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Movie Review: Kundun

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Kundun narrates the life of a little Tibetan boy, Lhamo, who comes to be identified as the 14th Dalai Lama. There is later never any doubt that he is not the reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion. And, even today, the world sees him as a symbol of Compassion.

Tibet was violently annexed by China after Mao Tse-tung was victorious and had established Communism.

The famous words of the young boy Dalai Lama, when faced with the Chinese invasion, “What should I do, I am just a boy,” has been chronicled. Also filmed is Chairman Mao’s infamous saying, “Religion is poison”. Growing up in his Palace (Potala), the Dalai Lama learns that, “there has always been a prison at the Potala”. Then there is that profound but simple question at the Indian Border, asked of the fleeing Dalai Lama, “Are you Lord Buddha?” “They take away our silence”, remarks the young Dalai Lama, when Chinese military music begins to blare in Lhasa. The Dalai Lama is tuned into “visions” about the future and the “hissing” Oracle is consulted before any decision is taken.

Those who have seen Seven Years in Tibet (1997) will find this movie a bit shallow in content, even though Kundun covers a larger period of the Dalai Lama’s early years. Those who have not seen Seven Years of Tibet will find this Martin Scorsese directed slow, epic extravaganza breath-taking. This movie though, unlike the other, shows the Tibetan last rites of the dead body of young Dalai Lama’s father.

The background music composed by Philip Glass is immediately noticeable. It adds to the quality of the movie. The cinematography (Roger Deakin) is superb. The casting of the historical characters is not so “striking”. The screenplay is by Melissa Mathison, who wrote for E.T.: Extra-Terrestrial (1982).

Kundun  was nominated in 1998 for Oscars in cinematography, music, art direction and set decoration. It won numerous Film Critics’ awards in 1997 & 1998 for Cinematography and Music.

The movie was not filmed in Tibet. It was located mainly in Ouarzazate and other places in Morocco, partly in British Columbia  and Idaho. Presumably, China‘s posture makes Tibetan locales in film about refugee Tibetans or the Dalai Lama unwelcome. The closest film crews in general are likely in Ladakh or Sikkim, India. Even Seven Years in Tibet was shot in BC, Argentina, Chile, and so on.

The Dalai Lama’s fleeing to safety was a historic moment. It kept alive the unique identity of the Tibetans in India and the world. It also, willy-nilly, nudged Buddhism to centre stage among world religions. The Dalai Lama became the epitome of non-violence, the man who practiced what Buddha preached. His recent action to renounce political duties of the Tibetan government-in-exile has stunned the world. He has paved the way for a secular elected Tibetan government, and refuses to do anything more than be a monk and a holy figure.

Name: Kundun
Genre: Mainly Biographical; also History, Drama and War
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Melissa Mathison
Original Music Score: Philip Glass
Cinematography: Roger Deakin
Production and Costume Design: Dante Ferretti
Rating: 3/5

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About Sanjeev Sandh