When Tibetan waiter Shavo Dorjee watched a 27-year-old exile self-immolate, he had no idea that years later he would play him on the big screen

Dorjee plays his namesake protagonist in Pawo, which has won multiple accolades. The film also won the Best Narrative Feature Film at the Queens World Film Festival.


                            When Tibetan waiter Shavo Dorjee watched a 27-year-old exile self-immolate, he had no idea that years later he would play him on the big screen

A 23-year-old college student was standing just a few yards away when a Tibetan exile, Jamphel Yeshi, doused himself with petrol during a protest at the Jantar Mantar observatory, near India's parliament in 2012. Yeshi, along with a hundred others, was protesting the visit by then-Chinese President Ju Hintao, when he decided mere rallying was not enough. Little did the 23-year-old Shavo Dorjee know that nearly six years later, he would play Yeshi's character in an independent, global film, portraying the iconic immolation, which triggered rampant protests across India. 

Tibet and its people have been struggling with their country's legal status for decades. While the People's Republic of China (PRC) claims that Tibet is an integral part of China, the Tibetan government-in-exile maintains that Tibet is an independent state under unlawful occupation. Thousands of Tibetans have fled and taken refuge in India, away from China's brutal repressive measures against the people.

A still from the movie Pawo shows Shavo Dorjee (R)
A still from the movie Pawo shows Shavo Dorjee (R)

"I vividly remember the day Yeshi set himself on fire. I was there at the protest and right after the police rushed him to the hospital, I remember feeling very empty inside. I could not comprehend what had happened," Dorjee, a Tibetan exile himself, tells Meaww.

"However, during the making of the movie 'Pawo', I was able to connect the pieces and finally understand the enormity of the situation," he adds.

Dorjee plays his namesake protagonist in Pawo, which has won multiple accolades and is highly-rated on IMDB. The film, which is loosely based on Jhampel Yeshi's life, won the Best Narrative Feature Film at the Queens World Film Festival, where Dorjee was nominated for best actor. Pawo was also nominated for Best Feature Film at the Palm Beach Film Festival.

A still from the movie Pawo, which is loosely based on Jhampel Yeshi's life.
A still from the movie Pawo, which is loosely based on Jhampel Yeshi's life.

Since February 2009, a total of 152 Tibetans have immolated themselves and 130 of them have died, with the rest living with grave injuries and handicap. The issue of self-immolation by Tibetans to protest the Chinese rule is a controversial one. Experts say that it is not going to stop anytime soon because the dramatic, ultimate action taken by some Tibetans is seen "in a very positive light" by others in their community.

Dorjee believes that every immolation by a Tibetan has a different message and all these in collective show how desperate the Tibetan people are. He adds that self-immolation is a person's way of communicating to the rest of the world and we should really listen to them before debating on whether it was right or wrong. 

The 28-year-old award-winning star of the internationally-acclaimed film now works in a quaint, wood-and-stone cafe in Dharmshala, India, with his customers unaware of his achievements.

Pawo won the Best Narrative Feature Film at the Queens World Film Festival, where Dorjee was nominated for best actor.
Pawo won the Best Narrative Feature Film at the Queens World Film Festival, where Dorjee was nominated for best actor.

Dorjee blames his lack of popularity on the struggle which independent films go through. The actor adds that his film has not been released worldwide yet, and that has taught him how difficult it is going to be for him in the acting business. But he adds that he has learned a lot about himself through Pawo, mainly because how similar it is to his own life. The actor left Tibet on foot at the age of six and has not seen his mother since. 

He says it has been difficult living with the stamp of a 'Tibetan exile,' but he has struggled to not let his traditions and culture slip away all these years while living in another country. But he is grateful that he came to India, he adds, as the country's culture is diverse, which made it easy for him to accommodate without many compromises. 

When asked whether he would like to see a mainstream Hollywood movie portraying the Tibetan cause, considering the industry has a huge chunk of Chinese audience, the actor says that the only way the Chinese would see it would be if a Marvel story had a Tibetan character in it. He calls his suggestion a "baby step."