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Roar of the Thunder Dragon: the Bhutanese Audio-visual Industry and the Shaping and Representation of… Dendup, Tshewang between 2006-06 and 2006-08

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 Roar of the Thunder Dragon: The Bhutanese Audio-visual Industry and the
Shaping and Representation of Contemporary Culture
Tshewang Dendup*
A Bhutanese journalist recently remarked that these days, the phones don't ring, they sing.
And when the phones do start singing, don't be surprised if it is a Bhutanese song coming
out from the latest Motorola or Nokia phone tucked in the inner folds of the gho or a Gucci
bag slung over a Hong Kong brocade tego.
Walk along Thimphu's Norzin Lam and try not to notice the huge posters announcing the
screening of the latest film. Stroll further and the bustle of the street is laced with the sound
of Bhutanese songs coming from the stereos and radios of shops and restaurants. So you
might try to extricate yourself from this bazaar of sounds and symphonies and you hop into a
taxi only to be greeted by the popular call in music request show of the Bhutan Broadcasting
Service Corporation coming from the Maruti's stereo.
Whether traveling to Phuntsholing in a comfortable Japanese Coaster bus or watching TV at
home, one cannot escape the presence of modern Bhutan's audiovisual industry. The songs
being played, the films being screened, the albums being sold may not be, to the discerning
critic, works of art worthy of appreciation or a review in the papers. However my argument
is that they are being consumed by the masses and therefore the industry deserves a closer
scrutiny as it both shapes and represents contemporary culture.
In the Draft Constitution, Culture is covered under Article 4. The Article is reproduced here
in entirety1.
Article 4
1. The State shall endeavour to preserve, protect and promote the
cultural heritage of the country, including monument, places and
objects of artistic or historic interest, Dzongs, Lhakhangs, Goendeys,
Ten-Sum, Nyes, language, literature, music and religion to enrich
society and the cultural life of the citizens.
2. The State shall recognize culture as an evolving dynamic force and
shall endeavour to strengthen and facilitate the continued evolution
of traditional values and institutions that are sustainable as a
progressive society.
3. The State shall conserve and encourage research on local arts,
custom, knowledge and culture.
4. Parliament may enact such legislation as may be necessary to
advance the cause of cultural enrichment of Bhutanese society.
The Bhutanese audio-visual industry plays a critical and important role in the creation of
cultural products, which are consumed by the masses. The industry's significant role in the
preservation and promotion of culture is worthy of state support. Although comprehensive
data is not available on the industry, available data and anecdotal evidence prove that the
* The author is a senior producer working with the Bhutan Broadcasting Service Corporation.
The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not represent that of the
i The Draft Constitution ofthe Kingdom of Bhutan.
 industry is growing and playing its own role in shaping and representing contemporary
culture in Bhutan
I shall now give a brief outline of some of the media in Bhutan linked to the audiovisual
Bhutan Broadcasting Service Corporation
A prominent player in this field is the national radio and TV station, the Bhutan Broadcasting
Service Corporation.
BBS Radio
The BBS Radio broadcasts in four languages from 7 in the morning to 6 in the evening. With
its nationwide FM network2 and a 50 kilowatt short-wave transmitter, the BBS radio's reach
is unrivalled.
One of the major components of the BBS Radio content is music. All the four language
services (Dzongkha, Sharchhopikha, Lhotshamkha and English) have dedicated music
request shows, which cater not only to the nation but also have a listener base in the
neighboring countries.
From the volume of mail received by the different language services from their listeners, it
would be safe to surmise that music shows could very well be in the upper ranks of the
ratings3. As the national radio station, BBS Radio plays an integral part in the broadcast of
music, taking works of Bhutanese singers and musicians right into the homes of thousands of
Bhutanese households.
The BBS TV also has dedicated programs on entertainment. The Trowa4 program features
interviews with singers, musicians, actors, composers, directors and other performing artists.
