Breathtaking, daring, and a breath of fresh air. These are only a few words that can describe Malati Rao’s directorial prowess in her 2019 movie. Her attention to detail, fascinating storytelling ability, great choice of cast and role interpretation, as well as his bravery to triumph in uncharted territories are some of the reasons The Geshema is Born is a must-watch for everyone who loves a good story.
Not only does the realism give a sense of relatedness and belonging, it also inspires and provides a realization that makes the viewer appreciate, once more, the efforts of those that lived before. This one tackles the issue of gender parity in the Buddhist religious circle and, by extension, all religions. It follows the processes and discussions, as well as the contributions of the Dalai Lama to events that led to the first-ever graduation ceremony of the Geshemas in 2016.
Released in 2019, the film- shot in English and Tibetan- follows the journey of an extraordinary nun, Namdol Phuntsok in Tibetan Buddhism. It is a time when, although women had access to the Buddhist religious life with very many of them becoming famous for their accomplishments, it is impossible for them to attain the highest monastic qualifications. For the Buddha, it is merely a radical experiment to establish a community of nuns.
With the efforts of the Dalai Lama, nuns in Tibetan Buddhism are finally fully empowered and given the opportunity to get the same education and qualification as the monks. This then spirals into an inspiration for women of different Faiths to find strength and courage for their feminine experience. Namdol would go on to become the first woman ever to be awarded the highest degree in Tibetan Philosophy. Known as the Geshema degree, anyone who wields it is known as the “knower of virtue”.
When we spoke to Malati Rao recently, she told us that she was inspired by her desire to make a difference. “It’s been a long engagement. But it primarily swells from a desire to engage with people and tell stories that will move and inspire myself and others to make a difference in this world”. Continuing, she says filmmaking gives her an opportunity to think deeply about questions that afflict our world. “It gives me space to converse with people who are grappling the same concerns, read about it, and explore it as fully and completely as possible. Through this immersion, this engagement, I find a way to move forward,” she adds. This film gave him the opportunity to get into that process.
Rao was able to witness the nuns, the Geshemas, and their courage. He spent time reading and collecting material and stories around how they got to it, carefully sifting through all the materials and applying his own storytelling prowess to give a compelling representation without distorting the originality and intensity of the nuns’ journey. “I saw the potential in the material to be a story that could be an inspiring landmark for women everywhere,” she says.
The film was executive produced by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust. Produced by Rajiv Mehrotra, when Rao got the invite to direct the movie, the story was so rich and raw at the same time, she couldn’t turn it down. She mentions some movies and productions that have inspired his work. “Films that served as valuable inspirations were the films of Finnish director Pirjo Honkasalo particularly Three Rooms of Melancholia. I also watched The Island of the Hungry Ghosts by Gabrielle Brady and Burma Storybook by Petr Lom and Corinne van Egeraat and found them interesting,” she notes.
Seeing the movie now, one would wonder how all of that emotion and depth was achieved. The biggest challenge for Rao and her team was finding a cogent way to tell a story that had so many layers. Telling the story of the Tibetan struggle alongside the captivating experience of the nuns in a beautiful, seamless, and well-tailored blend are all proof of how skilled a director Rao is. “Within this, we were interested in bringing forth the specific nun’s own spiritual quest and longing against the larger question of women and their place in a spiritual order. The push and pull of that. And ultimately, what the nuns as a collective sensibility held on to within their faith- their resilience and their triumph in a sense,” she explains.
Even the depth of her soul is a beautiful story as she walks us through the events leading to The Geshema is Born. She adds quickly, ever assuredly, “Of course, the Dalai Lama played a critical voice in being of the Sangha and therefore the system but also the duality of his approach which is to be an ally as well. I cherish every bit of the journey. I cherish my professional relationships and my personal learnings while making this film”.
This 70-minute thrilling drama was able to maintain its authenticity, something Rao says was important to the nuns and her. Her ability to also tell this unique story without demonising patriarchy, men or the institutions that made things the way they are is also quite impressive. “I didn’t demonize patriarchy or their teachers, but presented it in the context of how they experience it. Not as a hard threat but as one among many challenges that you overcome”, she notes.
While this is one movie experience we will not forget in a hurry, Rao says it is just one of many things to come. For her, it is a means to an end; the goal is to advocate change in society. It is a philosophy he has imbibed for many years, to create an enriching experience each time his movie is picked up. “Something new opens up for the viewer- something they didn’t know or didn’t see, they see now, they feel now, they think now,” she says.
While she is grateful for the acceptance and viewership, she says this is just one in a series of projects she aims to accomplish in the near future. She is currently working on a fiction project and a documentary as well.