It’s day 23 of a 41-day film shoot for Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s third feature film (working title: Vara). The cast and crew have taken over a small Muslim village near Dambulla, Sri Lanka, graced by fertile rice fields and wide bicycle paths, lotus ponds, and a view of the 5th-century Buddhist rock fortress of Sigiriya. The weather is fine, Bush Warblers and parakeets thrash about in the trees, filling the soundman’s headphones with birdsong, much to his irritation. Today the crew is filming interiors of the house of the lead characters, Vinata and her daughter Lila, temple dancers of the devadasi tradition.
Rinpoche reads the call sheet, a breakdown of tomorrow’s scenes, through pink-tinted sunglasses. “‘Vinata beats Lila.’ Oh my God,” and then he laughs. He’s sitting in a low-slung folding chair in a makeshift tent in the coconut grove behind the house. Someone has climbed up the trees and cut down all the coconuts so there will be no accidents. Coconuts can kill. The divinations have all been positive about the film, but no need to take risks. Screens are set up in the tent for Rinpoche to watch a live feed of the camerawork. People are crouching around his chair, not to glimpse the great vajra master—lineage holder of the teachings of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, grandson of His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche, the supreme head of the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism—but to make sure the actors are in frame and the lighting is good.
From the other side of the house, the first assistant director, Stojan Petrov, calls, “Quiet, please! Camera rolling!” Someone else shouts, “Shut da window!” The scene number is called and the clapper is snapped shut. Rinpoche hollers, “Action!”
The film’s star, Shahana Goswami, is fully in character, lost in Lila’s skin as she lies on her bed communing with Lord Krishna. Lila’s devotion is blurring her reality, she’s been seeing Krishna walking in daylight, hidden behind the facade of a low-caste boy named Shyam. “Is it you?” she asks. Despite the beauty of her expression and the seductive curve under her sari, the camera is focused only on her hands.
A minute passes, Rinpoche calls “Cut,” and the spell is broken. Chaos resumes. Rinpoche seems pleased. “I think we’re developing the language of this film: finger fetishes, and over the shoulder, and from behind.” He glances at his producer, Nanette Nelms. “Right, sister?” Nanette nods in agreement. It’s her first feature film after years of working on commercials with directors like Marc Webb and Michel Gondry. The pressure has been extreme; she seems to have absorbed all the tension right out of Rinpoche’s system and into her own. He appears utterly at ease. “Calling people ‘Brother’ and ‘Sister,’ that’s also part of our language, right?” he nudges her.
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