Ritu Sarin-Tenzing Sonam’s Noirish Thriller Featuring Tibetans Living In Exile In Delhi

The Sweet Requiem premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Sarin and Sonam talk about why they felt the need to make a fiction film, working with an all-Tibetan cast, and why Majnu-ka-tilla is like Chinatown
Ritu Sarin-Tenzing Sonam’s Noirish Thriller Featuring Tibetans Living In Exile In Delhi

In a scene in Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam's new film The Sweet Requiem, 26-year-old Dolkar, a Tibetan refugee living in Delhi, refuses to go out to party with friends. Instead, she stays at home where she ends up watching videos of her countrymen setting themselves alight. So far she has avoided the topic of self-immolation protests in Tibet, and videos of them (banned by the Chinese Government, but secretly circulated online), hiding her discomfort at its graphic nature under the garb of superficial concern: What good is going to come out it?

A good friend helps her put things in perspective, "It is to show us how desperate the situation is in Tibet."

It isn't an eye-opener for Dolkar, who as an eight-year-old had to flee Tibet with her father by crossing a treacherous Himalayan range, leaving her mother and sister back home. But it serves as a reminder of a traumatic childhood memory – involving the death of her father, and betrayal by their guide – and that it's time she should confront it. The 91-minute film is set predominantly in the Tibetan community in Delhi but it keeps cutting back to Dolkar's memory of her fateful journey.

The Sweet Requiem is a narrative feature, which had its world premiere at the ongoing Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), and Dolkar is a fictional character. But it is inspired by many real life stories of Tibetans living in exile, about which Sarin and Sonam (a Tibetan who has grown up in Darjeeling)  have dedicatedly made films on: From archival footage of the Dalai Lama's historic visit to Russia in 1991, to such self-reflexive short documentaries as A Stranger in my Native Land (1998), to multi-channel video installations as Middle Way or Independence? which is about the debate over whether Tibet should appeal for partial or complete independence.

In a chat from Toronto, Sarin and Sonam spoke about why they felt the need to make a fiction film, working with an all-Tibetan cast, and the cinematic richness of Majnu-ka-tilla.

Edited Excerpts: 

You make mostly documentaries, and you've made only one narrative feature film, "Dreaming Lhasa" (2005) before. Why did you feel the need to make one this time?

Ritu: We like to work in different ways, in different mediums – documentary, fiction, and we also do some work in the art space with video installations. We like this flexibility when we are working with certain subjects and ideas, and we like to work across them. What we can do in fiction is tell complex stories, which we can also tell through documentaries, but it's just a different way.

Tenzing: I think fiction gives us another kind of freedom to explore a large subject through a personal voice. One can be more adventurous in the way one shapes the story.

On the film's Kickstarter page, you've mentioned that the idea came from the real life footage of a Tibetan nun being shot by Chinese soldiers. Why was that footage so powerful?

Tenzing: From the late 80s onward, thousands of Tibetans started to flee Tibet across the mountains. A second wave of refugees had started, and Ritu and I have worked in a lot of stories about how difficult the crossing was, how dangerous it was, with the guides abandoning them, Chinese border guards chasing them. But in this particular incident, the shooting was captured on video by a Romanian mountaineer and made public. It was the first time that we had some kind of a visual reference point. Just to see that footage, this kind of vast mountain pass at almost 18000 feet, with people trekking across it and then suddenly being shot in cold blood, I think that really impacted us… That's what sparked this desire to do something with that story.

How much of the film is real, how much of it is imagined?

Ritu: A lot of it is actually from real life, because we live as part of this community, and we hear stories all the time, so it is inspired by…but the way it's been put together is entirely new.

Tenzing: We met a lot of kids who came across like our main character in the film who were sent by their parents to India, and never went back home, and kind of became doubly exiled, or orphaned even. We know a lot of these kids who now are all in their 20s and early 30s. So it is based on true things that we knew but I guess the story that I wrote was completely fictional.

The film unfolds like a thriller. How did you arrive at the kind of genre you would want to make?

Tenzing: We wanted to have a personal story that would be foregrounded within the context of the larger political situation. But we didn't want it to be an in-your-face political message kind of a film. We wanted it to be more universal. Ritu and I have been to Majnu-ka-tilla a lot, and we just knew how cinematic the place is. In fact, I have always thought it would make a great setting for a film noir and when I set out to write The Sweet Requiem I thought it was my chance to add that dimension. wanted to set a film there. Of course, the mountain scenes have their own kind of appeal. I think we just set out trying to make a film that will combine a bit of adventure kind of film with film noir kind of film.

