Acting was far from Tenzin Lodoe’s mind while he was growing up in the northern Indian town of Dharamsala. His parents had fled there from Tibet in 1954, when they were children. Lodoe’s father, Tenzin Choegyal, who is the Dalai Lama’s youngest brother, became the Tibetan leader’s assistant, and Rinchen Khando, Lodoe’s mother, served as the government-in-exile’s minister of education. One of the settlement’s proud achievements was continuing the Tibetan way of life. “Our culture is that of compassion,” Lodoe says. “We concentrate on the development of the human heart.” Lodoe learned English at Dharamsala’s Tibetan Children’s Village, a school closely patterned after the British system that trained earlier generations of Tibet’s elite.
English was an asset when a casting director showed up in Dharamsala in June 1996 looking for Tibetans to act in Kundun, Martin Scorsese’s movie about the Dalai Lama. “We had known about the project for some time,” Lodoe says. “[Screenwriter] Melissa Mathison had visited our settlement several times to consult with those who knew the Dalai Lama well.” A practicing Buddhist, Mathison wrote the screenplays for E.T. and The Black Stallion. Her desire to popularize the story of the 14th Dalai Lama was met with hearty approval, and Scorsese’s later participation added prestige to the venture. “It meant a lot to us Tibetans,” Lodoe says. “We began to regard the movie as a way of showing our freedom struggle to the world.”
Lodoe dropped off some photos with the casting director, and Scorsese arrived a few days later. “He saw my photograph and asked to see me,” Lodoe recalls. “We met. He said, ‘You got it. You’ll play your uncle.'” Lodoe had landed the role of Thubten Jigme Norbu, the Dalai Lama’s oldest sibling. Lodoe had heard about Norbu’s past as part of the family lore–also a holy man, Norbu cared for his younger brother and was the first Tibetan to travel to the U.S. in the early 50s to publicize his country’s plight. “He received the title Taktser Rinpoche, rinpoche being the Tibetan term for a spiritual master,” says Lodoe. “Because of his status, he stayed behind in the village when my whole family took off to Lhasa to be with the Dalai Lama.” Norbu later renounced his monkhood to marry and now lives in Bloomington, Indiana. Lodoe’s own father would become known as Ngari Rinpoche, the third reincarnation of a monk who was the 13th Dalai Lama’s counselor and best friend.
Lodoe isn’t the only member of the Dalai Lama’s extended family to have a role in Kundun. “You can tell that by noting how many Tenzins there are in the credits,” he says. “His holiness, like all lamas, gave us our names. And Tenzin, which means ‘protector of the faith,’ is a name he likes very much.” A second cousin plays the Dalai Lama as a young adult; one of the Dalai Lama’s nieces plays her own grandmother. “I think it’s because we all look somewhat like our relatives,” he says, “and we all speak fairly understandable English.”
Before moving to the U.S. to study journalism at Northwestern in the fall of 1996, Lodoe joined the cast and crew of Kundun in Morocco, where much of the film was shot. Lodoe spent what he calls an exhilarating seven weeks in a valley in the Atlas Mountains, closely observing Scorsese at work. “Marty didn’t give too much direction or tell me about motivations. He’d say, ‘Here’s the situation, do it your way.’ That was such a pleasure.” Lodoe saw the finished film at its New York premiere last month. “It’s a masterpiece,” he declares, “as close to a prayer as a movie can be. One thing that struck me about Scorsese is how he managed to transcend cultures yet keep the emotions real and immediate. In terms of history, I think it’s 98 percent accurate. As a Tibetan born in exile, I’ve never seen the motherland. Now the movie has given the Tibetans of my generation images of a Tibet we can relate to.”
When Lodoe’s work on the film was over, he left for Evanston. “I’ve always enjoyed writing, so I thought of trying out journalism,” he says. “After one year, I found it not to be creative. Besides, I was tired of the materialism at Northwestern. Some of the kids talk about their dads’ Mercedeses all the time.” Now convinced that film is his medium, Lodoe has transferred to the film program at Columbia College. “I’ve always loved poetry and painting,” he says, “and I’ve been around documentary crews when they came to Dharamsala. I saw how you could capture those revealing moments of life, then show them to the world. After all, I learned how to kiss from the movies.” –Ted Shen
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Tenzin Lodoe, right, with his cousin Tencho Gyalpo uncredited photo.