Royal initiative keeps Bhutan’s film industry alive


“I don’t think I have been this busy in a very long time,” says Dechen Wangdi.

Film-set for the Bhutanese short film 'Gomchhen'

Special fund to support film industry in Bhutan

Dechen Wangdi, a Bhutanese actor and director, has been unusually busy shooting short films. Recently, he wrapped up his fourth short film, all of which were shot in a span of just about a month. He has been surprisingly occupied at a time when COVID-19 pandemic has hit the economy hard, leaving thousands in the tourism and hospitality sector jobless with travel business coming to an abrupt halt. 

“I don’t think I have been this busy in a very long time,” says Dechen Wangdi.

The catch is, he is not the only filmmaker who is busy. Bhutan’s entire film industry is at work and alive in these difficult times - all thanks to a Royal initiative. Upon the command of King Jigme Khesar, Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS), the national television broadcaster in the country, instituted a special fund to support the fledgling film industry hit by COVID-19.

Projects cancellation and closure of cinemas
Many film projects have been put on hold or cancelled after the first COVID-19 case was detected in Bhutan in March this year. Cinema halls have been closed for four months now as part of the government’s strategy to avoid crowding in public places and to maintain social distancing. Consequently, many in the industry were left without work.

The Executive Director of the Film Association of Bhutan, Ngawang Tobden, says with screening and production of films stalled, livelihood of close to 1,000 of its registered members were at stake.

The film industry also includes a motley of production houses, animation studios, and independent filmmakers who are not registered with the Association. By that account, the number of affected people could be much higher.

The Chief Executive Officer of BBS, Tshering Wangchuk, says the fund was instituted with the dual objectives of engaging the entertainment industry and to see that all members of the film fraternity get paid for their work to help them tide through the COVID-19 situation and to create more content for the television station.

Discovery of purpose during pandemic
“When the COVID-19 situation began, BBS knew we had a critical role in news coverage and awareness creation, but it was only after receiving the Royal command did we realize that we had a critical role in entertaining the people during the COVID-19 situation,” says Tshering Wangchuk.

A budget of Nu 16 million (around US$ 230,000) has been allocated to the Fund to support educational programs and music and entertainment shows. A major chunk of this budget has gone towards the production of short films.

So far, BBS has approved 45 short film projects. Another 80 proposals are under review.  Many of the approved film projects have been completed and BBS will start screening these films every week starting 3rd July.


Film set for Bhutanese short film 'Gomchhen'

His Majesty the King's support in the film industry
Members of the film industry say the Royal's initiative is what is keeping them afloat during the pandemic. The fund has come as a blessing to many in the industry. 

Sonam Yangzom, one of the few female filmmakers in the country, had to give up three documentary projects and cancel the shoot of a feature film due to COVID-19. “The fund facilitated by BBS is helping me keep my team working and earning in these uncertain times,” she says. “We are able to provide for our family, pay rents and also live our dream of working in the film industry. Other wise, we would have to look for other jobs or means to provide for our families.”

Pema Tenzin, who has been working as a gaffer in the industry for the past 15 years, says that the Royal kidu (welfare program) has not only helped members of the film industry with jobs but also given technical professionals like him the opportunity to direct short films. “This has come as a double blessing for us. Many of us are now getting the opportunity to make films,” he says.

The growth of Bhutan's film industry
However, this is not the first time the King has intervened. Recognizing the importance of films to society and culture, in entertaining people and representing the country, His Majesty the King continues to support the growth and development of the film industry.

In 2009, the King conferred the Royal Order of Merit to the Film Association, recognizing the important role films play in society. The King also granted land to the Film Association for the development of a film studio, which is currently underway.

The journey of Bhutan's film industry began in 1989 with the release of the first Bhutanese feature film ‘Gasa Lamai Singye’ which is based on a romantic ballad. Over the years, the volume of films produced steadily increased and Bhutanese films have successfully taken over Hollywood and Bollywood films screened in the theatres. Today, the film industry produces around 15 to 20 films a year.

Samdrupjongkhar was one of the first districts to have a cinema hall in 1950s where Bollywood movies were mainly screened. However, its popularity declined in the 2000s upon the introduction of television to the country. Thus forcing the cinema to close down and be converted into a warehouse. As of 2020, there is one cinema in Phuentsholing district and four cinemas in the capital city, Thimphu; Lugar Theatre, Trowa Theatre, City Cinema and Ninda Bioscope. The cinemas only screen local Bhutanese movies and screening is available all year round. Bhutan's film industry is currently thriving and will continue to flourish with the support of His Majesty and the local communities. 

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