Ritu: We didn't really use a lot of light. Our DOP David McFarland really improvised, he used little lanterns, it was quite dark… We were always in the small alleys, and just the fact that when you go to Majnu-ka-tilla, you feel like you are in a completely different kind of a space. That was interesting to us, how communities and people create their own spaces.

Tenzing: Our DOP, David, loved the natural look that Majnu-ka-tilla has. It has a lot of mixed lighting – lot of cold fluorescent lighting, warm sodium lighting that come from these big lamps that they put in the alleys. And then there's a kind of strange LED colourful lights in the shops and they all clash together especially at night. So you get these washes of cold and warm and all kinds of lighting textures. He emphasised the lighting that was already there. Even without any additional lighting it's kind of pretty noirish.

…When the Tibetans came to India, were allowed by the Indian Government, by Jawaharlal Nehru, to set up a kind of parallel world. So we have our own schools, we have our government in exile in Dharamshala. In a sense we are pretty self contained. Going to Majnu-ka-tilla is like going to Chinatown, you are in some weird zone…

Although set almost entirely in Delhi, almost all the characters in the film are Tibetans. Are the lives of Tibetan refugees that self contained and alienated from the rest?

Ritu: It really is. I think that's something Tenzing and I have been really wanting to bring into the film, the fact that Tibetans live a parallel life. And the only time they go out normally and interact is, you know, with an auto driver, or when they go to a local shop, or work. Otherwise their lives are all completely cut off.

Tenzing: It's partly to do with the way the Tibetan refugees, when they came to India, were allowed by the Indian Government, by Jawaharlal Nehru, to set up a kind of parallel world. So we have our own schools, we have our government in exile in Dharamshala. So in a sense we are pretty self contained. Going to Majnu-ka-tila is like going to Chinatown, you are in some weird zone, and it was important for us to heighten that quality. It's also an aspect of Tibetan life in exile that most Indians are unaware of.

All the actors are Tibetan as well. How difficult was it to do the casting? Is there a Tibetan cinema scene?

Ritu: There's hardly any scene. There are people who are aspiring to be filmmakers, actors, but there is really no industry, no market.

A lot of Tibetans are on social media. We had put out casting calls and we got a great response. We actually did the casting a couple of years before we shot. For us it was very important to know that the main character existed. We could've imagined her, but if we didn't find her how would we hang a film on someone who couldn't act? So it was a key point for us to find Dolkar. And we were really fortunate to find Tenzin Dolker who plays Dolkar in the film. She had never acted but she was a natural.

Tenzing: Almost everybody in the film is a non professional except the the actor who plays the guide, Gompo, who has previous experience in working in films – in fact he was in our first film as well. Everyone else were complete non-professionals, newcomers. And Shavo Dorjee (who plays Dolkar's friend and activist) had one acting experience.

How difficult was it to get them act?

Ritu: We did little workshops with them, but it wasn't difficult really. They want to tell their own stories. And they could all relate to the story and characters so that made it easier for them to get into their roles.

How did you shoot in the snow range?

Tenzing: It was 2 hours drive from Leh, close to a village called Sakti. It was a gruelling shoot. We had a tent kind of a set-up there, and the guides who were doing the catering were basically the people who go on mountaineering expeditions.

Ritu: One day there was such a storm that we couldn't shoot… We needed the snow because we wanted the snow and cold weather and then come to the heat of Delhi, to have that contrast in the film. When we went early April last year, we were hoping for snow. But most people said there's no way we can predict. We were really lucky because there hasn't been that kind of snow in 8 years at 15,000 feet. Otherwise you might have to go to 18,000 feet or something. For a small crew like us, that would be really tough.

A review in the Hollywood Reporter pointed that the film hinges on the Buddhist philosophy of action and reaction. The 'dzi bead' that Dolkar's character owns has also been used as a narrative device. Was it a conscious decision to weave these quintessentially Tibetan elements into the plot? 

Tenzing: Absolutely. The guy who wrote that review actually got it spot on. The idea of cause-and-effect, Karma, in the Buddhist sense of the word, was very important in the way I thought of the script. The actions that we take in life sometimes are not of our own choice, but then the repercussions of those actions on other people and the continuing cycle of cause and effect that was something that was an important part of the script. And the Dzi bead is really precious in Tibet, it's the most expensive kind of stone you can buy there.

Besides film festivals, what are your plans in terms of releasing the film?

Ritu: We want to get to maximum audiences. Right now we are looking at all kinds of channels, talking to all kinds of people, we want to get whatever distribution we can. It's also a time we can't just think theatrical. It's also important that we get the film out to the audiences in India because most people here don't know this story. I think a small theatrical is possible for a film like this in North America, little bit in Europe. It'll premiere in India at the Dharamshala International Film Festival.

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