The Kingdom of Bhutan, a small nation located entirely in the Himalayas, is the first modern nation-state to assess national wealth according to happiness. In contrast to the pervasive capitalist metrics used to assess national wealth, such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP), in the ’70s, Bhutan’s King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, believed that a market-based approach to measuring a nation’s well-being is fundamentally flawed. Instead, he developed a new concept to assess the wealth of a nation: “Gross National Happiness”.
According to The Centre for Bhutan Studies, one of the significant factors in promoting happiness is investing in culture. This belief, in part, has led the tiny nation of under one million people to have a flourishing film industry. Still, the Bhutanese film industry remains in its infancy. It wasn’t until the late ’90s that the first feature-length Bhutanese films were produced.
Bhutan is politically committed to promoting and expanding happiness, and in the 2017 Bhutanese movie, Kushuthara: Pattern of Love, happiness becomes a pronounced theme, one discussed and conceptualized in emotionally and ethically complex ways. The movie, written, directed and produced by Karma Deki, has received several awards on the international film circuit, and in 2017, it reached American shores. Its international distribution is not an accident. Kushuthara is the first Bhutanese film to feature a Western actor.
The film’s focus on happiness, the ways it visualizes and verbalizes the multiple meanings and practices of happiness, should be received by Americans as a welcome surprise. The United States is a country where the “pursuit of happiness” is positioned as a foundational, national right, yet watching Kushuthara is a reminder of how impoverished our social imagination is in regards to happiness.
Kushutharais rich with aesthetic pleasures. Throughout, there are beautiful shots of Bhutan; a continuous flow of music, including folk songs performed in their entirety; and joyous, communal traditional dances. Aesthetic happiness isn’t generated by narrative alone. But Kushuthara also has a compelling story, focusing on the emerging, forbidden love between a married woman, Chomiko (Kezang Wangmo), who lives in a remote Bhutanese village, and Charlie (Emrhys Cooper), a white American photojournalist who has been sent to Bhutan to document traditional textile production in the remote village where Chomiko lives.
Throughout, Charlie and Chomiko are connected through weaving. When Charlie arrives in the village, a two-day drive from the nation’s only airport in Paro, a ball of yarn drops from Chomiko’s possession and rolls towards him. As Charlie picks it up he is literally “connected” to Chomiko. Chomiko’s husband also grabs the unspooled ball of thread, standing literally and figuratively between the ill-fated lovers.
Chokimo (Kezang Wangmo) and Charlie (Emrhys Cooper)
Charlie is our guide into Bhutan, and sensitive Western audiences are likely to be wary of his potential colonial gaze. Charlie’s camera seeks to capture and disseminate images of a nation that, as late as the ’60s, had no national currency, no postal service, no formal schools, no official hospitals, no public services, and no electricity. It wasn’t until 1961 that King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck decided to end Bhutan’s centuries-long isolation and begin a path towards modernization. Charlie’s photojournalistic project, we may suspect, is perpetuating an all-too familiar Western desire to visually capture and fetishize Eastern cultures and frame them as anachronistic practices outside of history.
But of course, this is a Bhutanese production and the movie upends Western expectations. If Western audiences are leery of how Charlie will frame and represent the village’s textile production, director Deki smartly begins the movie by beating Charlie to the proverbial punch.
Weaving becomes a pronounced metaphor in the movie, a figuration that connects people and moves across geographies and temporalities. But before turning weaving into a metaphor, Deki establishes weaving as a salient material, cultural practice.
The film opens with Deki’s patient, loving camera offering an extremely close shot of Bhutanese women collectively weaving yarn into beautiful, complex patterns. These women are weaving in the open air, singing in unison, and using traditional tools and methods that belie the mass, mechanical production of textiles occurring throughout the surrounding region.
The opening shot is out of focus, an intentional imperfection that can be read as challenging the technically perfect representations that will be framed by Charlie’s camera. In this extended, fuzzy shot, we see vibrantly colored threads being spun on a wooden loom. Deki positions the camera at a close intimacy to the spinning silk thread, an intimacy that Charlie will most likely not achieve during his brief stay.
