Nepali ‘rock star’ nun’s story told in Ani Choying Drolma: Mission Impossible. Film’s director hopes it focuses minds on risks to girls in poverty everywhere

“I thought ‘Wow! What did she do to all these girls that made them so elegant and full of feminine qualities, even though they come right out of poverty’?”

Music was a tool or even a weapon for Ani Choying, which she then used as a tool to free fellow sisters.

Jennifer Lin, Hong Kong filmmaker

Lin listened to Drolma’s songs and knew there was a story to be told.

The result is her documentary Ani Choying Drolma: Mission Impossible, which won the best Asian/Pacific film and the audience award at the 39th Warsaw international Film Festival in October 2023.

A poster promoting Ani Choying Drolma: Mission Impossible, the story of Nepal’s “rock star nun”. Photo: courtesy of Jennifer Lin.

When first contacted for the film project, Drolma was unwell and concerned about how the school would continue if she could no longer provide financial support. She hoped Lin’s documentary would bring in more support for the girls.

Lin followed the nun for seven years, starting in 2015.

Drolma, 51, is known among fans of Tibetan Buddhist chants. She became a nun when she was 13 to escape her father’s brutal beatings. At the nunnery, she learned Buddhist chants.

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When Steven Tibbetts, an American guitarist, came to the nunnery in the late 1990s for a retreat and heard her sing, he was so touched that he immediately offered to record an album with her.

Her first album Cho, released in 1997, was a hit in the West. In 2000, Drolma went on her first concert tour, singing in 22 American cities. The rest is history.

Drolma has released 16 albums to date and performed all over the world, including a few times in Hong Kong.

I didn’t see Drolma’s story as only a personal tragedy that she overcame. I saw that similar stories were repeating in all of the girls in her school.

Jennifer Lin

Lin says: “Music was a tool or even a weapon for Ani Choying, which she then used as a tool to free fellow sisters.”

Drolma set up Arya Tara School for girls from the poorest regions of Nepal, India and Tibet. According to Lin, some of them had been sold by their parents for the equivalent of US$5.

The school began in a small rented space in the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu, that accommodated seven nuns. Now the school boards more than 80 nuns and novices, ranging from five years old to nearly 30 years old, at a Tibetan-style complex in the Kathmandu valley.

The young nuns and novices at Drolma’s Arya Tara school come from some of the poorest parts of India and Nepal. Photo: courtesy of Jennifer Lin.

Lin says: “I wanted to do this story because I didn’t see Drolma’s story as only a personal tragedy that she overcame. I saw that similar stories were repeating in all of the girls in her school.”

The school is a means of protection for the young girls during their most vulnerable years and is much more than a temporary refuge. It is where they are equipped with the tools to escape their fate, to survive and thrive, just like Drolma did with her singing.

Lin says: “In Nepal, people still think of monks and nuns as higher in the hierarchy than secular people. So this nunnery and the girls’ robes protect these girls.

“Choying said that nobody dares to say any bad words to you if you are a nun walking on the street. But if you’re just a girl walking on the street, and if you’re pretty, people will approach you.”

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Not all students choose to be nuns after graduating, and the school guides and prepares the girls to carve out their own paths with a curriculum that teaches not only Buddhist ideas, but also practical knowledge.

“Choying is very rational, smart and strategic. She guides different girls to learn different things so they can find different occupations,” says Lin.

Many graduates stay close to Drolma and help her conduct her businesses and philanthropic enterprises.

Ani Choying Drolma founded the Arya Tara school in 2000 in a rented flat in Kathmandu, and it gradually expanded into a independent complex in the Kathmandu valley. Photo: courtesy of Jennifer Lin

The final part of the documentary follows Drolma on what is probably the most significant trip that the globetrotting nun makes – back to her hometown, to finally forgive her abusive father.

By then, her father had died, and instead Drolma reunites with her half-brother, who looks exactly like him. She fulfils her father’s last wish – to pass on all his savings to his son.

“Fulfilling her father’s last wish was her way of forgiving him. By finally forgiving, she is no longer emotionally trapped in the past. She finally feels completely free,” Lin says.

The nuns at the Arya Tara School watch raw footage of the documentary. Photo: courtesy of Jennifer Lin

She adds: “The key message of the film is about finding freedom.” In that sense, the documentary is universally relatable, regardless of where you live or what religion, if any, you practise.

Lin hopes her work can draw attention to the dire situations many young girls face – not only in Nepal’s impoverished regions, but also in Hong Kong.

“I think in a modern and wealthy society like ours, it is easy to forget all these people who are still fighting for basic rights,” she says.

“Even in Hong Kong, you’ll still see that girls’ education will be the first thing to be sacrificed by families in poverty. I can only hope that this film will give all these girls a chance for them to be seen and maybe their lives will be different.”


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