How Deep Is Her Gaze

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Photo: Paromita Chatterjee
Photo: Paromita Chatterjee

You watch three short films, all of them set in the vicinity of the mountainous terrains of the Himalayas. As you exit the theatre, the same sort of mountainous terrain stands loftily to greet you. Such is the glory of the Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF) whose fourth edition concluded a couple of days back.

Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, were partners and practising filmmakers when they co-founded White Crane Films, an independent film production company in London in 1990. They shifted base to Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, a few years later to be closer to Sonam’s ethno-cultural roots. Almost three decades later, their dream of “bringing independent cinema to the mountains” was realised in 2012 with the first edition of DIFF. Over the years, the DIFF has been steadily consolidating its place as a mecca of cultural tourism.

Starting from 5 November, the festival went on till 8 November this year. For these four days, the quaint town of McLeodganj, a 10-km climb from Dharmashala, comes to life with the buzz of film enthusiasts from India and beyond to sample an eclectic assortment of shorts, documentaries and feature films. Strolling down the cobbled streets lined with shops catering to everything a tourist might desire in a hill town, one gets to see a mottled crowd of volunteers, audiences, film critics, filmmakers and the curious bystanders.

The line-up of films was a mixture of Indian and foreign voices with a section for children’s films being introduced this year. A movie buff cannot really be judged for trying to pick out female directors and their works because even as the world of cinema stretches onto a wider canvas, women still occupy a minuscule corner of it. Three films in three differing formats, all by women, stood as testimony that women making cinema are no more an exotic breed.

The country of retreats and gossip

Growing up in Bhutan, Dechen Roder never had many options when it came to cinema. Bollywood was the staple diet fed to cine-goers. Nothing changed much when the Bhutan film industry came into being. Audiences had the alternative of seeing three-hour-long song and dance routines of films whose storylines were more often than not picked up from popular Bollywood films. Roder, with her knack of finding creative ways to tell stories, never really thought that cinema could be her mode of expression. So, in her words, she took up a ‘regular’ subject like history when it came to higher studies. A couple of years into her studies, when diligently researching her thesis paper, Roder had an epiphany. She understood that even though she might find a narrative for her thesis topic, it would not be read by anyone besides her professor.

Overlooking that disheartening detail, she persisted in her urge to tell stories for a much larger audience. Roder’s drive seems to have borne fruit as her short film Lo Sum Choe Sum (Three Year Three Month Retreat) is screened to a packed audience at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) on the first day of the diff. The film has travelled a long way from venues like the Berlin Film Festival, Seoul International Women’s Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival.

Given the mainstream culture of Bhutanese films, this one stands out in terms of its subject, treatment and tone. The 20-minute film leaves a lasting impression through its profound but quiet dissection of Bhutanese society. Sectioned into disparate episodes, the film trains its acute gaze on a woman at different stages of experiencing an ordeal. There is a pattern to the episodes: the film returns to the woman three years later after first showing her in a bus journey. The next two episodes happen after three months and then three days.

Roder tells Tehelka how an alternate breed of filmmakers are taking up the challenge of telling stories that are not a caricature of Bollywood films. They would rather focus on the Bhutanese way of life in a more realistic fashion while questioning the prevalent traditions and beliefs. In her film too, the central idea revolves around the concept of a spiriual retreat that practitioners of Buddhism can follow to attain self-knowledge, the prerequisite to enlightenment. Roder elaborates, “My idea was to question whether in order to undertake the retreat it was mandatory to be a nun. Can’t we choose to go into our personal retreat that is shaped by our everyday experiences? Just like the girl in my film who has her own retreat and tries to find her own redemption. Only because she does not wear a robe, or does not vanish inside a cave, does her journey stop short of being a spiritual one?”

Going back to the roots of the story that inspired her, Roder says she had once heard about how an abandoned baby was found by the local police and subsequently a woman travelling on a bus nearby arrested as the suspected mother. Interestingly, the woman in the film never speaks. Instead the film unfolds from the viewpoint of the people who look at her with suspicion, scandalised by her supposed misdemeanour. Roder elaborates, “Sometimes in Bhutan that is how an individual might feel. It is mostly the society’s voice that gets reflected and not their own. The society becomes representative of the individual. Because it is such a small community, you don’t have to be doing anything and stories will be told about you.”

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