Deki then cuts to a long shot of Bhutanese women, including Chomiko, engaged in the highly-skilled, creative work of weaving. As we learn through their song, weaving is not only about useful labor to make clothes, but the process is also about creating stories, exploring ideas, and giving form to feelings. These women sing, for example, “The warp signifies the nature of wisdom” and “The weft denotes the nature of spiritual transmission”. This cultural practice and its significations exceed dominant Western forms of literacy, and watching this scene, Western audiences should be grateful to just watch. But movies do not allow us to be passive spectators; they should engage us emotionally and intellectually.
Kushuthara‘s tension, in part, is how the central characters negotiate different philosophies of happiness. Charlie is transformed by his brief time in Bhutan, not just learning about, but experiencing the Buddhist tenets of reincarnation and karma. However, his overriding desire is to be in love and live happily ever after with Chomiko. Despite knowing each other for a short span of time, Charlie wants Chomiko to come “home” with him, leaving behind her husband, her village, and Bhutan entirely. This narrative path, Charlie implies, will lead to happiness.
In its dominant Western sense, happiness is understood as trying to sustain the heightened feelings of the present (which usually ends up being short-lived passion masquerading as love). In contrast, Chomiko is informed by Buddhism’s more nuanced, social understanding of happiness. As represented in the movie, Buddhism doesn’t ask questions about happiness that remains tethered to and framed by the individual alone. Rather, happiness is a category mediated by the individual’s relation to others and to the wider community.
Happiness is represented as a social category and as a difficult journey with highs (which are typically fetishized in Western narratives) and inevitable lows. As one of Chomiko’s friends tells her, in thinking about happiness in relation to marriage: “A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person”. This means that there will be times when a married person will feel, temporarily, out of love. This discussion reminds Chomiko not to over privilege the present, and to think on a wider temporal scale, one that even stretches beyond this lifetime. While the married couple’s passion may not burn as brightly as couples in Western romantic movies, Chomiko’s husband is not a villain, which would be an easy and sloppy narrative trope. Rather, he loves his wife and Chomiko loves him.
As their attraction to each other increases, Chomiko begins to tell Charlie a local folk story above two ill-fated lovers, Metho and Phuntsho. Kushuthara weaves back and forth between the two lovers in the past and the two potential lovers in the present. The folk story focuses on an older man and younger woman whose love could not be consummated in their lifetime. The movie suggests that these two souls are reincarnated in Chomiko and Charlie. But the historical situation between the two pairs is radically different.
Attempting to provide a familiar Western frame of reference, Chomiko tells Charlie that the folk story is similar to Romeo and Juliet. But this point of comparison is severely limited. In Romeo and Juliet, love is placed above all else, including the reigning familial and social order. Moreover, in Shakespeare’s play, the relationship between the “star-crossed lovers” has profound political ramifications, resulting in a new political alliance between the Capulets and Montagues.
The local folk story features two Bhutanese villagers who cannot be together. However, their love is not consummated because of a political division, but because of the marketplace. The older man can’t be with his beloved because he needs to go abroad for his job. If the spirits of Metho and Phuntsho are reincarnated in Chomiko and Charlie, a troubling politics emerges with profound colonial implications, which the movie quietly acknowledges. If Charlie and Chomiko are to consummate their love, then Chomiko, according to Charlie’s plan for happiness, must renounce her husband, her culture, and her nation. This would not be the formation of a new political alliance, but a perpetuation of the dominant Western order which Chomiko must then assimilate into.
If cinema has become a universal language, one adopted and modified by nations large and small, certain cultural practices, such as Bhutanese weaving, seem to remain nationally specific and resist the homogenizing logic of global mass production. But in global capitalism, culture and commerce flow in multiple directions. Charlie’s camera may seek to document Bhutan for the West, but Bhutan is also reliant on the outside for its subsistence.
In the folk story, the man must leave his beloved to go abroad to market Bhutanese textiles. Moreover, and beyond its narrative, Kushuthara is now reaching Westerners in their homes via various digital streaming platforms. Understood in this way, the film is itself an unspooling ball of thread that lands at our feet. But unlike the ball of thread that reaches Charlie, we must and should pay for this form of communication.