Living amid Ladakh’s breathtakingly beautiful landscapes is a group of locals whose life stories don’t always reflect the region’s glamour. Even today, only a handful of Ladakhis are keen on filmmaking, yet none of them are full-time filmmakers. They simply can’t afford to be.
Take Tashi Dawa, for instance. So far, he has made more than a dozen films -- mostly documentaries and shorts -- but is yet to make profits from his ventures.
“My wife runs a mobile accessories shop and her surplus earnings are what I spend on making films. Needless to say, she’s not fond of what I do.”
There’s no such thing as a spot boy or an attendant while I’m shooting. Almost everything is done by me except the acting,” muses the filmmaker who doubles as a labourer.
Dawa is not alone. For films made at an altitude above 11,000 ft, multiplex releases are a distant dream and the available auditoria are in terrible shape. Last year, a movie ticket cost Rs 50. This year, it costs Rs 60, but the rest of the situation remains the same.
In simpler words, the Ladakhi artists receive no support -- whatsoever -- from the government. To add to that, the state capital shifting from Srinagar to Jammu as per season only adds to the bureaucratic hurdles. The Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council shells out around Rs 10-12 lakh per annum on the promotion of culture but cinema is not a part of it.
Award-winning filmmaker Stanzin Dorjai points out that money is scarce and the discriminatory laws add to the hurdles. “There’s no entertainment tax in Jammu and Kashmir, but we, in Ladakh, have to pay entertainment tax in forms of donations to Red Cross. It’s ridiculous,” he says.
The small but thriving film industry here can’t be overlooked. Over the past decade, there has been a steady rise in locally produced films. Interestingly, the first ever Ladakhi film was made back in 1990 by Chaten Angchok. Shot on VHS format, his debut venture was a rehash of Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak. “I had to start somewhere, and this Hindi film was such a huge hit then. So I decided to borrow some plots from it and make my own film with Ladakhi elements in it. My second film, Chespay Khachat, was inspired by Pyaar Ka Vaada,” informs the 50-year-old.
These ‘inspirations’, however, are a thing of the past. Though the overall budget of each film can vary between Rs 3 and 5 lakh, the Ladakh Film Industry Association’s president Jigmet Angchuk feels the kind of stories that are being told today are undeniably fresh. “We may lack sophistication in the technical department, but we have so much to say.
It’d be a pity if we don’t express ourselves. History shows us that so much happens to the smallest group of people in the world. For instance, after the 1971 war, people who slept in Pakistan woke up in India. The border just crossed them overnight… Don’t these stories deserve to be told?”
Incredibly, the filmmakers showcase their films in the winter -- unbelievable as it may sound for a climate like Ladakh’s. Summers here are too short and people are way too busy making money for the winter by catering to tourists’ needs. It’s as if everything is working against cinema, including the weather.
Fortunately, events like the Ladakh International Film Festival and film-related workshops have brought some change in approach. Most local filmmakers have basic training and prefer non-linear editing. Not very long ago, they were content with their methods. But not anymore. “We plan to touch the universal chord of humanity and produce films that show how we are different as well as similar. We can’t go on aping others. We might be hidden behind the mountains but we are connected with the rest of the world,” smiles Dorjai.
‘People who scorned me now ask me to cast their daughters’
Dechan Phyang is a rare personality in Leh. Apart from being an accomplished actress, she’s one of the two living Ladakhi women filmmakers. The other is Diskit Shay, who’s more of a cameraperson than a director. Starting out as a folk dancer, Dechan eventually moved to theatre and then finally to films. The 40-year-old had her share of detractors, too. “People raised their eyebrows at my work while others questioned my ‘character’ for reaching home late at night. I never bothered to answer anyone because I was doing what I liked and I wasn’t doing anything wrong,” says the director, who could not study beyond grade nine. As a director, she has helmed two tele-films so far. One was against dowry and the other against the repulsive tradition of wife-sharing. “I don’t do the writing. I’m better off behind the camera,” adds Dechan,who is a single mother of a 15-year-old daughter. Dechan has appeared in 15 films so far and her eyes brighten up when she mentions the change in people’s attitude towards her. “Those who once scorned me now meet me and ask me to find a role for their daughters in my films,” gleams the effervescent lady. In the marketplace, a slightly discouraging attitude surfaces. Youngsters who keep track of the latest Bollywood fads don’t sound very enthusiastic about local films. “We like Bollywood films more,” is the common refrain. For the record, in the last two summers, 15 features were made in Ladakh. And according to Indrani Bose of Directorate of Film Festivals, not a single film from the region has won a National Award till date. One can only wonder why.