The Tibetan Children’s Village has to be one of the quaintest, if not the most conducive, settings for watching films. As I watched Pashi, a quiet short about the sexual awakening of a young Himachali boy, I could hear the sound of children gambolling on the school grounds. It bothered me in the beginning, but then I, kind of, accepted it, as part of the experience. I can’t think of any other film festival in India that is as aware of its geographical context as the Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF), organised by filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam. This reflects on the films – that tell stories about conflict zones and migration and displacement, and cinematically underrepresented countries like Bhutan and Philippines – as well as their viewing. The latter is driven not by design but by simple functionality: where else can you show films – independent features, documentaries and shorts, and not mainstream films – on the big screen in a small Himalayan town? The festival, that runs for three-and-a-half days, collaborates with the school to use its premises as the venue, but the children go about their everyday business as usual. Cinema is great, but it shouldn’t get in the way of life.
The line-up this time at the festival (the 7th edition), that was held 1-4 November, was weaker than usual – weakened further by the dropping of potential festival favourite Balekampa following a #MeToo accusation against its director Ere Gowda. Two other films, the anti-love story Jaoon Kahan Bata Ae Dil and the docu-fiction hybrid Mehsampur might have not made it because of their explicit nudity, which is something the festival avoids lest it runs into unnecessary controversy with the local media. On the last day of the festival, I met Lhundup, an internal auditor at the school for thirty years. He said he had watched all the films on Saturday, and since it was Sunday, he took his son along too. He was incredibly moved by Hamid, a child’s-eye view of the tension between the Kashmiris and the military, which I found emotionally manipulative, but effective. I am not sure how he would’ve responded to Jaoon Kahan.…
Of the Indian films I saw (I had already seen Sarin and Sonam’s noirish Tibetan drama The Sweet Requiem and Lijo Jose Pellissery’s black comedy Ee.Ma.Yau before) I liked Ridham Janve’s The Gold-laden Sheep and the Sacred Mountain. Filmed in the upper reaches of the Himalayas above Mcleodganj with a group of shepherds, a small crew and a basic camera operated by solar-powered batteries, it tries to tie the Gaddi way of life, with their lores and legends and their hard life, with a mysterious crash of a fighter plane. It doesn’t quite come together in end, but the visuals are stunning, and the sheep are fun, trippy animals to look at.
Unseasonal rains struck Dharamshala on its first full day. And along with it biting cold and strong winds. A large number of people took shelter at the shaded podium at the other end of the school ground, taking in the bonfire, playing music in speakers, rolling cigarettes, drinking beer, drinking tea. I went in to Picture Time, an inflated, pop-up theatre, one of the new things about this year’s DIFF, and which I wanted to check out. It was cosy enough, with people at the front given mattresses and pillows and blankets to lie down and watch films. I saw 48 Years: Silent Dictator, a documentary about a Japanese boxer who was wrongly acquitted of mass murder, and lost 48 years of his life in prison. The sound-proofing at this ‘theatre’ comes from the fact that the layers of sheets that make up the tent-like structure are separated by air. But how do you sound-proof noise that is a result of your own doing? The whole thing is blown up from a truck, and it creates a constant whirring noise. In the Sri Lankan film House of My Fathers, full of silences, the problem became more pronounced. The Picture Time representative later said they never receive complaints about it because they generally show commercial movies (that have a lot of background score) in interior parts of India.
DIFF is not big on premieres and festival heavyweights; Sarin and Sonam work on a small budget, with some financial support from the Himachal Pradesh government, art institutions and foreign embassies. But it stands out from its mega counterparts in the way it creates a space for exchange of ideas between filmmakers, journalists, tourists – foreigner and Indians – and locals, in an informal, organic manner. I happened to share a cab with Dar Gai, a Ukrainian filmmaker working in India, whose film Namdev Bhau: In Search of Silence, about a chauffeur in Mumbai who goes to Ladakh in search of solitude, opened the festival. She was remarkably sporting in the way she was open to criticism. She said a conversation with Malayali filmmaker Sanal Kumar Sasidharan (S Durga) has given her ideas about reediting the film before it goes to the International Film Festival of India (IFFI). “It doesn’t feel like ‘networking,’ because it happens in such a natural way,” she said. Things get even more ‘informal’ in the cocktail dinner parties, held at an open-air lawn of a hotel, on the opening and closing night. I half-remember that a local music producer who now lives in Mumbai had started rapping at one point, and that I might have said a few unflattering things to a filmmaker about his film. We were all very drunk.