Director: Pawo Choyning Dorji
Cast: Harry Einhorn, Tandin Wangchuk, Deki Lhamo, Tandin Sonam, and Kelsang Choejay
Duration: 107 mins
In the town of Ura, in Bhutan, we see a young monk (Tandin Wangchuk) ritualistically making his way up to a lama (Kelsang Choejey). Bhutan is becoming a democracy after centuries of constitutional monarchy. The king has decided to abdicate, to pave the way for a more modern system of governance. The lama hears about the change that is being ushered into Bhutan and tells his disciple, "Things need to be made right." This ominous statement is followed by the demand for a couple of guns which are to be arranged by full-moon in four days time.
Director Pawo Choyning Dorji assembles the narrative of The Monk and the Gun like a thousand-piece puzzle scattered across the breathtaking beauty of the Bhutanese landscapes. The events of the film take place in these four days. The monk dutifully looks for a gun to bring to the lama, which turns out to be a difficult task because it is hard to find gun owners in a peaceful Buddhist country (a not-so-subtle dig at the United States of America). A young man called Benji (Tandin Sonam) is looking to make some money by helping an American antique gun collector, Ron Colman (Harry Einhorn) find a rare civil-war-era gun. Benji and "the American'' are on the radar of the Bhutanese police due to suspicions of illegal arms trade. Election officers are going door-to-door to register eligible voters and conduct a mock election to teach the voting population how to go about this process. The seemingly disparate stories converge to form a profound and poignant commentary on the balance between preserving traditions and making progress.
The simplified breakdown of the voting process in The Monk and the Gun reminds us of Newton (2017) starring Rajkumar Rao and Pankaj Tripathi. Like Newton, this film also employs the introduction to voting as a setup to delve into the delicate complexity of local politics. In both instances, the films recognize the potency and vulnerability inherent to the act of voting. It peels back the layers to expose the vulnerabilities of the common voter — how little they know and, more strikingly, how little they're willing to learn. In The Monk and the Gun, the electoral board holding the mock elections work hard to help the citizens understand their rights, and their choices. There are three options, represented by the colours red, blue and yellow. However, when yellow wins by an overwhelming margin, the board is forced to reckon with the prevailing mindset of the common voter. The Bhutanese invariably vote yellow — for preservation— but also for the colour of the King. It is a nod to our obsession with royalty, not just in Bhutan but everywhere around the world. It also holds a mirror to how resistant we are to change.
The film also raises pertinent questions for the need for change. Don’t fix what isn’t broken, right? On the surface, people of Bhutan seem content with the way things are. “We were always happy,” one character says to the electoral official, reminding us of how Bhutan becomes a promised land in The Lunchbox (2013) because of its measure of Gross National Happiness. While creating a comfortably wholesome image, this reputation fails to paint an accurate picture of the small, slowly developing country. Dorji has spoken about the poverty and unemployment in Bhutan that gets overshadowed by its image in the media as one of the happiest countries. Yes, there is a sense of fulfilment among the public that isn’t dependent on a Western idea of progress. But there is also a very real need to grow with the world. Dorji's lens challenges generalisations and introduces a diverse array of characters, each challenging preconceived notions.
The Monk and the Gun, in its deliberate pacing, invites you to linger in the world it crafts, allowing a rare intimacy with its characters. Unlike films in a hurry to reach a conclusion, this one luxuriates in the unfolding of its narrative — the untying of knots as Dorji puts it. The absence of fast-paced tension building means that a sense of urgency is replaced by a deep desire to understand the intricacies of a world where every moment feels both ordinary and extraordinary.
As the audience connects the dots between the monk, the American and the gun, our investment intensifies. The film challenges our ingrained tendency to jump to conclusions about characters and their motivations. As the lama requests a couple of guns, the most obvious assumption simultaneously seems like the most absurd. The lama won't kill the election officials, you assure yourself. But is that, too, an assumption waiting to be shattered? The film demands patience from its audience, encouraging us to zoom out and question our own assumptions.
What sets The Monk and the Gun apart is its optimistic satire. In a genre where humour often serves as a vehicle for critique, this film goes beyond, leaving the audience not just entertained, but also filled with hope. Cinematographer Jigme Tenzing captures the sprawling Bhutanese landscapes, making every shot a masterpiece worth savouring.
The film's unique charm lies in its simplicity — finding hilarity in the monk's fascination with James Bond and AK-47s, and the reluctant yet prompt submission of the American gun collector. There are wide shots and long takes of trails up the mountain, a monk walking up the hill with a rifle on his shoulders. The silences of these moments are filled with the audience's laughter at the sheer absurdity of the scene. Nothing particularly funny is happening, and yet there’s something so brilliantly hilarious about a peaceful monk casually hauling a huge gun around.
Election officials train people to be on opposite sides during the mock elections by demanding that they chant slogans against the other side. A forceful injection of animosity in a peaceful crowd slyly questioning the political system's role in inciting violence. In one of the most memorable scenes, an elderly woman comes up to an election official to complain, "You're teaching us to be rude," she says, adorably miffed. Is that not what the political system does? It teaches us to be rude and violent. It divides us so that someone can wield power. It’s a small moment, a simple line that gets a laugh but it immediately sinks into your stomach — is it really this obvious? Is it really so simple to want peace? Perhaps not, and yet like in The Monk and the Gun, one lives in hope. The brilliance of the film lies not just in the story it tells but in the way it invites us to participate, to question, and to savour the nuances of a world where peace is an obvious but difficult option.