Not since early 20th century filmmaking in Ithaca – when local snow stood in for the Yukon kind – has Cornell’s frozen precipitation been so cinematically misrepresented.
A scene in the Nepalese “Kollywood” movie, “Buddha – born in Nepal,” which filmed on and around the Cornell campus for a week in January, called for seawater to be thrown at the story’s hero, Kris, a “Cornell student” from Nepal played by actor (and producer) Ramit Dhungana.
“But our ‘seashore,’ Cayuga Lake, was frozen and snow covered,” recalls Kathryn March, the Cornell professor of anthropology who played a fictional lecturer in a world religions class where a misinformed student (played by Michael Gregg ’14) uttered the plot-propelling line: “The Buddha was born in India.”
“So they had to throw snow at the movie star – and plan to fix that in editing,” March reports.
Another problem: No one in Cornell anthropology – and certainly not March, who for more than 20 years has run the Cornell Nepal Study Program – believes the historical Buddha was born anywhere but in what is today Nepal.
So the plot for this feature film by noted director of Nepalese documentaries Gyanendra Deuja had to be altered, putting misinformation that precipitated the main character’s crisis into the mouths of March’s imaginary students. Flaunting a book on world religions, they attack Kris and insist that the Buddha was born in India.
“To their credit,” says March of the Cornell student actors, “they immediately recognized that the book was a biased source,” but they played their parts with enthusiasm.
By then, hero Kris – who dreamed of attending Cornell, where bodacious blond co-eds surely lust for a hunky Nepalese lad, or so he thinks – is already homesick. True, he has found an American blonde (played by Natalie Bachich ’14), but there’s national pride to uphold. So Kris recruits friends at home to film a documentary, proving to skeptical Americans that Lumbini, royal birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama, is located about five kilometers inside the Nepalese modern border with India.
Among the scenes filmed in Ithaca, Kris enters a computer lab and Skypes to dump his dark-eyed lady back home. Newly enlightened faculty members and Cornell community members sign a pro-Nepal petition. And costumed dancers shiver through subfreezing temperatures at Taughannock Falls.
The Nepalese film crew and American students learned about each other’s culture. For example, when the director put out a casting call hoping to recruit blondes, the array of students who showed up included many of South Asian heritage. March recommended that the classroom scene be peopled with Cornellians of all descriptions, and the director complied.
There is a long history of Nepalese students coming to Cornell. There is a small-but-active Nepalese student association on campus as well as what March calls “a bumper crop of Nepalese undergraduates this year.”
However the film turns out, March thinks something very special occurred.
Cornell students “learned something about the concerns of the hundreds of international students among us,” March said. “Often these international students are homesick, nostalgic, feeling misunderstood and filled with national pride for the culture they left behind. They care what we know and think about them.”
And sometimes they make movies.