His very presence feels disrespectful. He owns an “I [Heart] New York” t-shirt, which he wears with denims under his traditional garb, and he trades in prayer flags for pictures of models and an Uncle Sam poster, displayed on his wall. His cassette tapes, which he blasts from a characteristically ’90s boombox, are all in English. Dondup dreams of a life in America. He waits impatiently for a letter from abroad summoning him to Thimpu, the capital city, where he hopes to acquire a Visa. Unbeknownst to his employers, his new government posting in the village won’t last; he knows he’s destined for the West, be it as a dishwasher or an apple picker or any job he can find — a step down in status from his current employ, yet several steps up financially.

Condescension is Dondup’s calling card. To him, anything is better than the restaurant-less, cinema-less mundanity of the Kingdom’s interiors. He is unhappy. He desires luxuries just outside his grasp. It can be argued desire is the cause of his unhappiness, as the central teachings of Buddhism would tell you. Travelers and Magicians however, has no intention of converting anyone to asceticism, least of all its protagonist. Whatever the root of Dondup’s sorrows, it’s their manifestation that needs correcting; rural simplicity may not be his calling, but he looks down on those who find contentment in the ways of the old-world and its spiritual musings.

When the letter arrives, Dondup rushes to the roadside to hitch a ride to the future. Thimpu is two day’s drive, and the city’s upcoming religious festival means Dondup isn’t the only one waiting for car or depending on the kindness of others. En route to America, the land of his dreams, a place where “they don’t even know where Bhutan is,” Dondup waits by the road with fellow hitchhikers (a monk, an apple picker, a rice paper salesman and his daughter Sonam) whom he, at first, doesn’t allow himself to connect with. Whatever their struggles, whatever their stories, they’re simply hurdles to Dondup’s journey. Though in being forced to see their humanity, their kindness, and their perspectives up close, this city-dweller bound for technological marvels begins to see the magic around him — not only in the mountains, but in its people.

Norbu’s M.O. might be subtle — much of its story hinges on mere glances by Tshewang Dendup, the film’s only professional actor — but Travelers and Magicians is deeply affecting. It plays, in itself, like an act of reconciliation, arriving at answers that seek not to bridge impossible physical and cultural gaps, but to guide one as they navigate the journey between them.

Picture-in-Picture

For most other films steeped in religious doctrine, the appearance of a literal preacher — in this case, a Buddhist monk hitchhiking alongside Dondup — would ordinarily spell narrative doom. Writer-director Norbu, however, uses this authorial stand-in for a more esoteric purpose than sermon. Upon recognizing Dondup’s irritability (towards the apple-picker, and towards the monk himself), the Buddhist, a cheeky twenty-something with a sparkle in his eye, strums away on his dramyin and tells the tale of two brothers as a parable for Dondup’s journey.

Rather than an instructional on morality, the monk’s story — broken up each time the group hitches a ride and resuming during breaks and nightfall — is a cautionary tale of the all-consuming nature of desire, should it go unchecked. The sepia-washed apologue plays like a flashback, telling the story of older brother Tashi, a student of magic with his head in the clouds, and younger brother Karma, who envies the opportunities Tashi seems to waste. Fed-up with his brother’s squandered potential and desire to escape, and perhaps seeking to replace him, Karma slips a strange herbal mixture into Tashi’s drink.

The concoction awakens something deep within the magician-in-training. He begins seeing the world in new hues — shades of blue and green layered over the sepia, as if merging dream with reality — as time begins to accelerate and the heavens pour down on him. Tashi rides a magical horse helter-skelter to escape the pelting rain, going further than he ought to and landing up outside an isolated jungle dwelling that feels plucked from a different era. Stranded mid-forest and with no memory of his path, he knocks on the door. An old woodcutter and his young wife, Deki, take Tashi in, healing his wounds and feeding him until he’s ready to leave. He eventually overstays his welcome; Deki draws his gaze just as he draws hers. The young conjurer is far more suited to Deki than her cranky old hsuband, but Tashi’s presence is still an intrusion in this mysterious abode.

As time goes on, and as the woodcutter remains silent about the ongoing affair, Tashi’s reality begins to exhibit surreal hues once more. Days turn to weeks, and weeks to months, yet time seems to stand still. Tashi’s plan to kill the old man and replace him, by poisoning his drink no less, leaves him trapped in a cycle of difficult decisions with results are outside his control. Life in this new world is chaos, and Tashi has no way to return from it.

The dreamlike fable, while thematically similar, acts in direct contrast to Dondup’s narrative. The realist approach to the Bhutanese hillside, with wide lenses allowing Dondup to breathe in his surroundings (even though he’d rather be elsewhere) find themselves replaced by long, voyeuristic telephotos as Tashi peers in on rooms, situations and a wife that are not his. The monk’s friendly cadence and occasional teasing of the privileged Dondup suggest this “warning” isn’t meant to deter the America-bound official, though its be-careful-what-you-wish-for morality allows Dondup to come to his own conclusions.

That is to say, now smitten with the rice paper salesman’s daughter after two days on the road, Dondup, like Tashi, is now in a more vulnerable position. As the group travels, any decision Dondup makes affects more than just himself. Every action comes with a weight strapped to it. By choice, or otherwise, Dondup the loner is now part of a community, tethered to those around him.

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