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‘Shambhala’ Brings Peak Nepalese Cinema to The Global Stage

film still from shambhala
Shooney Films

The breadth of world cinema spotlighted at international festival circuits has been broadening. An example is that of Nepalese cinema, which has lately, alongside other South Asian countries, received an upswing in representation on the festival circuit. A notable figure in this movement has been director Min Bahadur Bham, whose Kalo Pothi: The Black Hen was screened as part of the Venice Film Festival’s International Critics Week. 

A decade on, his latest film Shambhala has become the first Nepalese film in the main competition at the Berlinale (or any of the major film festivals, for that matter), and also the first South Asian film in competition at the Berlinale in three decades. Its inclusion in context of the rise in profile of Nepalese filmmakers and the opportunity to share their stories with audiences worldwide is momentous, and Bham certainly hasn’t wasted his chance: Shambhala is one of the very best films at this year’s Berlinale. It is a gorgeously crafted, spiritually invigorating character study that, with its slow, patient storytelling, pays great dividends. 

The film’s protagonist is Pema (Thinley Lhamo), a young woman inhabiting a newly formed household with three brothers in a polyandrous arrangement. There’s the oldest brother, Tashi (Tenzin Dalha) with whom she has an intimate, romantic relationship; the middle brother Karma (Sonam Topden), a monk who has more of a “casual acquaintances who happen to live with one another” dynamic with her; and the youngest teenage brother Dawa (Karma Wangyal Gurung) whom she treats more like an obstinate, troublesome nephew she needs to watch out for. 

We focus on Pema making the most of the limitations imposed on her by the social norms of her village, where women have many duties and the appearance of propriety is of utmost importance. The strain of this is evident at points, but Lhamo’s performance, with the perfect blend of earthly charm and confidence, shows a firm will to navigate these obstacles, while being natural in all her interactions within her unconventional marital arrangement. 

There’s a sense of comfort struck up in the opening stages of the film that makes it all the more jarring when it gets suddenly upended: gossip and rumours lead Tashi to believe that Pema is carrying on an affair with a local school teacher, and he vanishes without notice on one of his trade routes. The fallout of the family dynamic contains so many striking sequences as we watch Pema get ostracised by others and the way it shatters the family unit of the household. For example, a scene of Dawa walking into the household, drunkenly musing about being the “man of the house” in the absence of Tashi, while playing with a toy airplane, is at once darkly comedic and haunting.

Pema embarks on a journey across the precarious wilderness of the Himalayan Mountains to track Tashi down and explain the situation to him. What appears at first to be a journey towards seeking forgiveness and reconciliation, however, becomes something much more profound and intriguing, as the journey becomes more about Pema’s self-discovery and self-liberation through her journey. 

The title of the film, Shambhala, refers to a place of spiritual tranquillity and inner peace, where a harmony of self can be found. The pursuit and harnessing of such energies is evident at the core of the film, where Pema’s journey becomes not just a means to the end of finding Tashi, but also an end in itself. A notable part of this is her relationship with Karma, who accompanies her on her journey as a monk and de facto husband of sorts. Their relationship, which grows from thinly veiled animosity over the circumstances they find themselves into a heartfelt bond nurtured over a shared love for music, is beguiling to watch. And, as an individual, Pema’s arc has such catharsis in each step of this tough journey she undergoes. Her strong moral convictions are put to the test by the harsh weather conditions, the tumultuous landscape, and the stringent social norms that have pushed her aside, but her resilience in the face of them gains all the more power over the course of the narrative. 

With the screenplay, co-written by Bham and Abinash Bikram Shah, and Lhamo’s performance grafting such a potent human core through Pema’s arc, Aziz Zhambakiyev’s stunning cinematography provides the spectacle. The daunting mountains give such an epic scope to Shambhala and provide a fascinating contrast with the small-scale, intimate story. Shot at altitudes of 4,200 to 6,000 metres above sea level, the challenging shoot pays off wonderfully with so many striking, lingering shots of gorgeous landscapes where the characters’ movements within frames articulate their mental state and relationships with one another so beautifully. Bham’s expert staging and patient rhythm with which he lets his characters’ interactions play out against the vast backdrops creates a wonderful visual poetry to the film as we follow Pema’s journey, both externally and within, with all these beautiful touches that make Shambhala a stirring adventure, a meditative character study, and a unique emotional experience.


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