“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”
– Albert Camus
Tibetan exile, Vancouverite, a monster shredder and a riveting international actor-director-writer-poet-lyricist Shenpenn Khymsar’s experience belies his youth as he speaks of his passion with the fierceness of a lion, his words embodying the pride, courage and integrity as much as the wisdom and compassion needed for an intelligent representation imperative to realistic cinema. More so when it comes from a diehard activist known for speaking the truth without the shroud of diplomacy.
Shenpenn Khymsar has now returned to his roots, India, to give flight to Broken Wings, his first feature film that has touched upon the socially and politically conscious human rights crusade during the Gorkhaland agitation. Khymsar has set his love story in the backdrop of a burning Darjeeling with broken wings screaming for flight.
There is a vital difference between blind optimism and hope as an act of rebellion. “My Buddhist values, my conscience and my Tibetanness does not allow me to sit comfortably on the sidelines. Broken Wings is the first true representation of the Northeast. To an average Indian, Nepali means momos, security guards and a regiment known for bravery and khukris. I am daring to make a cultural reset about 46 million untapped people from the Northeast in an artistic sense, and asking for inclusiveness, albeit in an entertaining manner.”
Broken Wings comes after Shenpenn Khymsar’s world-acclaimed Tibetan full-length epic rock-u-mentary on heavy metal and Buddhism called Journey of a Dream – a refreshing and inspiring story that illustrates his passion for heavy metal music just as much as his work backing the Tibetan cause.
Shenpenn Khymsar has travelled the globe in search of his fellow Tibetan refugees and has documented their emotional and political struggles and the journey has also taken him to his hometown, Darjeeling, where the vibrant Western music scene and heavy metal fandom, unnoticed to the outside world, has created a sense of unity and belonging between refugees.
“I am a Tibetan. Buddhism is my philosophy. Heavy metal has saved my life,” says Shenpenn Khymsar simply.
Journey of a Dream was a musical experience as complex and passionate as Shenpenn Khymsar’s own struggle of being born in exile. Finding his true self and not succumbing to the societal norms, as well as the want to go back and see the land that he lived through his grandfather’s stories.
“Tibet is the only country in the history of mankind that has not retaliated in any form of major violence. We have lost over 1.6 million lives due to Chinese invasion. About 1 lakh Tibetan refugees live in settlements across India and Nepal. Around 6500 Tibetans live in Canada. Over a thousand Tibetans are estimated to continue to leave the Chinese-controlled region each year, trekking over the Himalayas. Our dream is nothing more than to free our country from Chinese rule. Tibet needs to be free.”
Broken Wings may be from personal experience, but like Journey of a Dream, it is a powerful and unconventional effort, combining political filmmaking with entertainment and serves as a musical outlet for the frustration and a means of expression for an entire young generation in the hills of Northeast India. Broken Wings is, incidentally, India’s first independent film from Darjeeling after 72 years of independent India.
WAIT AND WATCH
Cut to Circa 1991. 18-year-old Shenpenn, a Tibet-born, Darjeeling-settled young man felt truly insecure among his Chinese waiters at the China Garden Restaurant, Mumbai. He had left the comforts of his home to prove his mettle as an actor. The job of a waiter brought him close to his dreams. He served Sanjay Dutt, Salman Khan, Anita Raj and many producers. “People told me they would definitely give me a chance, but there were no audition hubs then, and celeb memory is always short. Actor Sameer Soni was my roommate. We stayed together. He had money and work and I was a struggler.
My Tibetan features didn’t help me bag roles. I tried my hand at Channel V VJing, but Luke Kenny got the part instead.”
With broken wings, Shenpenn Khymsar went back home. “I could not save face. My family did not understand. In our world of engineers, doctors and civil servants, my dreams were not normal.”
Young Shenpenn Khymsar could not be more out of place. “I was depressed, rebellious, angry and could not rationally articulate the happenings. I was raw. A time came when I knew I would either be killed or something violent would happen.”
FLIGHT OF DESTINY
Energy took a shackled Shenpenn Khymsar to the United States. From absolute despair sprung infinite joy. “I was in the land of the free. I expanded my learning, worked and studied while mowing the lawns of rich white people, but unfortunately, my US political asylum application got rejected.” Not wanting to get deported, Shenpenn Khymsar escaped to Canada in a Greyhound bus. After receiving political asylum in Canada and five years later, Shenpenn Khymsar, the official Canadian citizen, would go officially to the US. Today, he regularly speaks in universities around the US, holds photo exhibitions, and through his activism and filmmaking, helps refugees. “I had to do a lot if I was serious about my dreams.” The didact artist improved his Hindi, studied the Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, Vedas, the Nalanda tradition, and started reading Hindi and writing poetry in Hindi and Urdu.
Today, Shenpenn Khymsar is unapologetic when it comes to his cause or his artistic sojourn. “I am glad of my activism and the fact that I am a writer-director. I write poetry in four languages, pen lyrics in three languages, play the guitar and can compose rock to heavy metal to pop to Spanish to mellow romantic songs to dark music. At the end of the day, I have only myself. If I give up on myself, what is the point in being alive?”
When it comes to the hurricane called Shenpenn Khymsar, you just can’t beat that person who won’t give up. Can you?
By Vedant Gill
Disclaimer: The views, suggestions and opinions expressed here are the sole responsibility of the experts. No Forbes India journalist was involved in the writing and production of this article.
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