The Trowa Unit is also responsible for the production of music videos, which are popular
with the viewers. BBS TV also buys music videos, films, serials and other products from
private audio-visual firms. BBS TV broadcasts for ten hours a day and since the 20th of
February 2006, has gone satellite. This would mean that at least 445 towns in Bhutan can now
watch BBS TV directly. Through its broadcast of programs and content related to music, films
and drama, BBS TV has become a key player in the audio-visual industry of Bhutan.
2 The BBS Radio's FM network reaches all the twenty dzongkhags in the kingdom. BBS has a
network of 5 FM transmitters and 19 FM transposers stationed in strategic passes across the
kingdom enabling the station to relay its broadcasts to the 20 dzongkhags. BBS Radio's FM
signal can be received in all the 20 dzongkhag headquarters. BBS Radio's FM signal reach on
the national highway is estimated at 75%.
3 The latest audience survey carried out by the BBSC is not yet made public.
4 Trowa programs have featured interviews with musicians, singers, actors, producers and
comedians. Trowa is broadcast on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 7.30 PM and Thursdays
and Sundays at 8.30 AM.
5 There are 44 cable operators in Bhutan according to the Association of Private Cable
Operators. All cable operators in Bhutan are required to carry the BBS TV channel on their
The annual tshechus held in different districts, towns and villages are also live venues of
performing arts. Besides the religious ceremonies and dances, tshechus also feature the best of
the community's performing artists. With thousands of tourists visiting the country each
year, the tshechus are an effective platform to showcase the rich cultural heritage of the
country. In fact, Bhutan's "unique culture" is the lead factor in attracting tourists. A study
conducted by the Department of Tourism in 2004 found out that 34.4 percent of visitors were
attracted to Bhutan because of its "unique culture"6.
Cable Operators
There are 44 cable operators in Bhutan. Out of these, 36 are registered with the Association of
Private Cable Operators. While the cable operators have to feature BBS TV on their menu,
some operators also have their own channel where Bhutanese content is featured. From older
Bhutanese movies to latest music videos, these channels have also emerged as an outlet for
Bhutanese music and films. Cable operators in Thimphu, Phuntsholing, Paro, Tsrmasham,
Wangdue, Punakha, Mongar, Samdrupjonkhar and Gelephu have their own channel. In
Phuntsholing, Tshela Cable also has video on demand facility for customers.
Recording Studios
While the BBS has a state of the art music recording studio, many private firms have set up
their own business in Thimphu and other parts of Bhutan. It is estimated by industry
professionals that nine of these studios are well equipped and active in the business.
Currently there is no record of the number of albums that have been released in the
Bhutanese market.7
Film Production Companies
The first Bhutanese movie, "Gasa Lamai Singye" was produced by Ugen Wangdi of Ugetsu
Communications in 19898. From 1989 to the end of 2005, a total of 60 movies have been
produced9. The Motion Picture Association of Bhutan, established in 1998 boasts a
membership of 36 film production houses.
Shaping and Representing
A gentleman from India walked up to the stage in one of the bars in Thimphu. The musicians
were ready to switch from Bhutanese rigsar to the presumed Indian taste of the customer. The
musicians and the clients were treated to the Indian gentleman's rendition of popular
Bhutanese rigsar songs.
In Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh in India, promotional posters of Bhutanese albums and films
adorn the walls of shops. Also available are pirated copies of Bhutanese music tapes.
These anecdotes show that the reach and the popularity of the offerings of the Bhutanese
6 International Tourism Monitor. Published by the Department of Tourism, Ministry of Trade
and Industry.
7 There is an acute absence of data on Bhutanese music industry. The author is in the
process of compiling a list of albums produced by the different audio-visual production
8 As accepted by the Motion Picture Association of Bhutan.
9 Data provided by the Motion Picture Association of Bhutan. Please see Annex 1.
 audio-visual industry is not only confined to Bhutan.
