Production Notes

FROM NEW YORK TO DHARAMSALA
The Incredible Voyage of Dreaming Lhasa
By Diki Tsomo Bhutia, Second Assistant Director

Diki Tsomo - Second Assistant Director What does it take to make a movie? Where does one begin to weave a narrative out of many months of excitement, disappointment, trials, tribulations, endurance, patience and exultation? I found out the hard way. It takes all the above-mentioned nouns put together plus huge doses of energy, cooperation, coordination and perseverance. Mind you, I am not heading out to give a sermon on what to do or not to do when you go about working on a film project. Rather, this is my odyssey of what happened during the making of Dreaming Lhasa.

I recall the excitement on the faces of our directors, Ritu and Tenzing, when they finally found their Karma. After pondering over the auditions of several (a couple of them quite promising) young and beautiful Tibetan women in the U.S. and Canada, it boiled down to Tenzin Chokyi. A banker by profession, living in suburban Virginia, I was a little apprehensive and skeptical about their final choice. When I first saw Tenzin outside a Starbucks Coffee shop in the East Side Village, she looked nowhere near the "vaguely punkish Karma" that I had read about in the script. With her Louis Vuitton bag and khakis, Tenzin needed a major makeover. So, Dechen Wangdu, our dear fashion and wardrobe consultant, the directors and myself had a lot of work to do. After several outfit changes and some shopping over the Internet and down the streets of Soho, we had some success in transforming Tenzin to look more like a Village gal. We had one final task at hand - Tenzin's lovely tresses had to GO! After several emails back and forth and some help from the hairstylist, Tenzin made a giant leap into the world of punk hairdos. I was crossing my fingers as the hairstylist feverishly chopped and colored Tenzin's hair, fearing what the outcome might be. Actually, it wasn't bad at all! She looked fantabulous and I could already see her as Karma. Wow! What a makeover! Whew! A huge sigh of relief ran down my spine. We were getting closer to PRODUCTION time as Tenzin left for India soon after her trip to New York. And, that meant that I had to start packing my bags and leave behind the familiar sights and smells of dear ol' New York City.

Flying at an altitude of over 35,000 feet above sea level, it finally sank into my head: the conversations and emails of Dreaming Lhasa turning into a reality was actually happening and I was going to be a part of it. It was a really good feeling! As we landed in New Delhi airport, after being sprayed with disinfectants (a requirement of WHO), and surviving a remotely familiar squat on an Indian style toilet with no toilet paper in sight, I began my journey into the world of Dreaming Lhasa.

The good ol' Bedi Bus was the trusted mode of transportation to Dharamsala, my final destination. It felt wonderful and exciting as I stepped out of the bus into the early morning hustle and bustle of McLeod Gunj. Tucked away underneath a downhill lane was Om Hotel, the hub of White Crane Films and the headquarters of Dreaming Lhasa. Anybody and everybody who had something to do with the film gathered there. For over two months or so, locals and tourists could call Om Hotel "White Crane Guest House" as the cast and crew of the film literally took over the entire concrete space and made it their home away from home. We had plenty of uninvited guests too: monkeys running down the hills as the weather got colder. I actually saw quite a variety of them: from the nastiest, hideously red-ends, to the serene albino babies. They would rummage through our garbage bins and prevent us from getting some fresh air in our rooms, as we feared our belongings, especially anything to do with the film project, would be snatched away if we kept our windows open.

After the crew had all arrived, we had an introduction meeting in the office so that the 40 plus crew could place a face to a name. Being the Second Assistant Director, I had the responsibility of script continuity, the video assist and being a backup to the First Assistant Director, Devika. With the shoot schedule looking great and all necessary pre-production done, we got word that the 16mm camera (the heart and lifeline) had to be taken to London to get fixed. So that delayed the start date a couple of days. We were so glad when the camera finally came to Dharamsala. After much pleading, the local film theater finally allowed a viewing of the test footage, which looked great. Yeah! We were ready to rock and roll…

