CINEMA

On Top of the World

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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The unusual filmmakers of Ladakh

There is a minor dispute over it, but the first movie made by a Ladakhi is said to have been inspired by Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988). The name of the man who made it is Tsetan Angchok. Other filmmakers in town take it for granted that his film has a QSQT tinge, but Tsetan does not agree. “It was all my own thought,” he says, “The plot must have had some overlaps. What happens is when [the boy and girl in the movie] get united, the father puts pressure on the boy. The girl says ‘Let’s run away.’ In the end, both of them die.”

Tsetan looks exactly like Philip Seymour Hoffman with a couple of kilos taken away. He made his movie sometime in 1989 or 1990, which sort of lends credence to the QSQT theory. Villages in Ladakh had welfare societies then, and Tsetan, who was from Nemu, 36 km from Leh, was selected as his society’s drama director because of his interest in theatre since childhood. Soon after his appointment, he started working on a play for a district drama festival. It took him a year to write it. The plot starts with a poor widow unable to afford her son’s school fees and uniform. She borrows money from a rich man who later learns that his daughter came second because the boy topped. He goes about ruining the boy’s life. The girl helps the boy out in his troubled days, they get close, and so on.

To get the best out of his troupe, Tsetan told them he would make a movie out of the play if they won the competition. “We came first and I had to do it,” he says. An NGO had just bought a VHS camera to shoot educational clips and the cameraman was Tsetan’s friend. So he had a camera and cameraman ready. For funds, he asked his society and got a few thousand rupees. He didn’t know anything about making a movie—how to shoot or frame a scene. “We had heard of editing but had no idea how to do it,” he says, “We sat in a room with a thermos full of tea and edited [the footage] on the camera itself.”

All the actors and actresses were from his village, the same people in the play. They all worked free. “We didn’t give much thought to casting,” he says, “Anyone reasonably smart and able to talk, we made a main character of.” For music, they pasted something from the soundtrack of another film. It took them roughly a week to shoot the one-hour movie and it was a hit in the local sense. “We hired a television and showed it in the village community hall, charging, I think, Rs 5 for tickets.”

Tsetan says that for the past three years or so, Ladakh’s filmmakers have been trying to trace the history of their indigenous films. “We couldn’t find any before this movie. This is the first time a film had a Ladakhi director, writer, cameraman and editor and was shot in Ladakh.”

It was only after a gap of more than a decade that Tsetan made his next film. And then another soon after. By then, he had learnt a little more. “We knew about scriptboards, casting, plot and scene. My last movie was made in Rs 3-4 lakh,” he says. He now writes serials for the local Doordarshan channel.

Ladakh had never had a filmmaking culture until then, but what set it off was another factor of the 1990s—Bollywood’s love of its landscape and need of locals to help coordinate shoots. This is how Jigmet Angchuk, president of the Ladakh Film Industry Association, a body representing the region’s 50-60 odd filmmakers, was introduced to filmmaking. In 1995, Shekhar Kapur had come to shoot a commercial, and Angchuk’s aunt, a station director with AIR, introduced them. He was hired as a coordinator.

Soon after that, Mani Ratnam turned up to shoot for Dil Se and Angchuk and a friend got a chance to work with him too. “We got some money from Mani Ratnam, about Rs 60,000 each—a huge amount then,” he says, “I was 21 or 22.” He went on to study filmmaking at an institute in Noida, but joined a news channel in Delhi after a failed production house venture of his own. He was transferred back to Leh in 2002. Reporting from a mofussil region, he found, didn’t take too much of his time. “Instead of sitting idle, I decided to do some creative things,” he says, “I thought ‘Why not make a movie?’ There was no entertainment at all in Leh in winter.”

The extreme chill of Ladakh—with temperatures that dip below –30º Celsius—forces almost everything to close for the winter months. Yet this is the best time to release movies here. In the summers, with agriculture and tourism in full swing, people won’t go to watch them. The sole venue that shows movies in Leh is an auditorium which runs two shows, one at 11 am and the other at 2 pm, and none after that because the evenings are so cold. Tickets are Rs 50 a seat.

Angchuk noticed that many people were interested in making movies. He and a few other enthusiasts got together to set up Ladakh Vision Group. With him as director of photography, the group produced its first movie, a love story, on a budget of just Rs 3 lakh. “We released before December and it ran till March-end,” he says, “By then, agricultural activity starts.” Their next project was based on the theme of reincarnation. That went on to become the biggest hit the region ever saw. It ran for over 100 days in Leh’s only hall and was then taken from village to village for make-shift screenings. The group made two more movies after that.

Even now, Angchuk says, most of Ladakh’s filmmakers have little technical knowledge. “A few are shop owners. Even a retired Army man is planning to make a movie from his pension funds,” he says, “That’s why we need basic training on how to choose location, select artistes, write a story… Out here, there is no screenplay. They write dialogues on the go. There is a raw story and they just go out and start shooting. But it is improving now.” The tough terrain and lack of equipment also make filmmaking difficult. “Producers are ready to hire equipment, but it’s just not there.”

