Cinema without borders: 'Phorpa'- A cup that cheers

In this weekly column, the writer explores the non-Indian films that are making the right noises across the globe. This week, we talk about the Tibetian film, Phorpa

Published: 21st December 2022 08:55 AM  |   Last Updated: 21st December 2022 08:55 AM   |  A+A-

Bhutanese filmmaker Khyentse Norbu’s Tibetan language film Phorpa (The Cup, 1998)

A still from Bhutanese filmmaker Khyentse Norbu’s Tibetan language film Phorpa (The Cup, 1998).

Express News Service

Young Orgyen (Jamyang Lodro), a student in a Tibetan monastery in India, has his dormitory wall plastered with football pictures. It is his shrine. He loves Brazilian footballer Ronaldo and even wears his icon’s yellow-green jersey number 9 under his monk robe. However, in the quarter-finals of the 1998 World Cup, between France and Italy, and later, in the finals between France and Brazil, there is steadfastness about rooting for someone else. The number 10, Zinedine Zidane, because “France is the only country that loyally supports Tibet”.

Bhutanese filmmaker Khyentse Norbu’s Tibetan language film Phorpa (The Cup, 1998), based on Orgyen’s attempt to get a TV set into the monastery to view the finals, is exceptional in how it aligns the innocent, ardent passion of a football fan with the harsh realities of Tibet’s struggle for independence. 

The game then is not merely a relief from perpetual strife—mentions of Lhasa uprising and Tibetan women getting raped during border crossing—but also a very political affair. One in which there can be no support whatsoever for America because it is “scared s##tless of China”. There is recognition of the largesse of India in giving Tibetans a home while also taking potshots at its endemic corruption.

The film also has sport crossing paths with religion but never in a heavy-handed way. Norbu, a Buddhist lama himself, is deft and easy in bringing two seemingly opposing realities together—the competitive physical aggression of one alongside the restraint and frugality of the other—never downplaying either. Take the exchange that the abbot (Lama Chonjor) has with his associate Geko (Orgyen Tobgyal) on the students’ craze for the tournament.

What is the World Cup, he asks. Two civilized nations fighting over a ball. Is there violence in it? Sometimes. What about sex? No. How do you know all this? A sheepish, guilty smile is all that Geko can respond with. What do they get out of this? The abbot enquires further. A cup. It’s now for the abbot to smile mockingly as he drinks tea from his own earthen cup. Is that all there is to it? A mere cup?

It is a cup that cheers. Football is the joy that tempers abstinence. On the other hand, spirituality in Phorpa has a sporting side to it. It is benevolent, compassionate, and humane. It makes room for modern pursuits, like football, in its traditional fold.

Religion might be about renunciation and self-control but then football is also about discipline, in which you give up everything to focus on the sacred game. Orgyen refers to Ronaldo as the one with a shaven head but not a monk. However, every player does have an ascetic side, captured in a brief metaphorical moment by Norbu, with the image of Zidane on TV slowly merging with the smoke of the monastery’s incense sticks.

I recently revisited Phorpa on MUBI. The low-budget, slice-of-life, real feel of the first film to be shot on location in Bhutan doesn’t seem to have diminished over time. It speaks of timeless wisdom—overcoming hatred for others to overcome your own enemies and loving others like you would your own self.

I skipped watching most of the FIFA World Cup matches this year due to my commitment to film festivals. But Orgyen ruing—“if we miss the finals now, it won’t come for another four years”—is all I needed to keep my appointment with the historic Messi-MBappe thriller. Football might inspire films but, at times, it is films that can take you back to the game. And to life’s little but vital joys.


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