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At 12,000 feet above sea level, filmmaking is an uphill task. But that doesn't deter Ladakh's moviemakers from churning out Barjatya-style family dramas that are a hit with locals.
Leh is a small town situated at an altitude where things like trees, buffalo horns and male hairstyles all point skywards. In this enchanting tourist destination full of apple-cheeked kids and pretty girls, the boys, curiously enough, look like high-maintenance anime characters. Besides sporting low-waist denims and vibrant, funky shoes, most young men here regularly shape their shiny manes into sculptures capable of resisting even the most violent lashes of Ladakh's cold winds.
One of them, 24-year-old Hidayat, a driver who hides a ceramic hair straightener under his seat at all times, jokes that it's part of their effort to look tall. However, it soon becomes quite obvious that, like the sudden boost in the number of Indian tourists to Leh, this quirk too is another inevitable consequence of their fascination for Hindi cinema. Almost everyone here has a pen drive of Bollywood songs from the '90s, local travel agents pose with Hindi film stars to decorate their office tables and many cafes display photoshopped Bollywood posters in which Ajay Devgn looks unnaturally fair. Not only does every boy want to look a bit like John Abraham but, it seems, they would secretly like it if John Abraham looked a bit like them.
It was the collective urge of these mountain people to see faces that resembled their own on screen, coupled with an undying affinity for Bollywood tearjerkers, that led to the birth of a quaint, local film industry some years ago. This industry is now well on its way to being unimaginatively christened Lehliwood.
Evidence of this small-budget regional industry presents itself not only in the innumerable posters that are displayed in the main Leh marketplace but also in its music, which is hard to escape even at the precise height of 17, 156 feet (at Chang La cafê - "the world's highest altitude cafe" ). The songs, often romantic duets shot with backdrops of horses and sheep, have quite a following on YouTube.
The films are produced by retired armymen, shopkeepers and contractors with fresh tourism money along with a handful of full-time producers. Lehliwood's films are modelled very closely on Bollywood's rich-girl-meets-poor-boy formula yet retain their indigenous Ladakhi nature in costumes and treatment.
The industry, says government employee Jigmet Angchuk who formed Ladakh Filmz in 2000 and the Ladakh Vision Group in 2003, had its roots in the rural theatre competitions three decades ago. Soon, television melodrama consumed the emotional Ladakhis and they were flocking to Hindi films being screened at the local theatre in Leh. However, "out of a population of 1. 5 lakh, only 10 per cent at the time understood Hindi, " says Angchuk. This ushered the era of Ladakhi video albums that showed nomadic families in traditional costumes against picturesque mountains. The success of such albums gave people like part-time wedding photographers such as Stanzin Gya and freelance journalist Jigmet Angchuk the courage to turn filmmakers. Their films, often made by a small crew of four to five members, were released in winter, when the Manali-Leh highway is closed due to heavy snowfall and there are few tourists around to cater to. The films - mostly family dramas that would please the likes of Sooraj Barjatiya - soon became a staple source of local entertainment.
