It was a convocation ceremony like many others and no other, specific to a milieu but also universal, both spiritual and temporal.

In 2016, a group of maroon-robed nuns lined up to receive their Geshe Ma, or doctorate degree in Buddhist philosophy, from the leader of their faith, the Dalai Lama. The Geshe represents the highest level of learning in Tibetan Buddhism. For over 2,000 years, only men have been permitted to aspire towards this educational benchmark. But a few years ago, as a result of the Tibetan Nuns Project that supports Tibetan Buddhist nuns living in India and the support of the Dalai Lama, women were permitted to study the sacred Buddhist texts. In 2016, the first batch of nuns took the examination, defended their theses, and earned their PhDs at a ceremony at in Mungod, Karnataka.

Malati Rao’s fascinating documentary The Geshe Ma is Born examines the momentousness of the 2016 event, whose ripples extend beyond the Tibetan Buddhist community. The doctorates give the nuns the authority to “acquire the skills they need to run their own institutions and create models for future success and expansion” and enable them to “be teachers in their own right and to take on leadership roles at a critical time in our nation’s history”, Rinchen Khando Choegyal, Founder and Director of the Tibetan Nuns Project, told the website Lion’s Roar in 2016.

The journey of the nuns, who encounter resistance and prejudice as they attempt to go deeper and higher, is also the story of women anywhere in the world attempting to break out of their designated roles and demand equality and fair conduct. The quiet radicalism of the nuns, and the religious order’s accommodation of their demands, form the core of The Geshe Ma is Born, which will be screened at the Mumbai International Film Festival that will be held between January 28 and February 3.

The Geshe Ma is Born (2020).

The documentary has been produced by Public Service Broadcasting Trust and has the sanction of The Foundation of Universal Responsibility of HH The Dalai Lama. PSBT, which produces documentaries and organises an annual film festival in Delhi, is headed by Rajiv Mehrotra, and he is also the honorary trustee of the Dalai Lama’s foundation.

PSBT had produced Malati Rao’s 2012 documentary Free and Compulsory. When Mehrotra approached Rao to make a film on the progress made by the Tibetan Buddhist nuns, she was intrigued.

“What struck me was the fact that the essential idea of Buddhism is that liberation is possible for all sentient beings but in reality, it seemed to play out in a very different way,” the 43-year-old filmmaker told “Also, throughout the making of the film, the Sabrimala issue was all around [until 2018, women between the ages of 10 and 50 were denied access to the temple in Kerala]. It sort of opened up many ideas in my mind – is it enough to pass a bill or for a court hearing to say that something like this should happen? What about the role of civil society, and the powers that be to discuss these ideas more openly? I found that within the microcosm of the Tibetan Buddhist world, there is a lesson about how they managed to do all of this without active resistance. The nuns, in spite of all the problems they underwent, really kept the lamp burning and kept pushing for their agenda.”

Activism, which is usually associated with “rallies and slogans and picket fences”, played out in a different way within the Tibetan Buddhists, Rao observed: “The nuns approached it different, almost internally.” Their gradual but sustained pushback is mirrored by the documentary’s contemplative and unhurried tone. Working with a team of four cinematographers, Rao devises a style that seamlessly meshes together observational camerawork, conversations, footage of the PhD conferment ceremony, and intimate encounters with some of the nuns. The film builds up to its big moment, picking up along the way details of the lives of the nuns, the back stories of their perilous travels from Tibet to India and their thoughts on the Buddha and his teachings.

The Geshe Ma is Born (2020). Courtesy Public Service Broadcasting Trust.

The central figure in the documentary is Namdol Phuntsok, who topped her class in Buddhist philosophy. Like several others at the Mungod nunnery, Phuntsok arrived in India many years ago from Tibet. A charismatic figure whose measured statements barely conceal a fighting spirit, Phuntsok appears to speak for many when she says that as a child, she “yearned for Buddha’s teaching” but was aware that “as nuns we don’t have permission”.

Rao spotted Namdol at the debating session that takes place before the Geshe degrees are handed out. At these sessions, nuns, monks and abbots defend their theological knowledge before a crowd. “Anybody can ask a question, and even the Dalai Lama has had to go through this process,” Rao said. Namdol’s enthusiasm caught Rao’s eye – “There was something fascinating about her, even when it wasn’t her time to debate, she was so animated and so interested in giving the responses back. “

Just as Namdol’s personality emerges and evolves through the documentary, so also do the issues concerning a woman’s place in religion. Namdol speaks of the freedom she experiences when she finally breaks free of her family. How does any religious order, which is intrinsically conservative and subordinates the individual, make room for the aspirations of women, especially if they are belittled by foundational texts and kept away from decision making?

Namdol Phuntsok in The Geshe Ma is Born (2020). Courtesy Public Service Broadcasting Trust.

Among the key interviews in the documentary is the one with the Dalai Lama, who seeks to explain the reasoning behind ancient texts that proscribe the role of women. “The perception is that if you are within the religious fold, there is an idea of conservatism,” Rao observed. She recalls her conversation with a German Buddhist nun at Mungod. “She told me, more women seek god more than men, and there are women who find greater peace in conservative ideas,” Rao recalled. “If those ideas appeal to them and religion is where they seek these ideas, why should it be unequal for the women within and why should they be denied? For Namdol, the life of a nun was a life that was free, one that didn’t shackle her down to everyday life and domesticity. The journey to have that freedom through becoming a nun has been every liberating.”

The collaboration of the Tibetan Nuns Project eased Rao’s access to the nuns, but it wasn’t as though they could film everywhere and just about anything. There were occasions when the older nuns resented the presence of a film crew in a place of worship and contemplation. One of the ways in which Rao and her team increased the nuns’ comfort was to follow them around without asking them too many questions. “We filmed very simple activities – watering plants, eating food, reading something,” Rao said. “We just allowed them at first to be okay with us being there.”

For her 2017 documentary Born Behind Bars, about children born and raised in prison, Rao had similarly asked her subjects to handle the camera and carry out their own filming. “To people to whom technology is not something they carry around, it takes the artifice away, in that sense,” said Rao, who studied filmmaking at Jamila Millia Islamia University in Delhi and Temple University in the United States and has taught the subject before embarking on her documentary career.

Malati Rao.

In the case of The Geshe Ma is Born, some of the nuns eased up enough to submit themselves to intimate close-ups, in which they look right into the eyes and souls of the viewers. “You can’t always rely on facts or details to communicate something,” Rao explained. “I was going for closeness – they are so far away from our reality. We were going beyond language to understand them. The nunnery has nuns who are between eight and 85. By gazing at them looking at you, there is this interaction that can bring out a truthful moment.” Among the moments of truth in Rao’s thoughtful film, the one of the nuns clutching their degrees, silent but unmistakable pride flitting across their faces, is hard to beat.

The Geshe Ma is Born (2020). Courtesy Public Service Broadcasting Trust.