Filming Diary: A Day in the Sun

IMG_7078-e1481722441893.jpg

There's something different about her today. She looks unmistakably prouder, bolder than I've ever seen her. Framed by a bright blue sky, the greenery around her clipped short to reveal her full, stern beauty.

She stands there spiky, haughty and crowned with gold. The mildew spreads like thannaka, the traditional Burmese make-up. A few creeping shoots poking from her top look just like the flowers she always wore in life.

For a moment I can see her, standing right in front of me.

Suphayalat - Burma's final, fateful Queen...

Reality returns with a wet nose.

A street-dog is sniffing my leg, a polite reminder that I'm blocking a busy pavement. I snap back into the present, just as an overloaded Yangon bus thunders far too close, causing me to step quickly towards the iron bars that separate the Queen from the road leading up to the Shwedagon Pagoda.

The tomb of Queen Suphayalat has sat in the shadow of Burma's most famous religious monument since her death in 1925, but few in Yangon know she's buried here.

The Queen spent the last years of her life not far from this spot, in a bungalow that Burma’s British rulers had given to her following her return from exile in 1919, three years after her husband the last King had passed away.

Suphayalat was allowed to return after more than three decades in exile on three conditions - she keep a low profile, she stay out of politics, and she leave the body of her beloved husband behind.

For her remaining years she was a divisive figure for the Burmese. The ageing Queen reminded the few that saw her of Burma’s golden days before the British occupation. Yet in the same heartbeat she reminded them of their loss - a loss that she was often blamed for, still to this day.

I've stood on this spot so many times during the making of Burma's Lost Royals. Sometimes alone, sometimes with the Queen's descendants - I've seen her in drizzling rain, searing sun and once by the light of five hundred candles, a sight I'll never forget.

But today there is something different.

The two tombs that flank her look drab and shadowed in comparison. It's almost as if these two pillars of Burma's modern history, Daw Khin Kyi (wife of Burma's independence hero, Aung San, and mother to its current leader, Aung San Suu Kyi) and U Thant (former Secretary General of the UN, credited with defusing the Cuban missile crisis) have jointly agreed to diminish their light for one day so that she shines brighter.

And I think I know why.

In just a few days time the man she loved, married and fought for so fiercely will finally have his own day in the sun, a whole century after his death.

Yesterday, after more than two years we had filmed with her descendants for the final time in Burma, as they prepared for this momentous occasion in their country’s history.

The excitement was palpable. Playful chatter mixed with the rustle of ceremonial outfits being packed in suitcases, and the flutter of bank-notes being counted for donations.

Tomorrow, the royal family will leave for India, escorted by the high and mighty from the world of Burmese and Indian politics and religion, with a posse of journalists, authors, a British film crew and dozens of well-wishers in tow. There at another crumbling tomb, 3000 miles from Mandalay, they will mark the passing of 100 years since the last King's death, reminding the world that he remains buried so far from home.

As I stare up at her tomb, it’s as if Suphayalat can hear the building whispers of a name that for so long was forgotten, or spoken only with shame and regret - Thibaw. It's as if the old Queen is sharing in the building excitement, and it’s seeping from her stone.

A noise by my feet breaks the reverie, and I look down to meet the crusty gaze of my street-dog friend, determinedly scratching his backside on a post.

Not wanting to intrude further on this moment of private pleasure I turn towards home, remembering I've a bag to pack, a plane to catch and a shoot to finish.

Next and final stop: Ratnagiri, India.

Newsadmin