Somehow, it dawned on us that we had to check the weather forecast, knowing the infamous reputation of Dharamsala displaying a range of weather conditions in a span of a few hours. So, we logged on to the Internet. Alas, we were in India after all, because finding a reliable weather website was like finding a needle in a haystack. But, thanks to AccuWeather.com, we finally got pretty accurate weather forecasts from halfway around the world and, unfortunately, it informed us that the first day of the shoot was going to be a total washout. I was so upset as were many others. During the first few days while I was in Dharamsala, I would accompany my grandmother every morning to the main temple, the Tsuglakhang, where I would fervently pray (in English - somehow I felt that I could express myself better) to the gods to give us plenty of sunny days and clear skies. Well, I was told that there are wind rinpoches that one can pacify but no rain rinpoches to ward off the stormy rains. My grandmother had also done a lot of shabdens (religious prayers and offerings) to ward off potential obstacles that might come our way. Thus, we were all a bit disappointed. The first scene to be shot was an exterior scene, which needed clear skies. Anyways, the shoot was quickly rescheduled to the snooker hall: it would work, as it was an interior scene. Seemed like a good alternative and a great way to start a film shoot…

Was it simple and easy? Quite an understatement. It was nerve-racking! Now, just imagine the first shot of the film shoot: a complicated tracking shot of the pool tables, coordinating the movement of everything and everyone in the mise en scene. After several rehearsals and a few takes, the directors cheered. In spite of the gloomy weather outside the pool hall, we were all productively caught up in the midst of the chaotic activity called filmmaking. With the amount of lighting, camera and sound equipment, and the endless number of people moving around, the ramshackle place was almost falling apart. Endless clouds of smoke were blown around using props like cigarettes and incense sticks that looked like fat cigars. Thank God, I was not a smoker, otherwise that would have meant the additional responsibility of puffing away to glory after every take or so.

The first shoot day also provided crucial glimpses into the work habits and idiosyncrasies of different crewmembers (which we all got quite used to as the days progressed into weeks). In between the innumerable demands for water, tea, snacks and traffic control, it was a test of patience and tolerance for the production unit. It was also a test of coordination amongst all of us working under intense pressure, precious time and limited space so as to not trip over precious equipment or fall on top of each other while trying to get things done our way. In that pandemonium, we successfully completed Day One of the shoot, most of Scene 57.

The rain did not stop for us on the second day either. We trudged along back to the snooker hall to complete Scene 57. It all went well. We then moved on to shoot at the cyber café up the hill. It was a fraction of the size of the snooker hall and we all tried to squeeze into it, quite unsuccessfully. As the sound crew was banished to the claustrophobic phone booth with all their equipment, I was eventually kicked out into a river of slushy mud flowing down the hill. The funny thing was that during rehearsals, the rain would stop but as we proceeded to roll sound and camera and the director yelled "Action!", the rain would start pouring noisily on the tin roof, causing the sound recordist, Satheesh, to yell for more quilt padding on the roof. Luckily, that was the last of the rainy day shoots. From then on, we were blessed with reasonable sunshine and "partly pleasant" days.

The guerilla style or "commando style" of shooting started with the Sunset Café scene when we literally raced against time, running from one end of the town to another, to make it on time for the sunset. It was a long one-take shot with Jigme singing "Goa Beach" to his buddies while the sun set in the background. We did it! It was worth all the huffing and puffing!

The opening scene of the film was this magical montage of images introducing Dhondup and the notion of a typical Dharamsala bus journey to the audience, and it was indeed a memorable one in terms of theatrics and comedy. We were woken up in the wee hours of the morning to set out into the valley to catch the early morning light. The bus load of extras had not paid heed to the specific instructions given to them to look tired and a little dirty, and instead came dressed in their Sunday best! We could even see the folded creases of their new shirts, pants and chubas.

As we arrived at the roadside where Scene 1 was to be shot, a flock of goats and sheep came tumbling out of the back of a mini pickup, a last minute replacement due to a greedy shepherd asking for a cool 20,000 rupees for his flock. So the replacement sheep and goats were actually domesticated animals from a nearby village who had forgotten how to move about in a flock. Little did we know what we were in store for: a hilarious excursion into the world of animal training in coordination. Each time the bus came roaring up the road, the flock of goats and sheep would get totally confused as Tsering, our Associate Director, would shoo them from behind the rocks to move forward towards the road and walk off in a cloud of dust. Their attitude was more like, "Yo dude…What's up! Long time no see!" or like strangers totally freaked out at the sight of each other. The poor animals would move in every other direction but straight ahead. At one point, they finally moved in the right direction and as we watched with bated breath, the poor fellows stepped right on the fake milestone and toppled it over with a loud thud to a cloud of papier mâché dust. We could not stop laughing for a long time and tears rolled down our cheeks. Could it get any easier? As the shoot progressed inside the bus, the poor extras actually got right into the moment as they started feeling queasy from the constant starting and stopping of the bus. We finally got our authenticity.

