A new documentary lands us in the unlikely world of the Ladakhi film industry, says Trisha Gupta
ANYONE YOU meet in Leh town could be a film star. Once capital of the Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh, Leh town is now the centre of India’s newest film industry. “When we first heard about Ladakhi films, we were surprised such a thing existed. Kaun dekhta hai yeh picture, we asked David Sonam, our hotel owner and subsequent production controller,” says Samreen Farooqui, one of the directors of Out of Thin Air, a documentary about Ladakhi cinema. “Who doesn’t watch them, came the answer.” “Many people watch a film 11 times,” adds co-director Shabani Hassanwalia. “Once we started looking, the signs were everywhere. You go to a jeweller, he does an Amitabh impression he did in a film. You’re having dinner, it turns out the restaurant owner acted in last year’s biggest hit.”
Seven years and 26 films old, this is a film industry created by ordinary people: taxi drivers, shop keepers, monks and housewives who are selftaught producers and directors, dancers and editors, camerapersons and actors. But cinema in Ladakh remains stuck somewhere between furtive desire and unexpected reality. A chirpy policewoman called Norzum dreams of Kajol-like roles, while Stanzin, Ladakh’s most sought-after actress after the runaway success of Delwa, didn’t act for two years, for reasons she won’t divulge.
Yet Ladakhi films make economic sense. An average film made on DVCAM has a budget of Rs 5 lakh. A hit could run housefull for three months in Leh’s only hall: three shows a day, with 250 people paying 50 rupees a ticket: it’s a tidy sum. Like everything else in Ladakh, though, cinema is seasonal business. Films must be completed in summer, so as to be ready for release when winter arrives and people have time. Summer is also when Ladakh’s hills have a bit of green – crucial for the Yash Raj-style song sequences perfected by the Ladakh Vision Group (LVG), Ladakh’s biggest film producer. But since summer is the busy season for everything from agriculture to tourism (and since everyone has a day job) filmmakers must adjust. “If the hero has exams in Jammu, the shooting must work around that,” laughs Hassanwalia.
For Hassanwalia and Farooqui, the film began as a way to find “a Ladakh that isn’t in the postcards”. It’s certainly fascinating that the region’s entry into a modern, mediatised world is taking place via weepy family dramas seen as “preserving tradition”. Films need a censor certificate from the Buddhist Association, which once cut a scene showing a monk dreaming of a woman. Ladakhi audiences too prefer films set in a costume drama past. “Delwa originally had the lovers reborn as a modern couple. That caused such an outcry that LVG had to change the ending,” says Farooqui, who wonders if the insecurity has to do with the tourist influx. But as she simultaneously points out, “It’s not just tourists who wear harem pants in Leh these days.”