Friday, August 31, 2007

Phorpa - The Cup

Going ahead with my newly found interest in World cinema, I would like to draw the attention of readers to Phorpa (The Cup), a Tibetan/ Bhutanese movie directed by Khyentse Norbu, a Lama, better known under his religious title- Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche - an eminent teacher and practitioner of the non-sectarian tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, and the recognized incarnation of a great 19th century Buddhist saint.

The very idea of a monk in the world of entertainment sounds weird, but then such a thought is a tribute to our sense of stereotyping more than anything else. After all, art has no boundaries – then, why not an ascetic entertaining us? Norbu not only manages to make a movie but also weaves a surprisingly charming tale using a set of non-professional actors and real life monks.

The Cup was a surprise hit at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival; it tells a story of football crazy monks, obsessed with the idea of viewing the 1998 World Cup – torn between spiritual enlightenment and their love for the game.

Based on a true story, it takes a delightful look at the world of Tibetan monks and refugees staying in India. To outsiders who imagine that Tibetan monks live an impossibly austere life, the film comes as a surprise. The youngsters under the control of their strict taskmaster, Geko, are mischievous and playful.

You have scenes of the monks playing football, singing, sleeping during prayers, secretly reading magazines etc. – everything which enables us to look at the monks just as they are, sans their halos. His lens not only gives us a peep into the various Buddhist rituals happening but also the normal day-to-day activities in their lives.

Most of the youngsters in Dharamshala have escaped from Tibet and come to India to stay under the aegis of the Dalai Lama. But this does not mean they are automatically attracted towards religion. Two boys are sent, with much hardship and danger, to a monastery in exile in the picturesque foothills of the Himalayas to be ordained into a monastic life.

They have other things on their mind and football is a top priority (in the film), but staying within the walls of the monastery means that they cannot watch their stars in action. Led by a young trainee monk, Orgyen, a few of them make plans to watch the World Cup by sneaking across outside the monastery but are caught by their supervisor, Geko, and punished.

But Orgyen, a Ronaldo fan, is not willing to give up and makes a last ditch attempt by requesting Geko to allow them to bring a television to the place so that they can watch atleast the World Cup final. They promise to work harder and plead to be allowed this one chance.

Surprisingly, they are allowed permission to bring a television but the next challenge is to raise funds for it. The monks pool in money to rent out a television and satellite dish so that they can watch the finals.

The narrative is slow, sparse and does not have any specific events that drive the plot but it sashays its way across effortlessly as a monk navigates through time. It is not didactic or preachy and takes us into the world of Tibetan monks at a leisurely pace.

The humour is warm, sweet and not forced. The bewilderment that the senior monks have when faced with this “non-spiritual” challenge is genuinely funny. Like the scene where Orgyen and his friends consult a soothsayer monk to predict the result of the matches; the soothsayer is left wondering what the fuss is all about.

Witness this conversation between Geko and the abbot:

Abbot: What is the World Cup?
Geko: Two civilized nations fight with each other to gain possession of a ball.
Abbot: Is there violence involved?
Geko: Sometimes.
Abbot: Sex?
Geko: No, you do not have to worry about that.
Abbot: What do they get after the war?
Geko: A Cup.

This exchange can be seen as a critique of modern sport also where two countries battle it out for something as simple as a cup or a trophy. Contrast this to the Tibetan struggle where the hope of a country itself is in shreds and sport has no meaning.

It looks at what home sickness and nostalgia means to the monks in exile, who are so cut away from their homelands. It also presents the attitudes of the new generation of monks who have always tasted freedom and portrays a streak of rebellion in them, unlike possibly their predecessors.

The movie could as well have been set anywhere in the world and the incidents would still have remained just the same. But when the same story is juxtaposed against the ethereal and slow world of the monks in Dharamshala, the movie has a different hue and the layers demand more meaning to the flow of events.

A movie on Tibet could easily have been a blatantly political movie but Norbu allows the theme of political independence to be embedded in the script subtly and does not permit it to dictate the flow. There are hints to the Chinese occupation and Indian and American support for their cause but these are thrown at a few places here and there and do not form a central part of the plot.

Modern sport is a curious mix of entertainment, raw passion and nationalism. The director uses football as a symbol of this nationalism to convey the Tibetan sense of loss. Sitting on our sofa set when we cheer the Indian cricket team, we do not merely support eleven men in blue but we associate that feeling with a sense of pride in the nation.

Sports, probably, more than anything plays this role of arousing nationalism and so, Norbu uses this is as a powerful allegory to feel what it is to belong to a nation.

The entire Tibetan affair is a serious business but to look at their world in a light hearted way which is appealing is a clearly an ingenious act and full credit to the director for this serene and lyrical movie which gladdens all our hearts and still scores cerebral points. Who says soccer and religion cannot mix!!!


  1. Hey Pradeep.....guess i will see this movie now.....cud never even imagine monks into sports or magazines etc.....morever if u are promoting becomes a must see.

  2. Thanks, dear but you will not be able to watch this movie anywhere here; Foreign movie DVDs are not available much in India..I had downloaded it from the net to watch it..

  3. Great review man.....Lets see if possible i can also download the movie ...but u are making good use of the download resources...i must say..

  4. I would like to have been able to write down the final words that abbott taught at the end of the film. They were beautiful. Is that buddhist teaching that I could find somewhere else?