One of the interior sequences was shot in this tiny mud hut in a village near McLeod Gunj. It was a gorgeous mud-walled space with slate tiles on the roof, very fragile looking. It seemed as if a single wooden pillar held up the roof and if one more person filed into the room, the floor would cave in under the weight of the cast, crew, tracks, trolley, and the rest of the film equipment. My sitting spot was right behind the chicken coop and next to a pile of hay. My allergies thrived under these favorable conditions. They had a field day at the expense of my poor nose! There were two interesting looking buffaloes right outside the hut: one was a young hot blooded fellow while the other looked like he was wearing a salt and pepper toupee. They were banished from our sight for fear that they would moo right in the middle of a shot, and we were shooting the highly emotional climactic scene. Even so, we still had to endure the dogs barking and the roosters crowing right in the middle of crucial dialogs. But, we did it in spite of everything.

The dreaded day had finally come: the long walk up a mountain trail to shoot an exterior scene at a hut, high above McLeod Gunj, near Triund. It was an open joke that I, being a New Yorker who hopped in and out of subway trains during rush hour (the only form of exercise that I got), would need a head start of at least two hours before the rest of the crew. After an early morning wobbly drive up a dusty, rugged road, we reached a tiny bridge. This was it, the end of modern civilization. From then on, it was a steep climb up the hill. It almost felt like a rock climbing expedition with my heavy back pack of equipment on my shoulders and a small plastic bag of my breakfast: two hard boiled eggs, a Tibetan muffin and a container of Litchi drink in my hand. I seriously wished I had brought a ski pole with me. That would have been handy. It was a long trek up the hill and our first destination, a tree with a hammock like trunk, was nowhere in sight. My face broke out into a smile as I saw an Italian restaurant (quite bizarre) on the way up the hill, which boasted of having mouthwatering pasta dishes and roasted potatoes to feast on. Unfortunately, it was closed and thus, a huge disappointment to my growling stomach.

At last, we reached the SPOT. After we had quick gulps of the packed breakfast (one of our crew members lost his share to an over-eager mongrel that chowed down everything in a flash) we started to shoot the romantic scene between Karma and Dhondup. With the lighting assistants holding the reflectors, the camera looming overhead, several other crew members perched on the trunk, I could imagine how hard it must have been to actually get into the romantic mood. It was quite hilarious because at the same time, in contrast, a soap opera-like ferocious battle took place between a male and a female mongrel. All ended well and we continued our hike up to the hut. The rest of the crew had already gathered there, taking a different route with mules carrying the bulk of the equipment. After eating a treat - Tibetan style chicken biryani and tomato soup while sitting on a grassy carpet of dried cow and goat dung (got quite used to it, plus it was all natural) - we started to shoot.

A different flock of sheep had been selected this time and they, too, needed much persuasion to walk down the hill coherently. With not much sunlight left, we shot "commando style" with different track movements. As the sun started setting, it all made sense as to why the directors had chosen that particular location: it was a breathtakingly beautiful sight as the sun set and the moon rose to a sky filled with twinkling stars and we could see the expansive Kangra valley below us. What brought us back to reality was the pretty scary trek downhill in the dark. We hurriedly marched down and after a good twenty minutes, walked straight into a field of haystacks. Some of us had missed a turn. So, we had to shout out loud for the others to hear us and then had to walk uphill again in the right direction. We all made it back to the hotel in one piece. What a day that was!

One early morning, some of us picked ourselves out of our warm beds and trudged up the dreaded steep hill, to complete some of the spillovers from the earlier scene. The thought that it was going to be short and sweet was appealing to my sleepy head but that was not to be, as shots were added and filmed, and before we knew, it was time to dash to the next location. Everyone started scrambling downhill. Deva, with the precious camera, and myself were the last people to leave. As we reached the little bridge that welcomes you back to the modern world, Deva and myself found an empty road ahead of us. I walked for a good ten minutes down that dusty road in the hope of seeing a parked vehicle until a light bulb lit inside my head: the crew had left us behind. So I walked back and gave Deva the awful news. We comforted ourselves with the thought that the rest of the crew could not shoot without us as we had the CAMERA. After a good 45 minutes, it was a relief to see the reliable Maruti Gypsy approaching in a cloud of dust.

