Rediff Logo News Check out our special Offers!! Find/Feedback/Site Index
June 3, 1999


Search Rediff

The Making of a Controversial Film

E-Mail this report to a friend

Aseem Chhabra in New York

Kundan There is a story that the crew of Kundun -- Martin Scorsese's 1997 biography of the Dalai Lama -- like to tell. When plans were made to show the Dalai Lama one of Scorsese's prior works, including Raging Bull, Mean Streets and GoodFellas, the Tibetan leader's secretary, himself a film buff, said 'no'. Most of the American director's major films, exploring the world of violence and criminals, were considered too extreme for the Dalai Lama, an international symbol of peace and non-violence. Eventually, the Dalai Lama never saw any of Scorsese's films.

This story is narrated by Kundun's screenplay writer Melissa Mathison in a recently released documentary film about the making of Scorsese's film.

Directed by French-American journalist and film-maker Michael Henry Wilson, In Search of Kundun, with Martin Scorsese, goes beyond the goal of watching one of the world's greatest film-makers at work.

In interviews with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, and with Kundun's Tibetan cast members, Wilson also focuses on their sense of loss and on the systematic destruction of an ancient culture. Wilson's film recently had its US premiere in New York.

Martin Scorsese Wilson has known Scorsese since the early 1970s, when the American director arrived in France to promote his first film to deal with New York City's Italian Mafia -- Mean Streets (1973), starring Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel. Over the years, the two developed a special friendship, which culminated in the production of the 1995 three-hour-long documentary on the history of American cinema -- A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese.

While making A Personal Journey... the two spoke about another Western director's fascination with the East and India -- French film-maker Jean Renoir's The River (1951), which was shot in West Bengal.

"Wouldn't it be great if someone had filmed a documentary on the making of this masterpiece?" Wilson recently quoted himself as saying to Scorsese. "You must have a witness armed with a camera on the sets of Kundun."

"We started off with wanting to document Marty's (Scorsese) personal experiences," Wilson said in an interview from his home in California. But soon he realised that there was going to be more to In Search... when Scorsese asked him to "go and ask the Tibetans to tell their stories".

Scorsese's earlier plans to shoot Kundun in Ladakh did not materialise, since the Indian government never officially responded to his request for a shooting permit. (Another 1997 film, Seven Years in Tibet, starring Brad Pitt, also met with the same fate, and was later shot in Argentina.)

Eventually, in the fall of 1996, Scorsese took his European crew and Tibetan actors (mostly from India) to the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. A couple of weeks later, Wilson and his French crew (In Search... is funded by independent French producers) arrived in Morocco to shoot their parallel film.

On the sets, Scorsese talked with Wilson about his fascination with the Dalai Lama. "I am always interested in people who have the guts to stand up and do things through non-violence," he says in Wilson's film. "'Cause I'm so much aware of the other way of doing it through violence, and it's so much sanctified in our world."

Scorsese says in the documentary he has never believed in causes other than that of film preservation. Calling himself a new kid on the block (both screenplay writer Mathison and Kundun's composer Philip Glass are deeply steeped in the Tibetan Buddhist traditions), he adds, "I just think that this (the path the Dalai Lama has chosen) is the only way to go. Compassion and love are the only answer. I've always felt this, based on the Christian texts. The other way is violence."

Working with the Tibetan actors, all of whom were non-professionals, was an entirely new experience for Scorsese whose past works have included a last ensemble of Hollywood stars. In the documentary, Scorsese talks about the "good feeling" around the set, adding that the Tibetans always made him laugh "no matter how frustrated I might be". He says Kundun is his gift to the Tibetans.

For the Tibetan actors, playing various roles in Kundun was an attempt to preserve their culture. "We are not actors," one Tibetan is quoted in Wilson's film. "But we feel what we are playing."

In Morocco, as In Search... began to take a life of its own, Wilson made the decision to fly to India and interview the Dalai Lama himself. Unlike Scorsese, Wilson had no trouble getting into India with his film crew. Wilson denied any attempts to deceive the Indian authorities, but added that he never asked for permission to shoot a part of his documentary in Dharamsala. He said upon his arrival in India in February 1997, the custom officials never identified his video camera equipment.

After spending more than a week in Dharamsala, observing the refugees in their daily routine and the Dalai Lama from a distance, Wilson finally got a chance to sit and talk to the Tibetan leader. In the most touching and charming part of In Search... the Dalai Lama talks to Wilson about his childhood.

As a young child, the Dalai Lama was separated from his parents and family in a small village in Tibet and brought to the Potala Palace in Lhasa. There, secluded from the rest of the world, he was raised by regents and Buddhist monks, with occasional visits from his family. However, for the child, there still was charm in that lonely existence.

A smiling and exuberant Dalai Lama speaks to Wilson about the rats in the Potala Palace: "Some rats (were) very friendly, very beautiful. But during the night, when I was asleep, all the rats would come and go. Then I was little scared that they might come on my face."

About his meetings with Mao Tse-Tung, the Dalai Lama says the Chinese Communist leader treated him like his child and appeared to like him. During an early encounter, Mao even praised Buddha, and stated that his mother was a Buddhist.

"Then during my last meeting, he frankly told me, 'Religion is poison'. At that moment, I really felt, now this is the person who is going to destroy Buddhist religion."

Sitting in exile in India, the Dalai Lama dreams of returning to his homeland to serve not only the Tibetans, but also the Chinese, and promote what he calls "deeper human values."

Earlier in the film, Mathison talks to Wilson about what she refers to as the Dalai Lama's "exquisite realization of impermanence, emptiness and karma." She adds: "That's why I think he'll win in the end."

Wilson had visualized In Search... as a companion piece to Kundun, hoping that the two films would be shown together in movie theaters. But Kundun's distributor -- Touchstone Pictures (a Disney outfit) found the film to be an obstacle in the way of its mother company's plans to do business with China. Scorsese's film was never marketed to its fullest potential, Wilson feels. (The film, which cost about $ 30 million grossed less than $ 10 million; released abroad by independent distributors, it wasn't a hit oversees.) He doubts whether Touchstone will ever re-release it in the US. However, he hopes that art houses and film festivals programmers may pick the two films, so that the Dalai Lama's story can be told in its complete form.

Previous story: Master of Illusions Juggles Several Careers

Tell us what you think of this report