Production Notes

Casting

Jampa Kalsang Finding the actors for the film was a major challenge. There is no such thing as a Tibetan film industry in exile and therefore, no pool of professional actors to choose from. Yet, the moment the word went out that a Tibetan feature film was looking for actors, the response and enthusiasm was overwhelming. Everyone wanted to be a part of this venture and there were so many applicants that the directors felt bad that there were not enough roles to accommodate everyone who showed promise.

One person who had some prior acting experience was Kathmandu-based Jampa Kalsang, who had played an important role in the indy feature film, Windhorse. Jampa was the right age for the role and had the kind of face the directors were looking for, but he was an exile-born Tibetan who had spent all his life in India and Nepal. Could he convincingly play a newly escaped Tibetan from Tibet? This was a crucial point as there are marked differences between Tibetans brought up in exile and those brought up in Tibet. The directors took a gamble and it paid off handsomely. Jampa’s total dedication and the professionalism with which he approached his work proved an inspiration to all the cast and crew. In the best traditions of method acting, Jampa got under the skin of his character and literally became Dhondup for the duration of the shoot, so much so that most Tibetans who did not know him in Dharamsala, assumed he was yet another recent refugee from Tibet!

Tenzin Chokyi Ritu and Tenzing knew that they wanted a Tibetan brought up in North America to play the role of Karma. In early 2003, a casting call was put out on various websites and newsletters catering to the small Tibetan communities in America and Canada, which brought a clutch of responses. These were whittled down to a handful and finally, to 30-year-old Tenzin Chokyi Gyatso, who had come to America as a child with her parents. At first glance, she was as far removed from the character she was to portray as could be imagined: Tenzin worked in a bank in suburban DC, whereas Karma was meant to be an East Village bohemian. But something about the confidence with which she did her audition, and her quiet determination to prove that she could play the role, convinced the filmmakers that she was the right choice. In many ways, Tenzin Chokyi had the most difficult challenge to overcome. As a Tibetan who had grown up in the States with virtually no experience of either India or the exile Tibetan community there, she was the one real outsider in the entire group. As the leading lady, she was naturally the focus of everyone’s attention, which put enormous pressure on her. And as someone with no prior acting experience, she had to work extra hard to prove herself.

Tenzin Jigme In June 2003, a series of auditions were held in Dharamsala to find Jigme, the local boy who is torn between conflicting emotions and priorities. More than a hundred applicants showed up, but Tenzin Jigme, who in his normal life is one third of the Dharamsala-based rock band, JJI Exile Brothers, was without question the best. He turned out to be a natural actor – a one-take, shoot-from-the-hip artist – who constantly surprised the directors with his unexpected improvisations and character interpretations. As a Dharamsala boy himself, who had done his fair share of hanging around, he had a real understanding of the character he was to play. The fact that his alter ego was also called Jigme led to some confusion in his mind; in fact, his biggest dilemma was to find a separation between himself and his character but it was this very tension that enabled him to give his performance a depth and vitality that would have been difficult to achieve otherwise. His being a rock musician was incorporated into the script and this gave his role an added dimension.

Finding the older Tibetans – all of whom had to be in their seventies – to play the smaller, but nonetheless crucial parts was equally daunting. The choice was limited and once potential candidates had been identified, they had to be convinced to try out for the roles! A retired official from the Dalai Lama’s government, two former resistance fighters, and a house mother at the Tibetan Children’s Village were among those selected, and they threw themselves into their roles with great enthusiasm and acquitted themselves remarkably convincingly.

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