The business has also been in a recession of sorts for the past few years. “Earlier, seven to 10 movies would be made in a year,” says Angchuk, “Now it is decreasing. This year, they released only four movies, I think.”

Local movies have not been doing too well lately and so costs have been hard to recover. “The audience is comparing our local films with Bollywood’s and Hollywood’s,” he says. The hall where movies are shown is run-down. “It shows its capacity as 250 but hardly 70-80 chairs are left in it,” says Angchuk.

Other Ladakhis took the music album route to the movies. Tsering Motup Chospa’s father had a general store, but he himself was unsuccessful running it. He then opened a garments shop. About a decade ago, he decided to make a music album. He shot two songs on video and screened them in the town’s main market. It drew such a crowd that the road got jammed and the police came to see what was happening.

Realising the market for it, he began making more video albums. After a few years, he made a movie. It didn’t do so well. “People found it boring,” he says. It was his next movie, an out-and-out love story, that worked. His latest, Lzadol, which came out last year, has had a good response too.

Tashi Dawa, whose speciality is editing, is another Ladakhi who got into showbiz through music. He had an audio cassette shop at the time. Without telling his wife, he took his savings and bought a camera for Rs 60,000. He later lied to her that it was second-hand and cost only around Rs 10,000.

Dawa, who has no formal training, became a film editor by reading a book on the editing software Adobe Premiere. Once, while editing a mythological movie, the director wanted a glow on a gem that a character picks up. Dawa had no clue how to do it, but spent an entire night experimenting with light until he got it. “Now I can do it within minutes,” he says, “but in the beginning it was difficult.” Over the past year, he has turned to writing stories for short films.

Women still have it tough in Ladakh’s film industry. While there are many actresses now, this was not always the case. Forty-year-old Dechan Phyang was an early star. She started acting in theatre when she was 22 and has worked in 15 films so far. There was a time, she says, that people would gossip and spread canards about her. “Now people understand what acting is,” she says, “But they still comment on my coming late from work and the fact that I am a dancer and an actress.”

Phyang has only studied up to class nine, but that didn’t stop her from recently turning director. She made a one-hour telefilm that touches upon the problem of dowry, a relatively new phenomenon in Ladakh. Her next project is on the tradition of wives being shared within families.

Stanzin Dorjai Gya is Ladakh’s most successful filmmaker. His documentaries are shown at film festivals abroad and he often gets work commissioned by European TV channels. He is in his mid-thirties now. As a child, he grew up in a village about 70 km from Leh. At the age of eight, he started helping his father plough the fields and tend to sheep. Till the age of 14, he never saw a TV set. He went to a government middle school, but would miss half the classes. He was good at studies, however, and after passing his SSC, moved to Leh for his higher education. Here, he came across an educational reform movement led by an organisation called Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL). It had volunteers from the rest of India and the globe working with Ladakhi students. It was his first exposure to the wider world.

Gya joined SECMOL. They gave him a video camera to shoot educational clips. He noticed large numbers tuning up in villages to watch them. The power of the medium captivated him.

After finishing his studies in Jammu and Mumbai, Gya returned to Leh. He and some friends took loans, bought a basic camera and made a feature film. Released in 2004-05, Migchoou (tears) was a huge hit. He says, “It was a very emotional Bollywood [style] masala movie. I had never made a feature film. But I thought if difficulties come and we challenge them, nature will automatically teach us.”

But later, when they made a more serious movie—on the theme of HIV—it flopped badly.

“The audience are gods... and they are so addicted to Bollywood-Hollywood,” Gya says, “In Ladakh, we saw good cars before good roads. Movies are [also] like that here.”

Gya also noticed that movies were being copied and pirated. Realising that feature films would not make profits anymore, he switched to documentaries. Christiane Mordelet, a French filmmaker, had walked into his office after seeing his work, felt that he should show his work in Europe. Thus began a successful collaboration on documentaries. Their latest work, Jungwa, is a meditation on the environmental depredation of Ladakh through the life and eyes of Gya.

During the region’s floods of 2010, Gya took his camera out and went filming the devastation. He spotted a woman hanging by a tree and went on shooting instead of helping her. A year later, he went back to her house and apologised. That moment is there in the documentary; she hated him, she says in it, because he was enjoying her misery. “I told her I was not enjoying but documenting it.”

“This movie was a very difficult one for me,” he says, “During the floods, while I was shooting the aftermath, a lot of my friends and cousins were in the water. I was [divided over] what I should do: if I am not recording, then I am not a filmmaker; [and] if I continue to shoot and not help, then I am not human.”

Ultimately the choice he made was to be a filmmaker.

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