In Bhutan, Bhutanese songs dominate the repertoire of our school children. With the majority
of the albums and films produced in Dzongkha, the role of the Bhutanese audio-visual
industry in the promotion and preservation of the national language Dzongkha has been
widely acknowledged.
The growth of the audiovisual industry according to Kinley Dorji10, the general secretary of
the MPAB, has been very rapid. Of the 60 films that have been produced and the unrecorded
numbers of albums released in the market, from the conceptual stage to the final production
and even distribution, it is very much the work and the creation of the Bhutanese.
Bhutan's first film "Gasa Lamai Singye" is based on a traditional homegrown theme, a
ballad. Bhutanese films that immediately followed, mirrored Bollywood and Hollywood
films. But Ugyen Wangdi, of "Gasa Lamai Singye", himself, as the pioneer, would not
condemn or criticize the quality of some of the films that came after. Filmmakers have to
cater to the taste of the masses to survive in the business, he says but there is also room to
evolve and inject originality and creativity from the vast pool of Bhutan's rich culture and
The popularity of Bhutanese movies should not have taken us by surprise. After all, ours is a
society and culture where the visual and performing arts is a key ingredient in our day-today life.
Khyentse Norbu who wrote and directed "Travellers and Magicians" has said that for
"centuries Buddhism has adopted the method of statues and artistic representation in order
to express messages of compassion, love, wisdom. Film could be seen as a modern day
thangka, a traditional Buddhist painting. Film is one of the most powerful mediums that we
have today."12
The Bhutanese film industry has pumped some 60 films into the market. And over the years,
the avid moviegoer in Bhutan can notice a definite shift in the content and style of Bhutanese
movies towards more Bhutanese themes and approaches rather a mere reflection of
Bollywood and Hollywood. Many of the films released in the recent years are based on local
folklore, legends and history.
For example, "Dangphu", with its story based on Bhutanese history, intended to be shot over
36 days, but required 30 more days of shooting because the producer Tobgay wanted to
maintain the authenticity of his locale. The film, a historical testimonial of the difficulties
faced by people from the burden of different taxes, impressed viewers with its setting,
costume, music and authentic dialogue.
One of the most visual and active components of Bhutanese culture being regularly
represented in film is textiles, described by many as a living culture.
From "Chorten Kora" to "Muti Thrishing", the costumes in contemporary Bhutanese films
showcase the finest of Bhutan's traditional and modern textiles. The father of the lead actress
wears his lungserm and the actress herself dons a seshoo kira with the latest pesar design,
i° Personal Communication.
n Personal Communication.
 rendering the screen into a ramp to display the rich tapestry of Bhutan's textiles and culture.
It would be important to note here that weavers continue to weave and thus keep a tradition
alive not because there is a surge in demand from the increasing arrivals in tourism but
because there is a demand from the Bhutanese people themselves. Watching a Bhutanese
movie where the colors of the frame are enriched by the rich costume of the cast only
enforces the living and evolving nature of our culture. This crucial component of our culture
does not become a frozen anthropological entity but a living organism.
And it is not only textiles that get represented in the screen. This year's box office hit was
"Druk Gee Goem", "Guest of Bhutan". The film, set in the alpine region of northern Bhutan is
a romantic comedy. The lead actor, a tourist on a trek, loses his way and injures himself. A
yak herder rescues him. The yak herder lives alone in the wind swept pastures. The tourist is
lifted by the yak herder and carried to the tent for care and nursing. The yak herder is a
woman. The woman yak herder is also the producer of the film. "Druk gee Goem" was a hit
at the box office in Thimphu and ran from the 24th of March to 3rd May13. "Druk Gee Goem"
is therefore important in its portrayal of women in Bhutanese society; independent,
resourceful and strong enough to carry a New Zealander on her back.
In 2005, a group of young Bhutanese embarked on a month long tour of eight dzongkhags14.
