The wood-and-stone Illiterati cafe in Dharamshala is a delightful little social media sensation. Millennials pose on its mountain-facing balcony, armed with Instagram-essentials: books, coffee, and distant gazes. Not captured in these posts, however, is Shavo Dorjee, the inconspicuous, traditionally bearded Tibetan waiter who slides around the cafe taking orders and delivering dishes, wearing a bowler hat, signature Tibetan waistcoat, jeans and slippers. You'd have no way of knowing that Dorjee—who waits tables in exchange for room and board and a modest salary—is an award-winning actor in an internationally acclaimed feature film.
The 28-year-old played his namesake protagonist in Pawo, which is highly-rated on IMDB, and has won several accolades, including Best Narrative Feature Film at the Queens World Film Festival (Dorjee was also nominated for best actor), and a nomination for Best Feature Film at the Palm Beach Film Festival. The film is based loosely on the life of Jamphel Yeshi who, as an expression of resistance against Chinese rule in Tibet, self-immolated in New Delhi six years ago, ahead of a visit by then-Chinese President Ju Hintao.
“I was there at the protest,” Dorjee told me. “I was in college, and Jamphel Yeshi’s self-immolation happened in Jantar Mantar. It’s a huge event for Tibetans.” He was sceptical about his ability to play the character. “The director [Marvin Litwak] told me that it’s not only a ‘Jamphel issue’—I can play myself. I have a similar life: I came from Tibet, I grew up here, [had] confusions in life. I was pretty much doing what I experienced. Except for the last decision he took, I wouldn’t do that.”
Dorjee traces the roots of his love for acting back to Tibet, where as a child he communicated in broken sign language, motion and actions with his deaf mother, who he hasn’t seen since he fled the country on foot at age six.
Eventually, he enrolled in the Upper Tibetan Children’s Village School in Dharamshala. When other students went on holiday, he and the kids who also had parents in Tibet, “played dramas, we’d make up characters. I was the smart guy; one guy was the best fighter.”
This play-acting led him to the Delhi University theatre scene, where he played characters like a chaiwalla, or an Anglo-Indian. He also performed in idealistic street plays and directed his own short: The Last Note for the Tibet Film Festival. And he kept sending video auditions for characters in mainstream Bollywood films.
Dorjee maintains that if the dream of becoming a successful actor in India is near-unattainable for Indians, Tibetans have it far harder. It doesn’t help that the Tibetan film industry, like many of its people, is in exile. “It’s not even a structure. It’s just individuals who are making movies. You never know what happens,” said Dorjee.
Bollywood isn’t an easy industry to penetrate either, but he believes that with Tibetan representation, the Indian film scene could help spread awareness about the diaspora and shatter stereotypes. “I would do a masala Bollywood film. I would do it just for the sake of proving that a small, short guy—a Tibetan—can be a strong Dabangg-like character. To change the stereotype,” Dorjee said.
However, the roles he’s auditioned for so far have mostly been extras: a Mongolian, a Northeast Indian, and oddly, a Chinese general. I asked if playing the latter on screen would make him uncomfortable. He was both professional and passionate in his response. “I’m an actor who can play any part, so no, it isn’t weird,” he said.
But Dorjee was clear that his portrayal would be a small, personal act of protest. “When I auditioned for the Chinese character, I knew that if I was selected, I’d play a really greedy, no-sympathy Chinese guy. It would be justice,” he said.
The dream of one day having his own home and a successful acting career has propelled Dorjee back to Dharamshala, to balance unsteady piles of used cutlery and save money. “Tibet is a victim of the system,” he believes. “We’re not in a war like Syria. We’re stuck in the middle. We aren’t getting the full attention or full support, nor are we facing the worst.”
“It’s going to last a long time, like 200 years, and then every Tibetan is going to go extinct,” he said, sincerely. “I’m going to make a movie about the very last Tibetan guy. When he dies, it’s going to be a big fuck you to the world.” His expression a mix of hopeful and helpless, Dorjee looked past the backdrop of mountains used routinely by patrons for fleeting Instagram fame.
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