In 1937 a two-and-a-half year old boy from a simple family in Tibet was
recognized as the 14th reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion, and destined
to become the spiritual and political leader of his people. Director Martin
Scorsese brings to the screen the true story of the Dalai Lama. Told through
the eyes of His Holiness, "Kundun" brings to life the account
of the Dalai Lama's early life, from childhood through the Chinese invasion
of Tibet and his journey into exile.
"Kundun" is a story of indomitable will and fervent religious
commitment set against a spectacular physical backdrop and compelling world
politics. It is the true story of Tenzin Gyatso, a boy from rural Tibet,
destined to lead his people at one of the most challenging times in their
"Kundun" begins in 1937 with the recognition of a 2-year-old boy
as the 14th Dalai Lama and ends with his exile in 1959, separated from his
beloved homeland at the age of 24.
Through the eyes and heart of Tenzin Gyatso, as he grows from boy to man
and is prepared for leadership by the most enlightened Buddhist scholars,
"Kundun" reveals a society that remained isolated from the West
In 1950, when Tenzin Gyatso was 15, the Chinese communist army of Chairman
Mao Zedong entered Tibet, claiming it as part of China. The Dalai Lama's
appeals to the West went unheeded and the young leader was left to stand
alone. Throughout his long resistance, he refused to sacrifice his principles.
He has stood fast to the basic Buddhist ideals of non-violence.
"What interested me about the story," director Martin Scorsese
says, "was how a young man who lived in a society based on the spirit,
found himself in conflict with a strongly anti-religious society, the Maoist
government of the Chinese communists. How does a man of non-violence deal
with these people?"
The stars of "Kundun" are Tibetans living in India, the United
States and Canada. They were either born in exile, or have lived in exile
most of their lives. None are professional actors, though several are members
of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts.
For four months they left their businesses, took leaves of absence from
their work and monasteries and postponed their studies. They were honored
to take part in a film about His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama is played by four young Tibetans: Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong,
(the Dalai Lama as an adult), Gyurme Tethong (the Dalai Lama age 12), Tulku
Jamyang Kunga Tenzin (the Dalai Lama age 5) and Tenzin Yeshi Paichang (the
Dalai Lama age 2).
Among the principal cast are Tencho Gyalpo, as the Dalai Lama's mother,
Tsewang Migyur Khangsar, as the Dalai Lama's father, Geshi Yeshi Gyatso
as the Lama of Sera, Lobsang Samten as the Master of the Kitchen, Gyatso
Lukhang as the Lord Chamberlain, Tsewang Jigme Tsarong as Taktra and Tenzin
Trinley as Ling Rinpoche.
Screenwriter Melissa Mathison's interest in the story began at university,
when she read Charles Bell's book on the 13th Dalai Lama.
Mathison initiated "Kundun" about seven years ago. She researched
for a year and then submitted a short treatment of a screenplay to His Holiness.
She was given the go-ahead at their first meeting, in April of 1991.
His Holiness then invited Mathison and her husband, the actor Harrison Ford,
to join him on a retreat in Northern California and there she began her
interviews with the great leader. Over the years Mathison has interviewed
him as many as fifteen times.
As soon as she had completed the first draft of her screenplay, Mathison
traveled to Dharamsala, India, the seat of the Tibetan parliament in exile
and spent six days working with His Holiness on the script. As Harrison
Ford read the script aloud, His Holiness made corrections as more memories
were awakened, more incidents, more details.
"It was great fun for all of us, because he enjoyed the process,"
says Mathison of the Dalai Lama's participation. "We worked for about
four hours every day.
"His Holiness has written two autobiographies and there's been a lot
published about him; but I'd say that most of the screenplay is based on
the personal revelations he gave me," Mathison continues.
"I also interviewed people who had been part of the Tibetan government
at the time of the Dalai Lama's exile ... members of the cabinet, scholars
and all of His Holiness's family. I had access to wonderful resources,
because His Holiness has always considered himself our ally on this project."
When she had written a third draft, Mathison sent her screenplay to Martin
Scorsese. "He's a spiritual man, interested in world religion,"
Mathison says, "and I just figured he would get it. His films usually
focus on a hero who lives in a male society and who, come hell or high water,
is loyal to a code, loyal to the people around him, even if it causes him
problems. The journey they take involves hardship and loss that ultimately
is character building.
"Marty [Scorsese] agreed to direct 'Kundun,' persuaded by the script
and unbeknownst to me, by his own interest in Tibet. He wasn't involved
in the Tibetan cause. He didn't know Tibetans. He wasn't a student of
the history of Buddhism. For him, it's about imagery and there were images
of Tibet in his mind that he'd been nurturing for years. When he read the
script they came alive for him."