The story of the local film movement in Ladakh, wildly colourful amidst stark, barren mountains, is fascinating.
Loudspeaker fixed on top, a Maruti Omni drives through the town of Leh, blaring an announcement that echoes in the valley. The announcement brings news of Ladakh’s latest and most expensive local film, LAS-DEL. The poster of the movie, pasted on the van’s windscreen, features the face of Ladakh’s most sought-after actress, homemaker Stanzin. Later in the day, hundreds queue up outside the only theatre in town, the community hall where LAS-DEL will be screened, running house-full three shows a day.
Made on a budget of Rs 15 lakh by Ladakh Vision Group, the film may not make huge profits, but it will certainly cover costs and keep the vigour going for future projects. In the last six years, at six digital films a year, local cinema has taken root strongly in Ladakh.
This gradually emerging film industry has been documented in a 50-minute film, Out of Thin Air, by Delhi-based filmmakers Samreen Farooqui and Shabani Hassanwalia. The documentary has been supported by the India Foundation for the Arts and the Sir Ratan Tata Trust. The filmmaker duo, who run their own company, Hit and Run Films, chanced upon this subject on a trip to Ladakh a few years ago. “We sought to separate the Ladakh we were discovering from the postcard exoticism typically attached to the region. One can’t, of course, separate Ladakh from it’s bare, lunar landscape, with monasteries, maroon robes and echoing wind, but for us the people were the missing link. We spotted film posters in Leh’s marketplace, and David Sonam, who went on to become the production controller (and godfather) of the film, told us about a Ladakhi movie shot on video released in the local cinema hall. We were hooked. We had found where the Ladakhi heart lay, it’s in the cinema and it’s tear-soaked," shares Hassanwalia.
Out of Thin Air takes us through the shooting of the Ladakhi film LAS-DEL, a love story between an army man and a local girl. Among one of the world’s youngest film industries, local cinema here is taking baby steps to becoming a voice of its people. “There's exactly one community hall, so there is a sore lack of adequate screening platform. But production houses take collapsible screens and projectors to far-flung Ladakhi villages to screen their films. But they don’t make a big deal about their industry. They don’t even call it that. We do. However, everywhere you go, you’ll meet somebody who has been associated with some Ladakhi film or the other,” explains Hassanwalia.
Interestingly, point out the filmmakers, Ladakhis, through their cinema, prove wrong every stereotype attached to their surroundings. Ladakh lies landlocked by barren mountains, but they will shoot their songs in the green patches of poplars and weeping willows they have planted against the odds.
Local actors and filmmakers who feature in this documentary chuckle at how every Ladakhi loves an emotional potboiler, so inevitably every film — made on an average budget of Rs 5 lakh — will have a generous dose of tears, guaranteeing a hit. A wedding videographer in Leh has turned part-time filmmaker, a homemaker is the most popular lead heroine, and their very own Gabbar Singh is a PWD employee and taxi driver.
While Ladakhis are proud of how their films reflect the traditions of the mountains, they continue to nurse Bollywood dreams.
Screening at the IIC Auditorium, New Delhi on August 3 at 6.30 pm