Under the auspices of the Youth Development Fund, this group called "Young People on
Wheels" entertained people from Gasa to Dagana. Their activity was a noble one; to inform
and educate the people on HIV/ AIDS. Through songs and dances, skits and plays, they took
the messages to a cross-section of Bhutanese society. They were accompanied by two leading
Bhutanese singers, Nguldrup Dorji and Rinchen Namgyel. Everywhere the troupe went, they
were welcomed by the people who came in droves to see them perform. This innovative
approach to advocacy used popular Bhutanese songs and "pop singers" to catch the
audience. The young people danced to Bhutanese songs set to funky modern rhythms. They
wore their ghos and kiras and entertained the crowds with moves that were a fusion of the old
and the new. Their act is a modern day manifestation of the young people of Bhutan trying to
carve a distinct identity, an identity containing the essence of our tradition and the offerings
of modernity. Significantly, the songs, skits and dances offered by the "Young People on
Wheels" were a creation of this group of Bhutanese youth.
Opportunities and Challenges
Bhutanese films have been shown from theaters and festivals in North America to plastic
tents pitched in the paddy fields of Gom Kora in the eastern district of Tashiyangtse. Rigsar
songs can now be downloaded from the web. You can walk into restaurants and bars in
Thimphu and sing the songs of your choice with musicians in their ghos and tshoglhams. The
film industry has also helped in spurring the sales and growth of the music industry. The sale
of the soundtrack of "Muti Thrishing" has crossed the 12,000 mark15. Sales of the soundtrack
of last year's box office hit "Chorten Kora" are also estimated at 11,000 plus16.
From a total of 113 licenses issued by the ministry of trade and industries, 96 audio-visual
13 Dates courtesy of Mr. Karma, Manager, Luger Theater.
14 "Young People on Wheels" was filmed and made into a documentary by Dechen Wangmo
Roder, an independent filmmaker. The documentary, in Dzongkha and English, was
broadcast on BBS TV.
15 Information provided by TG Media and Infotainment.
16 Information provided by Bhutan Multimedia
 production houses are still operational17. In 2005, at the Luger Theater in Thimphu,
Bhutanese movies maintained around 80 percent domination over foreign language films18.
The shelves of the music shops in Thimphu are filled with tapes and CDs of Bhutanese
artists. Even in the bucolic setting of Tangmachu in Lhuntse district, Bhutanese audiotapes sit
comfortably alongside dried fish and cooking oil bottles in the shops.
But the industry is grappling with a set of problems as unique as its content.
State Support
The film festivals in the initial years were sponsored by the Dzongkha Development
Authority primarily because the DDA recognized the role of the industry in the preservation
and promotion of the national language, Dzongkha. This year for the first time, a private firm
sponsored the festival and awards. Residents of the capital were treated to an open-air
bonanza at the clock tower with the event featuring presentation of awards and multiple
performances by leading Bhutanese artists.
Today licensed audio-visual houses can claim exemptions from customs duties and sales tax
when importing audio-visual equipment. While the government charges a 30 percent sales
tax on ticket sales of foreign language films at the Luger Theater, Bhutanese movies are
exempted from this tax.
The Motion Picture Association of Bhutan is working towards gaining industry status. One of
the immediate gains after obtaining industry status would be the easier availability of
financing and loans for productions. In the past, Bhutanese producers have sold their
businesses and mortgaged their land and property to avail loans for the production of their
The MPAB hopes that gaining industry status will also enable producers to insure their
equipment. Some production houses have cameras worth Nu. 450,000.00
In May 2006, Bhutan hosted the first ever BlMSTEC ministerial meeting on Culture. The
BlMSTEC group consists of Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and
Thailand. The ministerial meeting agreed to set up a Cultural Industries Commission and an
observatory to promote cultural industries among member states.
Bhutan's Home and Cultural Affairs Minister Lyonpo Jigmi Thinley said the Cultural
Industries Commission would help the Bhutanese film industry get a boost with the setting
up of the commission as the films would get wider recognition and support from the region.
