Thimphu played in local theatres a few months ago. This is director Chand Rai’s second Bhutanese feature film. His last film, Gawa, which highlighted the issue of nighthunting in the country won him several accolades, but Thimphu had me all choked up when I watched it, last week.
It may be because Thimphu is home to me. This is my life. As it is for many of you too. Thimphu is our city of dreams. Much like LA to the US. Mumbai to India. Thimphu is where our dreams can come true. And also where our hearts break.
There are seven lives in focus in Thimphu. Through them, Chand attempts to share the complexities of a fast-growing city and the life of its inhabitants. He manages to do that minus the melodrama of most Bhutanese films.
The story that affected me the most was that of the parking fee collector (Rigzin Norbu), his alcoholic brother who works as a garbage collector (Bumpa), and their grandmother (Aum Zam) who sells vegetables on the streets of Thimphu. These are people we meet/ interact with daily or almost every other day in the capital. These are people most of us barely have a decent conversation with as we go about our city living. Thimphu reminds us to acknowledge that their aspirations and struggles are as just as legitimate as yours and mine.
The highlight of the film for me was the story of the transgender. This is the first time a transgender is a principal character in a Bhutanese film. This role is played by Bhutan’s first publicly known transgender, Dechen Selden. She is also the first transgender to be legally recognised as female. I am so grateful that Dechen’s story is beautifully and sensitively told by Chand. She is not your stock caricature of the LGBTIQ community thrown in for comic relief. Dechen’s search for love and love’s inability to find her in a society that does not understand her identity is tragic. That is if you care about such things. Even if you don’t, Thimphu, will have you know that Bhutan’s transgenders are real. And in Dechen’s case, also very attractive.
Thimphu is a story that is told with a maturity and sense of empathy quite uncommon in mainstream Bhutanese films. Mercifully, there are no abrupt dance scenes with multiple wardrobe changes. Music, in both of Chand’s Bhutanese films add to the story, not take away from it.
There is no good or bad in the film. Just humans attempting to make sense of their lives through trial and error. There is one sentence said by Maya, one of the main characters after she has her heart broken, that surprised and moved me. She is your typical sweet girl-next-door throughout the film who finally comes into her own when she refuses to return to the man who betrays her trust. She says something to this effect to him (paraphrased heavily):”I do not know what you are looking for, but where I am, I know my truth.”
Thimphu has been well-received at some international film festivals already. It will show at another international film festival in Melbourne, Australia next. The film deserves to go places. Not because it is perfect or brilliant. But because it does not glorify or vilify life in Thimphu. It just tells it as it is: simply, honestly, and effectively.