12 years after becoming a star, Himalaya actor Thinle Lundup Lama scrapes a living

While co-stars have moved on, the actor who played a village chief is a mere tourist attraction

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 October, 2012, 5:32am


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Twelve years ago, Oscar-nominated film, Himalaya, opened up the remote, pristine villages of the world's tallest mountain range to the West.

But while the director, Éric Valli and co-stars have gone on to land lucrative work in film and television, the movie's ageing star is penniless and struggling to survive in one of the poorest and harshest landscapes on earth.

"It's like the way I lived before the film and now is the same. Nothing has changed," 71-year-old Thinle Lundup Lama said at a religious festival in the mystical, culturally Tibetan land of Upper Dolpa in northwest Nepal.

"Now my face is so familiar, I'm so famous in Dolpa, that a lot of the tourists who come to visit take pictures of me. They are the ones who benefit out of my face but I am just the same."

Himalaya is the story of villagers who take a caravan of yaks across the mountains, carrying rock salt from the high plateau down to the lowlands to trade for grain. The movie was the first from Nepal to be nominated in the Best Foreign Film category at the 72nd Academy Awards in 2000. Lundup plays a grumpy elderly chieftain of a yak-herding and farming village in a power struggle with a hot-headed upstart who would like to take his place, against the backdrop of the annual caravan.

Lundup, who had lived a simple life in a stone house overlooking the remote village of Saldang, a week's walk from the nearest town, found himself catapulted into the limelight.

Critics recognised the charismatic widower as being the film's real stand-out, with the Chicago Tribune hailing his "especially impressive" depiction of a chieftain "whose inspirational power over his men would have given John Wayne a run for his money".

But Lundup says he was not chosen to travel to the Oscar ceremony and was unable to turn his new-found fame into a career.

"During the time when I was acting my salary was only 300 rupees (HK$27) a day. The movie went on for nine months, so my salary for the entire project was only 90,000 rupees," he said.

He appeared in a music video by the popular Nepali dance-folk band Nepathya in 2003. But then the work dried up.

Life is hard for the people of Upper Dolpa, one of the world's poorest places where sanitation is a luxury and food is always scarce.

Valli, an acclaimed National Geographic photographer, author and film-maker who has lived in Nepal since 1983, spent nine months filming in the region and boasts close friendships with the villagers he cast in the movie.

Lundup talks proudly of how Valli spent tens of thousands of dollars helping him with medical bills for tuberculosis and cancer.