Tibet in Song
Exiled Tibetans share their traditional songs, in danger of being forgotten, in the film “Tibet in Song”. Photo credit: David Huang.

It’s hard to ignore the missing name in the space for Tibetan Location Manager during the onscreen credit roll at the end of “Tibet in Song”. By listing it as “Anonymous”, the producers clearly demonstrate a need to hide it — adding a sinister tone to their already controversial project. Paradoxically, the act of not disclosing the identity of whoever helped them make their movie in Tibet validates their film’s intent, which plainly points fingers of accusation at Chinese oppression.

While most are aware of China’s 1950s invasion of Tibet, not everyone comprehends the danger of speaking out against it even today. Should the Tibetan Location Manager’s name be exposed in what could be construed as support for a subversive film, heads could roll.

For filmmaker, Fulbright scholar and musicologist Ngawang Choephel, “Tibet in Song” is the result of his lifelong journey. Escaping the Chinese incursion of 1950 with his mother, he fled to India as a child, vowing to return one day to record his people’s story. His haunting documentary depicts Tibetan culture, history, Chinese occupation, and local uprisings. Courageously filmed, and with archival footage, it brilliantly makes the case that Tibetans have lost their autonomy through the purposeful erosion of their musical culture by the Chinese.

Shortly after China’s takeover, the Communist Party enforced laws based on ideology that art is a frivolous past time suitable only for the bourgeois. Not only did the government forbid Tibetans from singing their own songs, but they also installed “box music” that continually blasted patriotic Chinese tunes to the public through loudspeakers. Further, Publicity Tours with Chinese (and some misguided Tibetan) entertainers traveled the country to spread Mao’s messages.

“They want to transform us to them,” says a Tibetan, referring to box music.

In Choephel’s mostly dark venture, there is light whenever he stops to record locals singing old Tibetan folk tunes. They sing work songs that make labor easier; tunes to milk a yak by, to churn butter to, to build a roof with, and songs honoring the land they love. And, there are songs of devotion reflecting their Buddhists beliefs. There’s a song, it seems, for every aspect of old Tibetan life. Unfortunately, young Tibetans embrace the new — a fusion of Chinese pop lyrics plagiarizing deep-rooted Tibetan melodies.

“In the past,” a Tibetan complains, “We sang happy songs.”

Now, says another referring to modern Chinese music, “We find meaning in the meaningless.”

Another observer laments that with the prohibition of Tibetan songs, Tibetans are now “a people of the past.”

In Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, patriotic Communist party expressions blend with trendy westernized tunes in karaoke bars and nightclubs. Women dance together against a bizarre background featuring a likeness of Santa Claus. While the image of a KFC in Shanghai is laughable, others are too painful to watch. In one such scene, hollow-eyed Tibetans are forced to stand in line, stooped over and bowed at the waist as signs hang from their necks announcing their crime of singing Tibetan songs.

One of the film’s most moving moments takes place during an interview with three former female prisoners. Brutally tortured for refusing to sing Chinese songs, the women quietly discuss the beatings with electric prods they endured while jailed. Their restraint while telling their stories proves their heroism.

Cleverly sending footage back home to India as he shoots it, Choephel searches for his father who never escaped Tibet. But at a roadblock, he’s relentlessly questioned about his camera then arrested following accusations of being a spy. After a year of interrogation, Choephel is sentenced to 18 years. However, while imprisoned, an inmate who sings fortunes divines Choephel’s future; telling him he will soon be freed. Thanks to his mother, Choephel becomes a cause célebrè with the likes of Paul McCartney and Al Gore putting political pressure on the Chinese.

A scene near the end of the documentary neatly provides its conclusion. As a patrolling police officer wanders near Choephel’s camera, he warns two elderly ladies performing in a city square.

“Grandmother, don’t dance here,” he admonishes the seniors.

The director will attend the opening on December 3 at the Varsity Theater.


“Today’s Special” with Aasif Mandvi.
“Today’s Special” with Aasif Mandvi.

For metropolitan New Yorker Samir (Aasif Mandvi), life is busy. A sous chef at an upscale restaurant, he’s eager to attain rock star status with an upgrade to head chef. Ambitious, attractive, eligible and energetic, Samir embraces all aspects of his life — all but his Indian heritage, that is.

It’s not that Samir is in complete denial of his roots, nor does he outright reject all of his family’s customs like some second-generation kids do. But he is American, after all, and his immigrant parents’ traditional ways are a turn-off. Of particular annoyance to him is their devotion to Muslim morning prayers.

Then, there’s his father, Hakim (Harish Patel), who calls him a loser for not pursuing a more acceptable career while his mother nags him to marry a good Indian girl. Ironically, Hakim owns a Tandoori eatery that’s so far in the financial hole — even with free papadum appetizers — that he’s considering selling it. Meanwhile, Samir’s mother, Farrida (Madhur Jaffrey), surfs the net in search of a suitable bride for her son. Being moderately dutiful, Samir humors her by dating a few.

When he learns that he’s been passed over for the coveted promotion, Samir, in a fit of wounded pride, walks out on his job. Appalled at not only being denied the head chef position, but upbraided by his boss for lacking pizzazz in his cooking, too, he’s propelled to take drastic action. Stunned, he refuses to accept his boss’ criticism of his cerebral style of measuring ingredients with his head instead of his heart.

Spurred by a plan to move abroad to study with a Parisian chef, Samir approaches his father with the news. But upon hearing it, Hakim’s heart gives out and he’s rushed to the hospital. Against his deepest desires, Samir agrees to run his family’s Tandoori restaurant until his father recovers. The problem is, Samir has never prepared an Indian dish before in his life. Fortunately, he befriends cab driver, slash chef, slash guru, Akbar (Naseeruddin Shah) who comes to his rescue. Not only does Akbar teach Samir to add a dash of spontaneity to his cooking, but to his life as well.

“It will make your masala better,” Akbar intimates.

The film “Today’s Special” emerges from the oven exuding a warm and fuzzy aroma. Further, no one — save a few live chickens–was harmed in the making of it. And, there are plenty of light-hearted laughs served up alongside one dark theme. The most dramatic moment occurs when Samir discusses his dead brother and Akbar adds his own sad story to the mix. Otherwise, the menu features fun family fare with the most spectacular item being the food. Scenes of shopping for fresh, exotic produce and the dicing, slicing, shaking and stirring of ingredients like coriander, cumin, fennel, star anise, tamarind and turmeric will render you hungry for a Punjabi meal afterward.

The ensemble cast includes Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi who co-wrote the script based on his one-man play, Sakina’s Restaurant. While he makes a credible Samir and his deer-in-the-headlights expressions merits empathy, it is Akbar’s eccentric but gentle guidance that satisfies any appetite for theatrical performance. Also, watch for Samir’s mother being played by a well-known cookbook author in a casting send-up.

Regretfully, one issue that’s never confronted head-on is Samir’s interracial romance with blue-eyed blonde Carrie (Jess Weixler). Perhaps, it’s a sign of the times that his parents accept her with a mere question asked by his father of his mother upon spotting the WASPish woman with their son.

“Do we care?” shrugs Hakim.

This is, after all, a movie. Director David Kaplan plays it safe although anyone with immigrant parents knows life is rarely this simple. The upshot is that while we enjoy ingesting this film, we still feel hungry afterwards. The promise of controversy is undercooked and bland, and the end product is not as zesty as the real star here — the food.

On this menu, if you will, are a family appetizer, a fish-out-of-water main course, a side of humor, and for desert, a happy ending. As for “Today’s Special”, it lacks a little spice.

Opened November 19 at the Harvard Exit.

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