The industry could also benefit from training opportunities in audio-visual industry in other
BlMSTEC countries where they are already ahead in the field. The Commission, amongst
others, is expected to frame supportive legislation and regulations and provide access to
financing and loans for the industry19.
Screening Halls
Bhutan  has  seven  cinema  halls;   two  in  Phuntsholing,   one   each  in  Samtse,   Gomtu,
17 Data provided by Ministry of Trade and Industries.
18 Please see Annex 2.
19 Press Conference with BBSC and Kuensel Corporation, May, 2006.
 Samdrupjongkhar, Gelephu and Thimphu20. At the time of writing, there are five movies
ready for release and awaiting screening. Thimphu has emerged as the preferred choice for
premieres of Bhutanese movies. The performance of the films at the Luger Theater as a
central screening hall for Bhutanese films is a litmus test of how the film will fare nationally.
With no other theaters in the capital city, the simultaneous release of these films for an
eagerly waiting audience is not a possibility.
In the Bhutanese movie industry, the producer also becomes the distributor. The screening at
Luger and other venues is an operation in itself. For the movie to hit the screen, the producer
has to ensure that tickets and posters are printed, posters designed and staff hired to sell
tickets among a host of other activities. Bhutanese movies are shot on digital video. The
master tape is closely guarded. At the Luger Theater's balcony seating, a Digital
Videocassette deck connected to a projector and sound system takes up seats in the front row
with the producer or director or sometime even the cast seated near the projection
At the Luger Theater, "Chorten Kora" ran from 16th September to 23rd October21. The movie
traveled to theaters in Phuntsholing and Gelephu. In Gomkora, Tashiyangtse, "Chorten
Kora" was screened in a makeshift tent pitched in the paddy fields.
Residents of Paro will soon get a private theater where they can watch films and other
performances. The MPAB, through the support of the BCCI has approached the Ministry of
Works and Human Settlement for the allocation of theater space in the urban areas. The
MPAB has already received applications from Bumthang and Chukha.
Tobgye of Mila Communications once sent 12 DVDs of his film, Kangyel through a friend
who was traveling to India. The friend was told to sell the DVDs in Dharamshala and
Dehradun in India where there is a sizeable Tibetan population at the wholesale rate of
Rs.250. The DVD retails in Thimphu at Nu.300 per copy. The friend came back with all the 12
DVDs. Pirated copies of the DVD were available for Rs. 15022.
This spurt in the piracy of Bhutanese movies has deterred Bhutanese producers from
releasing their films in DVD and VCD and other formats. Video rental shops in Thimphu do
not stock a single Bhutanese feature film.
For the music producers, the lack of an institutionalized distribution system also contributes
to piracy of their albums and hence the resulting delay in the distribution is a perfect scenario
for pirates to penetrate the market.
20 The Luger Theater was built in 1969. Plans are afoot to dismantle the theater and build a
multiplex. The Luger Theater has 354 seats in the second class and 268 in the first class. The
balcony seats 275. For the screening of Bhutanese movies, Luger Theater charges Nu.5,000
per screening(evening shows) in the first week. The rate drops to Nu.4,000 for the weeks
after. Matinee shows are charged a flat rate of Nu.2,000. Ticket prices for the balcony seats
for Bhutanese movies range from Nu.80 to Nu. 100. First class tickets range from Nu.60 to
50 while second class tickets have been priced at Nu.50 to 40. In contrast, the ticket prices
for foreign language films at Luger are Nu.20 for balcony, Nu.15 for first class and Nu.10 for
second class.
2i Dates courtesy of Mr. Karma, manager, Luger Theater
22 Personal Communication with Mr. Tobgye of Mila Communications.
 The MPAB has been discussing the issue of piracy with the Intellectual Property Division of
the Ministry of Trade and Industries. The first copyright law of Bhutan was brought into
force on the 17th of July 2001 but the industry is still looking at ways, including collaboration
and partnership the IP Division, to fight the scourge of piracy.
