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Why Secret Superstar should matter to Bhutanese filmmakers

After waiting for a long time, I could finally watch Zaira Wasim and Aamir Khan starrer Secret Superstar, written and directed by Advait Chandan. I do not intend to write a review of this film. There are plenty of reviews. I want to rather share the subtle impacts it created on me in the last few days as a local Bhutanese filmmaker and the huge inspiration that followed.

First and outwardly, the film’s look, its locations, costumes and set designs were very simplistic and straight down to features typical of a low budget film production (indeed it is – made for only Rs 15 crore, a low figure in terms of any Bollywood production). Even the very stylish look and presence of Aamir Khan didn’t convince me otherwise that this is indeed a very well made low-budget film. Now, this is relevant for me, or for that matter, any filmmaker in Bhutan. Every Bhutanese filmmaker know that due to limited market and small number of viewers in Bhutan, it is a huge risk for any local Bhutanese film’s budget to cross even Nu 3 million. Therefore, witnessing the success of any low-budget film such as this is a huge inspiration.

Clearly, the film’s entire focus was on its story content and casting not only the right actors, but bringing out the best out of them too rather than trying hard to portray a high production value or banking on a superstar’s stardom alone. This is again very relevant for many Bhutanese filmmakers where undertaking any project with high production value or with a superstar (actually, do we have one yet?) means taking a certain nosedive as far as the commercial success of such films in particular or sustainability of the film industry in general is concerned.

Secondly, besides its running time of a lengthy two and an half hours, I could realise only in retrospect that there is not a single song or dance sequence (as usually choreographed and performed in a typical Bollywood fashion) out of the film’s storyline. This again is a food for thought for our own film and music industry and in a very positive way.

I have huge respect for the immense talents that many of our own singers and musicians possess. I am in no way against any song or dance items being portrayed in films as long as it takes the story forward and feels appropriate at the same time. Nevertheless, I must admit that personally, I always feel uncomfortable whenever I am shooting any song sequence in my films, which today has unfortunately (for me) become a necessary evil if a film needs to succeed locally. It does, however, pose a serious question particularly in our case – if this is really the right way – at least from a cultural perspective – for the Bhutanese film industry to grow or more importantly, the right image to portray in future.

As a small Kingdom between two giants and in midst of rapid westernisation, churning out films with just profit motives and at the cost of neglecting or degrading our own cultures, swayed by these external influences would pose a serious threat to our society where having our own unique identity for all times is most crucial.

Films are a powerful medium. For instance, I witnessed three young girls walking around the Dochula choetens one very cold morning wearing only kira and wonju – influenced perhaps by our ‘ketis’ dancing in our films. Similarly, Genji and many Korean actors have clearly dictated today’s ‘go-to’ hairstyles for most of our youth which, let’s admit, looks completely out of any normalcy from any angle, particularly when wearing ghos. Recently, I nearly burst out laughing when I saw my usual parking fee collector running towards me with his new long and dyed ‘Korean’ hairstyle.

Given its massive power of influence, I feel there is an extra responsibility for every Bhutanese filmmaker today to be mindful of at all times –to keep reminding ourselves that the kinds of films we make should not create adverse impact on our viewers, especially the young ones. I for one truly believe that one day we can create our own unique and original kinds of films to showcase to the outside world rather than being a sub-set or a bad imitation of Bollywood films or any films from abroad.

I also believe there is a huge scope for our film and music industry to thrive separately. We are still fortunate that a majority of Bhutanese audience still prefer locally made contents – even if some are so badly made. There are avenues to explore to entertain Bhutanese audience by Bhutanese artists and performers. If viewers can come to watch local Bhutanese films, I still don’t understand why the same people would not come to watch any well-made Bhutanese concerts and live shows by popular singers and musicians. I still don’t get why a Dzongkhag-wise live concert tours is not such a bad idea or why a national music award for singers and musicians is not happening.

Third, the subject matter. Secret Superstar deals with themes that are relevant today – domestic violence, gender issues and more importantly of keeping our dreams alive against all odds. For me, the icing on the cake was suddenly realising who the true superstar was at the end. I don’t remember watching another mainstream film where such themes are so beautifully crafted and executed. Secret Superstar demonstrates successfully, rather than blindly making the same formulaic films over and over again or a cheap remake of films from abroad (which to me is one of the biggest creative sins any filmmaker can commit to himself or herself). There are plenty of relevant stories and issues right in our own society that one must observe closely and be smart enough to portray them through the powerful medium of feature films. This is certainly the direction I would want to go and become a responsible filmmaker.

Sonam Phuntsho is a Bhutanese filmmaker credited with feature films such as Drang-Gollay and Samsara – A Bhutanese Tale as well as a documentary film titled Bhutan – A Simple Story.

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