Thimphu houses do not sport rooftop antennas, but the video parlours stock enough options.
It is Saturday night in Thimphu and in this quiet town without bars, clubs or night life, the action is concentrated at the local video stores. A young man in his 20s steps in to pick up three films: Braveheart, Men of War and Agnisakshi. “I like everything, especially war movies,” he says. “Social movies put me to sleep. I like action movies. Lots of people get killed in this. I mean, 1 hope so,” he says about Men of War.
While Druk Yul, the land of the thunder dragon, has taken the Singapore path and banned the satellite dish antenna in the hope of limiting encroachment on what the monarchy describes as a fragile culture in need of protection, every comer on the main street of Norzin Lam boasts at least one video rental shop.
Glimpses of foreign culture are everywhere—Hindi and English video titles sit side by side on the shelves, including the most recent American releases: cops-and-bad-guys films like Heat, Seven and Executive Decision and children´s films like Babe. A George Michael poster fills up one wall of a shop, Hindi film posters line other walls. Bookstores stock Archie comic books, novels by best-selling Western writers like Danielle Steele and John Grisham and Hindi film magazines like Stardust. Tapes of pop music by groups like The Eagles sit beside a small selection of local artistes.
“Everything is popular,” says the woman at the video counter in Yangchenma bookstore, “love stories, action films, horror—English or Hindi.” People interviewed said they pick up two or three films a night, several times a week. The current hot titles in the store are Jaan, a Hindi film that combines action with a love story, and the American film Parallel Lives.
“There´s nothing to do here,” complains one Thimphu resident. “People drink. There´s no television, nowhere to go. Those who have been outside the country, sure they miss it.”
There is a movie theatre in town which is one of about a half dozen or so in the country and it changes shows frequently, offering English, Hindi and Nepali fare. That is about all the entertainment there is for those who do not have VCRs at home.
Pornography on Tape
Satellite television does exist in Bhutan, but only in foreign missions and aid offices which have carefully hidden dishes. And though the government turns a blind eye to it, it is out of reach of the average Bhutanese. “I wouldn´t invite a Bhutanese over specifically to watch television,” says one foreign worker. “And they wouldn´t dare ask.”
Officials concede it is a contradiction, if not downright hypocritical, to outlaw television and at the same time allow easy access to films that are often more violent or sexually explicit than anything shown on Star TV.
“Television itself doesn´t that much affect our culture and religion,” said Sangay Wangchuk, Secretary of the Special Commission for Cultural Affairs. “Personally, I feel video is more dangerous than TV. BBC or CNN news, it doesn´t seem to me that would affect our culture.”
Mr Wangchuk says that the government has plans to allow television. (It is currently listed as part of the country´s eighth five-year development plan that kicks off next year.) And when television does come, he says, it should include locally produced religious, cultural and educational programming. Perhaps the Bhutanese will have to wait until such programming is available before they also get to tune into tv.
In the meantime, there are some who fear that the government could suddenly decide to get tough on videos and ban or limit access to them. There had been a clampdown earlier, aimed against x-rated films. Nowadays, shopkeepers insist they do not keep pornographic films in stock but it is generally known that they are still available if one is discreet. “You have to know the people (the shopkeepers), then they´ll give them to you,” says one resident who admits to having acquired a taste for soft porn during several years in the United States.
“Do you want to watch one? I´ll see what I can find.”