The death of a star and safety concerns for the Bhutanese Film Industry

The untimely death of Karma Choechung, one of the leading actors in the Bhutanese film industry, has brought up the issue of the lack of safety in the film industry and the need for both investment and rules to prevent such tragedies again.

Close calls

A film director, on the condition of anonymity, shared how the industry has its fair share of film shooting related near missies and even injuries.

He said one popular technique to show stabbing scenes in movies is to put a pumpkin under the Gho which is then stabbed with a real Dozom or knife. 

“If the knife misses its mark or slips then the person could get stabbed for real,” said the Director.

He said that there are very life like rubber knives available internationally but these are expensive and so the film industry uses real knives.

The director recalled a film shooting where the actors ran with real knives on a wet and muddy paddy field and a slip could have meant real disaster.

Film Association of Bhutan (FAB) officiating President and Nidup Dorji said that there are several safety incidents while shooting films.

Giving the example of a movie Damtshi Pangtshug he said in a fight sequence a traditional patang cut through two layers of thick gho and cut a person.

In the movie Drang Golay he said there was an incident with a horse and the actor Sergyel and three Mangmis acting in the movie but nobody was badly hurt at the time.

He said it is also not uncommon for the handles of patangs to come out while wielding them.

Even when it comes to stunts the industry has no concept of stuntmen or women or body doubles.

The stunts rely solely on the courage and risk taken by Bhutanese actors.

The director said that what the Bhutanese film industry lacks in stunt people and CGI is made up by the sheer courage of actors who do the stunts themselves.

He pointed out that in Bollywood and Hollywood there are clear safety rules and standards and even a fire is well regulated, but in the case of the Bhutanese film industry there are no film rules.

While Karma Choechung was not new to horses and was a self taught horse rider, it is also true that actors in more advanced film industries get special horse riding lessons.

Both the Director and the FAB President identified the main challenge to be the lack of resources for a film industry with a small viewership.

Nidup, however, said that if Financial Institutions treated the film industry as a proper industry and extended it loans then films could start investing in various aspects including safety.

The ground reality now is that the film industry with limited budgets and viewership is getting increasingly competitive and so there is a race to outdo each other. This and the international action or realism standards that Bhutanese viewers expect, given their exposure to both Bollywood and Hollywood.

On the ground, meanwhile, pulling of these action scenes or even stunts depends on actors taking real risks with real weapons like patangs and dozoms or doing other complicated stunts normally done by stunt people and trained body doubles in other countries.

Time for safety standards

The Chief Information and Media Officer at the Film Commission, Singye Wangmo said that the Film Commission had just drafted some filming regulations but it was more to do with dos and don’ts like not shooting in temples or on getting permits and did not really deal with safety issues.

She said that given the incident the Film Commission would be looking into the need for safety regulations and standards.

She said that at another level it is also an individual responsibility as the Commission would also not like to tell them too much.

Under the ICM Act the Film Commission is tasked with handling all the issues related to the film industry and films.

Nidup Dorji said the incident is a big reminder to put in place facilities and also rules for safety in the film industry. He said the film industry is at a growing stage and many talented people are coming in and so their safety needs to be taken care of as it is not only about the actors but also the family they leave behind.

The incident

On the specific incident that led to Karma Choechung’s death, Nidup said that he as the FAB President had looked into the issue.

He said accident in Sephu, Wangduephodrang had not taken place while shooting for the movie Nyingtob, The Brave Heart, but it happened on the sidelines of the film shooting when the actor wanted to send a short clip of him riding on a horse while holding the national flag as part of a MTV for the National Day.

Nidup said that he was not asked or required to send the clip but Karma insisted as he wanted to contribute to the National Day celebrations given his past role as the FAB coordinator for National Day celebrations in Haa and Samtse.

Karma, two film crew members and the owner of the horse headed to a grassy knoll to shoot the sequence. Karma held the flag in his right hand and the rein of the horse in the left hand, but after a short distance given balance issues his left hand pulled the rein and the horse suddenly stopped and he fell off with his head hitting a rock on the ground and then rolling and hitting a bigger rock below.

According to the crew at the site Karma gave a shout of pain and was bleeding from his right ear and nose indicating a serious head injury and brain hemorrhage.

The staff could not do much and they held and hugged him trying to comfort him while calling in for a helicopter evacuation.

However, the helicopter service could not make it due to the windy weather in the area.

They put Karma into a car and drove him towards Thimphu. Nidup said that around Pelela pass Karma spoke his only and final words there asking for the ‘PM,PM’ which means the production manager.

Nidup said that Karma was both the director and the actor in his film though the lead role was being played by Sergyel.

He said the film had finished around 70 to 80 percent shooting and this may have indicated that Karma was worried about the film.

With no helicopter service, the car drove till Nobding in Wangdue where an ambulance met it, and from there the body was transferred into the ambulance. Nidup said that a good three to four hours was spent in bringing Karma to JDWNRH and he was in a critical state by the time he reached Thimphu.

The doctors immediately operated on him as blood had entered Karma’s brain due to the hemorrhage.  There was a plan to fly out Karma for more advanced treatment but this plan was not possible until Karma stabilized and his condition kept getting worse until he passed away on 16th December from the head injury.

Karma the man and the actor

Karma’s nephew Sonam Tenzin who is himself an actor said that Karma’s family originally hailed from Tang, Bumthang and his grandfather served as a Gup to the Lamai Gonpa noble household there and received land in Trongsa where the family settled. Karma was the youngest in a family of five brothers and three sisters.

Remembering his late uncle Sonam said that Karma was an honest and straightforward person who said what was on his mind, but he also had a very compassionate side engaging in Yak and Fish Tsethars.

He was also a doting son to his aged parents. 

Sonam said that Karma enjoyed good and friendly relations across the film industry.

He said Karma graduated from the Kalimpong Government College and was known to be talented from his school days itself.

After college Karma tried his hand at guiding and was engaged in it for a while until this naturally talented person was noticed by the late director Tshering Wangyel who gave him his first break into the film industry in 2008 and then there was no looking black.

Sonam said that Karma acted in 29 movies and many of them were block buster hits leading to a large following.

The actor, however, had other sensibilities and was also a director picking up the best director award with his first directorial venture in 2014 with the film ‘My Teacher, My World.’

Karma was also a singer and in a film album he sang five of the six songs there. In the last Laya highlander’s festival he sang a song and moved some of the highlanders to tears with his eloquence.

The late actor also doubled up as an event director for  Druk Star.

It seemed there was nothing much that the actor could not do until an early and unfortunate demise at the age of 37.

The death of this multi-talented young actor will come as a huge blow to a growing and massively popular Bhutanese film industry that only has a few stars, but it straddles across age, cultural and even language divides and enjoys such mass appeal that it has replaced Bollywood and Hollywood from the theaters in a short time.

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