August 19, 2013

#1: Shinbyu (Coming of Age)

"Do we have a film here?" is a new column that will feature varied story ideas that I gather from the world around us, those unlikely to see the light of the day considering the costs and risks involved in film-making. However, by sharing the ideas here, I hope to inspire someone who may take one of them forwards, and we get to see a film born out of it. 

The city of Meiktila, Burma (Myanmar). 20th March 2013. An argument between a Buddhist woman and a Muslim shop-keeper leads to increased tensions in the city when in retaliation, four Muslim men kill a Buddhist monk in broad day-light. Next morning, armed men dressed in the burgundy robes of Buddhist monks slaughter twenty Muslims to seek revenge. The police does nothing to stop them. Very soon 12,000 displaced people, mostly Muslims, are forced to live in refugee camps that look like prisons, under police protection, while the city's mosques remain closed. The livelihood of the Muslims still staying on their own is disrupted as the Buddhists have stopped employing them. Anti-Muslim propaganda is reaching the masses in the form of DVDs, the source of which remains a mystery. And pro-Buddhist stickers bearing the number "969" above Ashoka's lion capital appear on the streets.

In this scenario, a 19-something orphan, a Buddhist boy in love with a Muslim girl, is forced to undergo the ceremony of Shinbyu (the Burmese tradition of "coming of age") and to spend some time in a monastery. Since he was orphaned early in life, he did not have any guardian who could have made his Shinbyu possible at an earlier age. His magnanimous employer has suddenly discovered this and has forced him into this, causing the unwanted separation from the girl he loves. To make things worse, the girl's family is one of the victims of the unrest, and the boy feels guilty for not being able to do anything.

At the monastery, there is a senior monk who looks harmless like a baby, but continuously preaches hatred against Muslims. He is especially against inter-faith marriages and believes that Muslim men take advantage of poor Buddhist women to proliferate their population. There is no proof that this monk, and others like him, is directly involved in the anti-Muslim violence, but there is no proof either of the government being involved in the same. There are speculations though, and in some cases, some hidden evidence.

With the help of a young drug addict friend of his, our hero (the boy undergoing Shinbyu) tries all he can to take care of his girl and her family. After some struggle, and using the teachings of Buddha, he convinces the monastery to open its gates to hundreds of Muslim refugees, and the girl is now residing close to him, where he can take care of her, secretly, but surely.

What happens next, to the state, the city, the people? What happens to the politicians and the monk who is the preacher of hate? What happens to the druggie side-kick of our hero? And most importantly, what more conflicts does this innocent love story face as the two lovers are dying to unite in a world that is getting fragmented every day with ever-increasing communal hatred? Isn't the entire country and its people in the need of a Shinbyu that would turn them into humans from what they have become? To find answers to these, watch "Shinbyu", a feature film in Burmese, that is too controversial for its own people, and perhaps too insignificant for the world outside. And hence, this film may never be made.

This idea came to me as I read an article in the wonderful journal "The Caravan". The facts mentioned above are correct, and the character of the monk is actually based on a real monk. However, the angle of romance between the fictitious lead-characters was added by me to find a universal spine in this premise. And a little research made me aware of the ceremony of Shinbyu, that I added to give the film a symbolic and cultural layering. Please respond to this, as you would to a film, with comments, and/or more ideas to develop it further, in this virtual movie-making space.


  1. Amazing idea! I would love to see a film like this made. I feel the plot has a lot to be explored... Though I do not completely understand why, it is sad that the visual craving to 'see' this film is unlikely to be fulfilled.

  2. @ Satyanshu, the emotion of love amidst the emotion'S' of hate is weaved in creatively.

    Recently, had been reading about coming of age traditions. The Shinbyu tradition gives the film its core feel amidst a communal atmosphere.
    The protagonist (the boy who undergoes this tradition) succeeding in convincing the monastery to permit muslim refugees is a major plot point. Having to arrive at it would require a pre-stage wherein the protagonist probably plans, or does a favour for the monastery inreturn for getting his demands fulfilled. (To some eyes, this would make it all the more controversial).

  3. @Anonymous: Thanks for liking the idea. Of course, it is just an idea, something I came up with in 10-15 minutes. Months of research, and plot and character development and then several re-writes will make it the script that should be made out of this. And the craving to 'see' this film can be fulfilled only if some film-maker who is gutsy enough to invest several years of her/his life into it sets out to make it without thinking of the returns.

    @Decent Stalker: I think the juxtaposition of the two emotions was very easily and conveniently done. It is one of the oldest plots in stories, right? And yes, I'm glad to chance upon the Shinbyu tradition that kind of adds a philosophical layer to an otherwise political-romantic film. Completely agree with your idea about all that the protagonist does in order to convince the monastery. In fact, I see this as an immensely entertaining segment, with a lot of subtle humour, as we see the 19-year old boy win over the monks, one by one, using all tricks, including the Buddhist teachings they are imparting to him. It is almost like Raj of DDLJ, but in a completely different set-up. :)

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