How do you go about controlling a rather unruly crowd of young enthusiastic extras in a discotheque? Just let them be. Yes, Dharamsala does have a discotheque (temporarily shut down, yet very available for film shoots). After a pretty scary walk up a dark, narrow staircase, we walked into a sublime world of a replicated fisherman's wharf that had sea creatures floating on the walls and empty portholes staring back at us. To this, some freaky looking silvery spider webs were added for a rave dance party atmosphere. By the time we were set up, the young crowd was so pepped up that the shot was taken in one single take. After imagining it to be a complicated shoot, it was such a cakewalk. The only problem was that the partying extras refused to leave the set and continued dancing to hip hop and techno music with the DJ of the discotheque shamelessly plugging the grand reopening of the place in a couple of weeks. What a night!

How do you replicate an earthquake? Very simple: gently rock a table with water filled offering bowls and noisily drop a flowerpot. Well, that was required for shooting the oracle scene. It was not so simple. After several takes, the art of reproducing the tremors was mastered. The exterior was harder; the flowerpot was dropped a few times but the extra, a woman running down the stairs screaming, "Earthquake!", could not stop smiling. It was quite amusing to see that someone was actually glad to see an earthquake happening. The funny thing was that one early morning, we did indeed experience the real thing, as we were rudely awakened by the rattling of windowpanes and the bed shaking to and fro. Quite nerve-racking for us but a normal event for Dharamsala residents.

Telling kids to say their dialog was not an easy task. Independent minds and opinions were what the directors had to deal with. I remember the time we went up to the Tibetan Children's Village to shoot the scene where Dhondup and Karma are walking past a few TCV kids. Boy! Those kids had their own script at hand. They actually grilled a quite embarrassed Karma about her historical and cultural knowledge of Tibet in order to become convinced that she was indeed Tibetan. It was hilarious to see the cute kids (one of them was actually dressed in Hulk colors) give their impromptu performance on camera.

Dealing with the Dharamsala cold weather was like an endurance test. It was tested high up on a huge rock by TIPA (Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts). We were shooting the scene after the disco fight amidst the huge lights that had been especially brought to accentuate the look of a moonlit night. It was a blind man's walk up the very steep slope to get to the location and the charcoal fire was our best friend for the night. We had picked a night when a wedding celebration was going on full blast somewhere down below, much to the dismay of our sound crew. Thankfully, we had quite a productive night and I survived a huge fall on the way down. It so happened that I was walking behind Jigme, who was on his crutches and being held by his pals. Behind me was Deva, carrying the camera. I slipped just as I saw the road below (I think the excitement of being near flat land did it to me). I had to quickly maneuver my fall to avoid myself from taking one of the lead actors and the camera down with me. Whew! I just about managed to prevent a potential catastrophe.

Perhaps the culmination of our emotions was visually expressed in that amazing thunderstorm that unfolded in front of our eyes as a few of us looked out into the Kangra valley one evening just before we had wrapped the shoot in Dharamsala. It looked like a magnificent Turner painting with the threatening thunderclouds giving way to flashes of lightning, followed by shafts of warm sunlight reflecting on the surface of a lake. It was truly a moving experience as it mirrored what we had been experiencing physically and emotionally coming thus far, and that it was definitely worth it for all the right reasons. It was like an auspicious sign of better things to come. With that comforting feeling, we descended into the great plains of Northern India.

It was pretty scary driving on one of those notorious Indian highways and shooting some scenes simultaneously in the bus. It always happens that when you don't need heavy traffic, you get one, and when you need one, you don't. With that long, tiring journey, we were officially on the road, delving into the world of roadside dhaba cuisine.

Clement Town, nestled in the Dehradun valley, was a welcome change of scene from Dharamsala. It reminded you of an old western town and you could walk from one end to another in five minutes. It was quite a shock to wake up in the morning to see a gigantic, ornamental stupa with a huge statue of Buddha nearby, surrounded by well- manicured lawns and evenly placed giant prayer wheels right at your doorstep. Kind of like a surreal Buddhist Disneyland, complete with droves of tourists admiring the magnitude and the sheer scale of the sculptures. I do admit that the view from the top of the stupa was spectacular.

Our film shoot was a few minutes walk away from there, in an old monastery. There was a problem when we got there. The monks, in preparation of our impending arrival, had gone ahead and painted the exterior walls in chalky white. Alas! It had occurred to no one to inform the monks that we had liked the gracefully aging walls instead. So our first job was to take mud filled leaves and go about dirtying the walls. The monastery was reimbursed to paint them back if anyone reading this is horrified. It was so serene and soothing to be there and, thank God, the shoot was a breeze, apart from the occasional goose chasing that had to be done for sync sound purposes. And, of course, we did not dare shut down the noisy water pump despite the persistent complaints of the sound crew because that would have meant inconveniencing our gracious hosts: the entire population of Clement Town.

