Winds of change in Bhutan's film industry

With its breathtaking mountains, clear rivers and blue sky, Bhutan should be a natural choice for India's film industry next door, where crews have been known to go as far as Latin America to shoot a single song sequence.

But a complicated permit structure and high taxes have meant not more than two or three Indian movies have ever been filmed in Bhutan.

The film federation of Bhutan hopes all that will change.

It plans to spend 6 billion rupees (S$123 million) to build a “film city” on 150 acres of leased government land on the outskirts of the capital city of Thimpu, with indoor studios and post-production facilities.

“The government is willing to support this,” said Mr Sherub Gyeltshen general secretary of the Motion Picture Association of Bhutan. He added that the initiative had the backing of Bhutan's royal family.

Talks, he said, are on with a number of investors though there is no timeline for completing the project,

Bhutan is often called Shangri La because it is seen as a mysterious land shut off to the world till very recently.

People in Bhutan got access to the Internet and television only in 1999.

But the winds of change are now blowing a little faster in the landlocked country sandwiched between India and China, the fastest growing economies in Asia.

For years, Bhutan depended on selling hydropower to neighbouring India to earn revenue. Now it wants to expand tourism and offering itself up as a location for shooting movies would help showcase Bhutan as a tourist destination.

In the last few years, Bhutan has built three domestic airports and is aiming to bring in 200,000 dollar-paying tourists by 2018, said Bhutan's finance secretary Lam Dorji.

In 2011, 64,028 tourists from across the world visited Bhutan, with numbers almost doubling to 105,407 – including 1,069 Singaporeans – in 2012. The country earned US$211.5 million (S$268.4 million) in 2012. The bulk of the increase was from Indian tourists who don't need a visa.

But at the same time the government wants to concentrate on promoting high-end, low volume tourism to keep numbers manageable.

The country follows the principles of Gross National Happiness and not Gross Domestic Product, emphasising tradition, culture and the environment over profits and consumerism.

Tobacco is banned and cannot be sold or produced. Men and women have to wear the national dress – knee length robes for men and ankle length dress for women during office hours and in public functions.

So preserving the local culture and language, Dzongkha, takes precedence over all else.

At the eight cinema halls across Bhutan, only Bhutanese films are screened, In the 90s movie halls were asked to screen only Bhutanese films. leading to the dissappearance of Indian and Hollywood films from halls.

The Bhutanese still watch Bollywood movies on cable television and speak Hindi with the three Khans of Bollywood – Aamir, Shah Rukh and Salman Khan – as popular here as in neighbouring India.

But local films have also been growing in popularity with some 20 Bhutanese films now produced every year. Last year's big hit was Jarim Sarim (Pretty and the Beautiful), a romantic comedy film that ran full house for 24 days in one cinema hall, a record in the local film industry.

Made on an average budget of 4 million rupees each, themes are centred around romance and comedy.

“It is a very interesting time to be in Bhutan's film industry. I am very excited. And I see it growing more,” said Tshokey Tshomo Karchung, a leading actress and the country's first Miss Bhutan in 2008.

gnirmala@sph.com.sg