From Brad Pitt to the Dalai Lama:
A Conversation with Lhapka Tsamchoe
I watched from my side of the street as she gracefully threaded her way through the rush hour traffic on Wilshire Boulevard, the sapphire blue of her traditional Tibetan dress catching the last of the afternoon sunlight. I had the advantage - I recognized her delicate features from Seven Years in Tibet and her newest film, Himalaya. But even in the melting pot of diversity that marks Los Angeles, she would stand out, her natural beauty untouched by cosmetics. As we met and shook hands, I felt her light grasp. I saw that she is slender and lithe - but definitely not fragile. She's a woman who knows what she wants and where she's going, calm, composed and self-assured.
Lhapka Tsamchoe has been to many cities in the world, but this was her first time in Los Angeles. She was here, finally, to promote Himalaya, nominated earlier this year for a Best Foreign Film Academy Award under the name Caravan. The film was about to be released in selected cities, and Lhapka had been attending screenings and meeting with the media.
As we walked to a quiet table for our interview, I made small talk and asked Lhapka how she liked Los Angeles so far. It's beautiful, she told me. I nodded politely. Los Angeles isn't what I'd call beautiful. But then she explained - the green lawns, the flowers. She found it all very beautiful.
We settled ourselves in a corner and started talking about Himalaya. She was shaking her head from side to side before I'd even finished asking how hard it was to make this film.
"Oh, my god," she exclaimed. "It was so difficult. It's a lifetime experience for me."
She wasn't talking about her role, but the actual physical difficulty in making this film. Himalaya was shot on location in the Dolpo region of Nepal. It's one of the most beautiful and isolated parts of the world, nestled in the Himalaya at about 15,000' or so. Legend has it that it is one of the "hidden valleys" that Guru Rinpoche, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism, predicted would serve as a refuge for devout Buddhists in times of trouble or unrest. The Dolpo is surrounded by towering mountains and cut off by high passes that are closed by snow for as much as half the year. The easiest access to the region is through Tibet, from where its people emigrated perhaps 1,000 years ago. The Dolpo now preserves one of the last remnants of traditional Tibetan culture.
Because of its remote location, just getting there was half the battle. You can't drive in trucks, SUVs or Humvees. There are no roads - only steep, well-worn trekking trails.
"First time in my life I did trekking," Lhapka laughed. "For my lifetime, I've done trekking now!"
Unlike most productions, once shooting on Himalaya had started, there was no turning back, no going home for the weekend to visit friends or family. Cast and crew would trek to a site, set up camp and settle in for the duration. "We trekked for two weeks, then stayed some place for two months, then again trek, like that," she explained. "Because we can't come back. It's not like that. You have to finish shooting this."
Lhapka was raised on the warm, flat plains of Southern India, a Tibetan in exile. This was the first time she'd ever been to these altitudes, let alone conquered them climbing. And although it was extremely arduous, her natural inner strength and resolve took over. She made the trek without complaining - one slow step at a time, one foot after the other.
"The director and the producer, they were doubting that I - they were saying, 'You're a city girl," Lhapka recalled. "After the first month, the director said, 'oh, you are so tough and so strong.'" She laughed. "And I said, 'whose blood and bones do I have? My parents are from Tibet, and my blood is from them.'"
It wasn't only the climb that presented difficulties. It was also the accommodations and the lack of basic comforts and facilities.
"Even the men were crying in the tent," she remembered. "Once we are on the mountain, no electricity, no road and only sleeping in the tent and very, very cold," Lhapka explained, her dark eyes wide. "It went down to minus 20, and I couldn't sleep in the night." She continued. "They give you very good sleeping bags. It was not enough for me. And the costumes. I had a heavy one for the snow. Still my feet were like - in the middle of the night, it was too cold."
From certain scenes in the movie, the audience can start to understand the cold of the early morning temperatures. The condensation in the air is visible as the actors speak their lines. Shooting these scenes was particularly hard for Lhapka.
"The morning scene, it was very cold. When I listen to my voice, I can hear," she said. "When I'm cold, that voice I can make out."
Lhapka had a similar problem while working on Seven Years in Tibet, which was shot in the mountains of Argentina. In particular - a scene in which she had to ice skate. She laughed at the memory of what happened.
"I was on the skating scene for the whole day. And I had never been before and my feet were - by 5 p.m., my mouth couldn't open," she touched her mouth as she smiled, remembering. "And that was the last day of the shoot. And Brad Pitt was coming up and saying, 'It's been very nice working with you,' and all that. And I wanted to say something to him. And I couldn't even speak, I was so cold!"
Himalaya is a Tibetan-language film. Naturally, it's the language of the local village people who took part in the movie. The obvious question - did Lhapka have to learn her lines phonetically, as many actors do when speaking in a foreign tongue - or does she actually know Tibetan?
"Oh course!" she exclaimed with a lot of pride and a little mock indignation. "Read! Write!"
But that didn't necessarily make thing easy on the set - or consistent in the film
"The director cannot speak Tibetan but can speak Nepalese," explained Lhapka. "And some of the local people can speak Nepalese. We had a Tibetan translator."
