During the summer of 1993 Italian director, Bernardo Bertolucci brought Hollywood to Nepal. Bertolucci, of the Last Tango in Paris fame, chose Bhaktapur as one of the locations to shoot his $35 million movie.
Bertolucci, who was tired of making movies in Europe, said he wanted to explore the East and to apply his craft to tell stories about a part of world the West rarely saw. Before coming to Kathmandu to shoot The Little Buddha, Bertolucci filmed in China. His work The Last Emperor won nine Oscars. He then travelled to North Africa to shoot The Sheltering Sky, which won a Bafta and a Golden Globe. To wrap up his venture into the east, Bertolucci decided to re-tell the story of the Buddha, like it was never told before.
Lisa Choegyal in her piece for Nepali Times describes how the Italian and his crew worked their magic to blend the real monuments with identical fibreglass painted copies to transform the city of devotees into an ornate, 5th-century BC Shakya palace. “No wonder the local residents are confused – only by touching can these recreated marvels be differentiated from the real thing,” she adds.
Even though the Keanu Reeves-starrer didn’t do well at the box office, it did help boost Nepal’s tourism industry–something Bertolucci never intended to do. Journalist Kanak Mani Dixit, who was in Kathmandu during the shoot, shares that he couldn’t believe that a Hollywood movie was being shot in Bhaktapur. “They could have shot the movie on a set anywhere. But Bertolucci decided not to, and shot it at Bhaktapur by completely transforming it. I feel that this helped boost Nepal’s tourism. Even the locals were amazed how pretty their city looked,” shares Dixit.
Choegyal in her piece also shares that then Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala took a special interest in the film realising the film’s tourism potential. That’s why he ordered officials to issue permits and relevant permissions at the earliest. But even that could prevent controversy from courting the film. According to anecdotes by local people, opposition leaders tried to disrupt the shoot alleging that the movie producers used nude women on the set.
Some of the locals even demanded that the name of the movie be changed to Little Lama. But Bertolucci, a self-professed Marxist, would not give in to their demands. Bertolucci never returned to Nepal with another project, but his love for the country followed him. In his movie, The Dreamers, a character’s friend who brings a souvenir from Nepal.
Talking to an Italian daily the director shared that his film crew added its own structure as a set in Bhaktapur, where he filmed. The Nepalis wanted the structures preserved, he said. The Italian said that that Nepal taught him how to treat people. “Here in the West we want bigger recognition and bigger name, but their life is so simple and so humble.”
The Oscar-winning director was so touched by the people that he wanted to cry when he saw the city where he shot Little Buddha in ruins. Bertolucci said ‘’I have tried in vain to recognise the places of my memory in the images of the ruins shown on television.”
Expressing his pain for the victims he hosted a fundraiser which would help the needy, especially young children in Nepal. On May 28, 2015, he hosted a charity screening of the Little Buddha in Italy. Tickets were priced at 50 and 100 Euros. The proceeds went to an organisation working for village children.
Present at the screening was the cast of the film including Keanu Reeves, who said he was also taken aback by the news and didn’t have to think twice to attend the event.
Bertolucci would have perhaps wanted to return to Bhaktapur someday to see the city he ‘built’ get back on its feet. But that will never happen. The Italian passed away on Monday at his home in Rome. He was 77 years old.
The director who introduced Nepal to a generation of Westerners is no more.