Kundun: Synopsis

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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 history.

"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 for centuries.

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."

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