Lhapka didn't need the translator, but she admits she still wasn't always speaking quite the same language as the villagers.
"Tibetans who watch this movie are going to laugh because I speak one dialect. Karma (the leader of the young village men in the film), he speaks a completely different dialect," she smiled. "In Tibet, we have three provinces, and he's from another, completely different. And the local people, again different. So Tibetan people are going to laugh!"
Lhapka is the second youngest in a family that had eleven children. Only six survive. While her stardom has brought her some measure of recognition, it hasn't set her apart from her siblings.
"Some people say, you must be the most special," she shrugs. "But even though I acted in Seven Years, I'm treated at home the same. They feel very happy, parents, but it's the same."
Speaking with Lhapka, you immediately see her quick wit and easy sense of humor. She is open, articulate and modest, and acting is just one small accomplishment in what appears to be a very distinguished life.
"I went to a Tibetan school first, and then I went to an English medium school in Bangalor City and then completed my bachelor of science in chemistry, botany, zoology," she said very matter-of-factly, as if everyone has three university science degrees. "Then I thought it was so important to learn computers, everything is computers, so I started learning computers. And I did one semester. And then, Priscilla John."
Priscilla John was the casting director for Seven Years. She had been searching the world for the right person to play opposite Brad Pitt. Her quest eventually took her to southern India - and Lhapka.
"And then she called all the Tibetan college-going guys and girls in a Tibetan hotel. And I missed that interview, that part. Nobody called me, and I didn't know, and it just went by," Lhapka recalled. "Then there was this party, and she saw me dancing. Then she called and said can you come for an interview."
John took some photographs and shot some video. At the time, Lhapka had no idea how many young Asian actresses were after the part, or in fact, what a coveted role it was. But the next thing she knew, she was off to London for a screen test. The rest, of course, is cinematic history.
Himalaya director Eric Valli had also worked on Seven Years in Tibet -- as a unit director. Surprisingly, the two had never met.
"No. After Seven Years in Tibet, I went to Dharamasala, where his Holiness (the Dalai Lama) is. I was trying to improve my Tibetan language and attending a Buddhist philosophy class in Dharamsala Library. And then I got a call from Kathmandu City from the production manager of Himalaya."
Director Valli had long ago cast his leading lady. But two weeks before leaving for the mountains to begin shooting, she discovered she was pregnant, and the hunt began again.
"So then I came. And the producer liked me, and the director was a little bit not so sure because he already gave his heart to that bride. So it took a little time to get, but later, we are very good friends."
Lhapka pauses for a minute to reflect.
"It was like this film was made for me. I don't know. In my previous birth, I must have done something good, so I was able to act in Seven Years in Tibet and Himalaya."
It's no accident that both Lhapka's films are about Tibet and its culture. She considers it her duty to educate the world on her ancestral home and life there.
"Oh yes! This is for me the biggest thing. Actually, I'm so happy you don't know. Every chance I get, I tell about Tibet and his holiness, Dalai Lama, and I am Tibetan. I make sure!"
But Lhapka also had another reason, one that was purely personal, for wanting to make Himalaya.
"For me, it was like first coming into contact with my parents' generation, how they lived. Very difficult, very difficult. For me, it was like going into Tibet. Even though it's politically under Nepal, it's originally Tibetan people and how they lived is just like in Tibet."
Never having been to Tibet leaves a hole in Lhapka's life. She would love to go, and talks about making a visit - perhaps this fall.
"I wanted to take my mum. My mum's wish is to see Tibet, and she's not seen it for 50, 40 years now," Lhapka said. "I heard so much from my father and mother about it. I talked to them about Tibet and their life and everything. Because of Seven Years and Himalaya, I read so many Tibetan books, saw so many documentaries. But it's different walking there. Seeing it."
But it's one thing to dream about going and another to actually make the trip. Traveling to Tibet would be very risky for Lhapka and her family - for several reasons.
"It's dangerous because I acted in Seven Years. Jean Jacques Annaud, the director, is black listed. And if I show a little bit of national feeling, you know they are - straight into jail, and I might be there for eighteen years. Nobody can do anything."
And Lhapka's not the only one in the family who has to be careful.
"Our whole family is for Tibetan cause. My father has been elected by the public as a member of parliament of the Tibetan government in exile," she explained. "And my mum is Tibetan Women's Association president. And then I was also in the Tibetan Youth Congress. I was elected as Information Secretary. And my whole family is into that thing, you know. And then the Chinese, always checking there to catch."
Although her two films share a Tibetan theme, they're as different as are her experiences in making them. Ask her to compare the two, and she laughs and flings her arms wide apart.
"One is Hollywood style, and the other one is a very, very low budget. I worked in the extreme. There's nothing more than this. Hollywood - I was treated like a princess. They put you in a suite hotel. And then this one - it was like, going to the tent. Completely different."
Then she paused a moment and quietly reflected on her experiences.
"I think I am very fortunate. It was difficult, but very fortunate. I think I feel I'm the most lucky Tibetan girl. I think like that."
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For theater opening dates, background information, scenes and more on Himalaya, you can go to www.kino.com/himalaya.
Published on 10/26/01