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Gross National Happiness: The Movie

Gross National Happiness: The Movie

By Niamh Ni Mhaoileoin


It may be tiny, but Bhutan is the only country in the world to measure prosperity based on citizens’ happiness — and its first feature-length film shows why. 

By Niamh Ni Mhaoileoin

Imagine the scene: You’re on top of a mountain in an extremely remote area. You’ve just missed your bus back to the city, and another one may not arrive for days. Desperate to hitch a ride down the mountain, you find yourself joined by a lute-playing Buddhist monk with a sharp sense of humor who encourages you to sit back and enjoy the day. Do you follow his advice? Or are you simply too wound-up by the strains of modern life? That’s the question at the heart of 2003’s Travellers and Magicians, the first feature-length movie filmed entirely in the tiny Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan.  

I wish I could say that my deep appreciation of world cinema drove me to see Travellers and Magicians. In reality, I heard that Bangkok’s Foreign Correspondents Club was holding a screening, which would include free Bhutanese whiskey and gin. 

I grabbed the only available patch of floor — apparently lots of people like free liquor — and settled in for what was sure to be a beautifully shot but dreary film.

The film’s director is a Bhutanese monk and the third incarnation of the founder of the Khyentse lineage of Tibetan Buddhism.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Travellers and Magicians is indeed beautiful, but it’s also uplifting, insightful and extremely funny. The central character is Dondup, a pop-culture-obsessed official from a small mountain village, who has a quest to leave Bhutan and chase his American dream.

Told that a friend of a friend can get him a visa, he sees the door opening to his dream of building a new life in the U.S. First, however, he must get to the capital, Thimpu, which takes two days by bus. But thanks to well-meaning neighbors who ply him with food for the journey, he misses the bus. 

Khyenste Rinpoche behind the scenes

Director Khyentse Norbu.

Source C. Bahls/ Prayer House Pictures

As he waits by an empty road, hoping to thumb a ride, he’s joined by an apple seller, a Buddhist monk, a drunk and a paper salesman and his beautiful daughter. Despite his initial frustration, Dondup slowly warms to the eclectic crew of hitchhikers. His attraction to the young woman — and a meandering story the monk tells to pass the time — combine to unsettle Dondup’s perception of his home as a boring backwater. 

Bhutan disregards GDP, choosing instead to measure its prosperity according to “Gross National Happiness.”

All but one of the cast members are amateur actors, and its director is a Bhutanese monk and the third incarnation of the founder of the Khyentse lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Known as Khyentse Norbu, he studied filmmaking with Bernardo Bertolucci, and advised on the production of the Italian director’s Little Buddha. Although this was his first film focusing exclusively on his homeland, Khyentse has also produced two other films, The Cup (1999) and Vara: A Blessing (2013). 

Travellers and Magicians — suffused with kindness, laughter and generosity — illustrates Bhutan’s unique national vision. Dondup represents the speed and intensity of Western life. For him, waiting for transport is an infuriating waste of time. But his fellow travelers see it as an opportunity to relax, tell stories and play music — precisely the sort of thing their country encourages. 

Unique among world governments, Bhutan disregards GDP, choosing instead to measure its prosperity according to “Gross National Happiness.” The GNH index — endorsed by economists like Joseph Stiglitz, Jeffrey Sachs and Amartya Sen as a supplement to traditional economic metrics — was adopted in 1971 and is based on equitable social development, cultural preservation, environmental sustainability and good governance.

Dondup’s single-minded mission to reach America exposes the divide between the West’s obsession with growth and Bhutan’s devotion to community and individual contentment. In the end, Khyentse Norbu leaves it to the viewer to decide which is the better path.  

Travellers and Magicians isn’t likely to play at a theater near you, but you can order it from Zeitgeist Films or Amazon. Just be warned: Watching it may give you the sudden urge to visit Bhutan, which, you’ll be glad to know, happens to produce some pretty decent whiskey.

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