Worldwide, films and music are powerful tools that shape and represent cultures. After the
arrival of TV in 1999 there has been a significant growth in the Bhutanese audio-visual
industry. A look at the audio-video and film production licenses issued by the Ministry of
Trade and Industry shows that a majority of the production houses and studios came up after
1999. With technology becoming more affordable and better by the days, the industry can
only grow further.
The National Assembly of Bhutan's 85th session is presently underway. One of the bills to be
tabled at the parliament is the Media Bill23. Bhutan already has two private newspapers. Once
the media bill is passed, it will pave the way and give the green light to private radio and TV
In these changing circumstances, Bhutanese artists, actors, musicians, technical professionals
and the audio-visual production houses will have a bigger stage of operation.
Behind the BBS building, construction is underway for a multi-million Ngultrum state-of-the
art TV station. By 2007, BBS Radio will start broadcasting on a digital short-wave transmitter
twice as powerful as the present 50 kilowatt one. The FM network, which already reaches all
the 20 districts in Bhutan, will be further strengthened.
The General Secretary of the MPAB Kinley Dorji says the most critical and important factor
spurring the growth of the audio-visual industry is the support from the Bhutanese audience
and consumers. The price of tickets for Bhutanese movies and audio tapes and CDs which is
higher than foreign language films and albums, have not deterred the masses from soaking
in the offerings of the Bhutanese audio-visual industry.
The Bhutanese audio-visual industry, while it waits to gain industry status, continues to
blaze forward. In the process, the industry has played its own significant role in shaping and
representing contemporary Bhutanese culture, even preserving the traditional and cultural
heritage of the country.
While further state support would propel the growth of the industry, the hope would be that
the benefits would also trickle down to the consumers. A close collaboration between the
state and the industry could lead to more Bhutanese being able to access the products of the
audio-visual industry. For the masses that continue to support the industry, the state and the
industry could also look at ways to reduce the prices of the tickets and albums.
As a new media, the audio-visual industry is today proving to be an effective platform for
Bhutanese artists to represent the country's culture in a uniquely Bhutanese way and
warrants further support and encouragement from the state.
23 The  draft Media Bill  is  available  on  the website  of the  Ministry of Information  and
Communications at
 Annex One
List of Films produced till 2005 provided by Motion Picture Association of Bhutan
Films produced before 2001
Gasa Lami Singye
Miye Dungyel
Senten Zuki
Bu Tashi
Tshengoen Laythro
Atta Khawjay
Rangdroel Yangdoen
2001 films
Tsewai Phama
Jigten Semgi Thruelnang
Sergi Chompai Metto
Chepai Bu
2002 films
Choe Dang Jigten
Sampau Rewa
Nganrog Tsedungchen
Lay Dang Moenlam
Dungshi Baw
2003 films
Khorwa 2
Travellers and Magicians
Tsheyi Lhamo
Yue Gi Bum
6 Boys
Sherig Yenten
Khorwai Melong
 Nyenda Dra
Yeshi Khandro/ Yue Gi Bum 2
2004 films
Hingtay Pai Bhu
Wai Charo
Lay Gi Lung
Hingi Nazu
Lhadar Gaw
Sem Nginggi Charo
2005 films
Muen Sel
Chorten Kora
Ray Moen
Ratho Namgay
Perfect Girl/ Muti Thrishing
Mtshe Throthue
 Annex Two
List of Films screened at the Luger Theater in Thimphu in 2005.
31st   December   to   30th  January
Bu Yonten
12th February to 20th February
Wai charo
3rd March to 13th March
25th March to 5th April
Chepai Bu
6th April to 12th April
14th April to 8th May
20th May to 12th June
1st July to 1st August
21st August to 15th September
Chorten Kora
16th September to 23rd October
Lengo rescreening
24th October to 2nd November
Tarayana           film
3rd November to 9th November
Muti thrishing:
10th November to 22nd November
Ratho namgay:
28th November to 11th December
11th December to 2nd January 2006
Information courtesy of Mr. Karma, Manager, Luger Theater.


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