The drive to New Delhi was interesting as we experienced a genuine bus breakdown as compared to the one we had emulated 50 kilometers away from Dharamsala (where I got my acting break and we experienced loads of crowd control problems). Luckily, the bus had pulled over just in time before the nuts and bolts gave away and, after a quick fix, we drove off into the welcoming arms of a huge thunderstorm. It was pouring cats and dogs when we arrived at Majnu ka Tila, the Times Square for Tibetans arriving in India from every nook and corner of the world. The place had changed so much since the last time I was there. From great tasting Tibetan sausages to money changing facilities, Majnu ka Tila offered almost everything except a steady flow of ELECTRICITY. We had a hectic shoot schedule planned and we experienced huge delays due to constant power failures. The Tse Topgyal restaurant scenes were interrupted time and again by the horrendous noise of generators going full blast as the lights went off. We had immense crowd control issues during the night shoot, as the rumor floating around the streets was that Shahrukh Khan was shooting. So instead of Karma and Dhondup arriving late at night in a desolate Majnu ka Tila, we had a hundred people screaming and yelling "action" and "cut" on behalf of the directors. To keep them at bay from the actual shoot, a mock take did the trick. The crowd disappeared…only to come back a couple of days later for the hunger strike scene. After much aggravation and loads of patience, we finally completed the scene.

Jaipur, Rajasthan was our last big location shoot. Getting there was pretty terrifying. After several hours of delay, our Toyota Qualis finally hit the road but we got further delayed due to a rebellious driver of another car. After smoothing out differences and opinions, we set off again. Much to our dismay, we got caught in a thick fog the moment we hit the highway. Suddenly, to our shock, we were in the middle of nowhere and we could see not more than two feet in front of us. Tenzing Tsetan, our Production Coordinator and Tashi, our Wardrobe Coordinator, bravely shouted out into the foggy darkness to see if any one was around. Not a soul answered back and it was like straight out of a horror flick as two blanketed men approached us out of the fog after a few minutes. We found out that we were lost and had taken a wrong turn into a deserted road. It was such a relief when we were finally back on the highway after two endless hours. Tenzing Tsetan and myself were unfortunately right up front, and next to the driver, and believe me, we did not sleep a wink during the entire nine-hour journey as we were constantly "oohing" and "aahing" in fright every time we got dangerously close to a truck or a bus. It was such a relief when we finally reached Jaipur and the fog mysteriously disappeared. No one would have believed our story, as it was all bright starry skies in Jaipur. The decadently beautiful Jaipur has so much to offer in terms of architecture and culture. You could witness the remnants of what was once grand and opulent as you walked down the overcrowded streets of the Pink City. In one of the oldest and dirtiest parts of the city, the enterprising Tibetans had opened a huge and well-organized sweater market. We were to shoot inside the bazaar and in the vicinity during the time we were there. I had one of my best meals during the entire shoot: cheap and delicious momos made by Tibetans who were selling them right outside the market and across the street from filthy pigs frolicking in rotting garbage. That did not deter me at all. We actually managed to squeeze in some shopping in between shoots, as Jaipur is a shopper's heaven. The drive back was like a ride through hell, where our driver just zipped, zapped, zoomed and screeched to a halt only when we arrived in Majnu ka Tila. Boy! We were glad to be alive and in one piece!

We finally wrapped the Dreaming Lhasa shoot on Christmas Day and it was a marvelous journey till the end. After hanging out in all kinds of spaces (sometimes quite cramped and partially claustrophobic) like narrow alleys, under restaurant counters, little huts, matchbox sized rooms and plenty of dirty street drains, blistering cold porches and hillside slopes, I wondered how it would feel like, going back to the comforts of my New York apartment. After drinking at least eighty varieties of tea, tons of nutri nuggets, loads of boiled eggs, plenty of tandoori rotis, countless glasses of honey ginger lemon tea and several helpings of the totally disgusting and notoriously delicious stewed goat feet, I wondered what it would be like to return to the boring bagels and hotdogs of New York City. After numerous hugs and goodbyes at the wrap party, we all went our separate ways and moved on with our lives.

Sitting in front of my Mac, writing this piece, in the familiar surroundings of my apartment, it seems like a dream that over a month ago, I was far away on the other side of the world, filming on the emerald hills of Dharamsala, India. Wow! What an unbelievable and memorable journey that was!

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