The actors include, among others, Stanzin Namdol, a housewife, who had stopped working briefly after marriage but made a successful comeback in 2006;Tashi Lamo, who is a commerce student in Jammu;and the unbelievably shy Jigmet, who runs a music shop in Leh. "Ladakhis like to cry, " says Jigmet. "Action does not work well here, " adds the shopkeeper, who started his onscreen stint by featuring in video albums before going on to earn a considerable female fan following after the success of the film Mig-choou (Tears) - a movie about "the good and bad sides of life". Sipping on chai in a popular cafe in Leh, Migchoou's director Stanzin Gya, who runs a company called Himalayan Films Studio, turns nostalgic as he tries to recall how many teas he had deliberately prolonged in the past in his desperate bid to spot potential artists on the street. Gya, who would even keep an eye out for pretty faces (not a very difficult prospect in Leh) in wedding crowds, says, "There have been times when I've had the entire script and logistics in place and only needed an actress. Finding a heroine was my biggest challenge. " Once the desperate Gya even accosted an unsuspecting girl on the street and told her she was pretty. "Don't get me wrong, " he assured her and pleaded his case. "I even convinced her parents but later she refused as her relatives were against the idea, " says Gya, adding that a beautiful face is the most powerful marketing strategy. "The film poster is what lures the audience to the theatre, " says Gya, upon whom rests the onus of training these amateur artists. Of course, apart from untrained actors and the adverse landscapes that give tourists bouts of breathlessness, headaches and even a bleeding nose, limited resources ensure that filmmaking here is nothing short of an adventure. But just like the small town of Malegaon in Maharashtra, where the small-time native film industry manages its lack of resources by mounting cameras on bullock carts, Ladakh too finds its own unique ways around constraints. Actresses such as Tashi Loma wear their own clothes on screen. Movies are shot on digital cameras or the outdated pd170s. Nocturnal scenes and romantic songs require the glow of halogen lamps. Shooting schedules make way for the actress's school exams and taxi driver itineraries at times. "Once, in fact, I placed a camera on a wheelchair for a panning shot, " remembers Gya, adding that the director takes care of everything from arranging for transport to tweaking dialogue. There were many times "when I would be contemplating a shot behind the camera, and at the back of my mind I'd be thinking about the number of food plates I have to order. " Earlier, he says, benevolent neighbourhood homes would offer free food to the crew. "Now they say 'you have money so you can pay us'. "
There is no denying that some of these films do make good money. Made at a budget equivalent to what Gya calls "a day's expenditure for a visiting Bollywood crew" (Rs 5 to 6 lakh), films such as Delwa, which featured a taxi driver in the lead role, ended up grossing over Rs 30 lakh. Samreen Farooqui, one of the makers of the documentary Out of Thin Air, which profiled the Ladakhi film industry in 2009, recalls attending a screening where the hall was packed and a lot of the viewers were "repeat audiences". In the course of the documentary - the result of Farooqui and her colleague Shabani Hassanwalia's chancing upon a film unit shooting in Ladakh with reflectors and digital video cameras "like ours" - the duo discovered that posters, loudspeakers, radio announcements and word of mouth are the primary modes of publicity. Dignitaries such as the district counsellor who are called for the inauguration also serve as the informal censor board, SMSes with teasers are sent (because everyone here knows everyone) and filmmakers even travel to rural areas with LCD projectors.
Despite all this, though, the local Ladakhi stars are not allowed the luxury of celebritydom. "There is no stardom or celebrity status in Leh as we don't believe in it, " says Dorjay Stakmo, singer turned producer. "If they start behaving like celebs, they are ignored, " says Stakmo, pooh-poohing any question of hierarchy within the crew. Even when Amitabh Bachchan and, more recently, Aamir Khan came to visit, the story goes, "no one rushed for their photographs". Except for travel agents, of course.
SNOW AND SAMBAR
At least one school in Leh can quite easily blame Bollywood for disrupting its academic sessions. This institute, immortalised in the climax of the film 3 Idiots, is now locally known as Rancho's school (after Aamir's character in the movie) and, along with the picturesque Pangong lake, has become a part of every tourist's itinerary.
Film crews, Bollywood and regional, are also making a beeline for Ladakh and helping them with logistics are local tour operators such as Odpal George.
The main challenge for these facilitators, of course, is altitude. But other tough moments spring up in the form of director's strange demands. George has faced filmmakers who've arrived during peak summer and demanded snow. When told that there is no snow at that point, they would reply saying, "Ladakh mein toh snow hona chahiye. "
Once for the shoot of a car commercial, a beautiful backdrop was found - sans snow. So when the director spotted snow in another not-so-picturesque spot, he made an unprecedented request. "Can't you shift that snow here?"
George, who has spent eight years organising trekking tours and expeditions, started his own company in 2002. The idea struck him when he heard that JP Dutta was planning to shoot in Ladakh. George, who hadn't heard of the filmmaker before, immediately Googled him and found the contact of his wife who put him in touch with the production manager. He then set up his own office in Ladakh and started work on LOC Kargil which he remembers as a 24x7 job. Soon, other directors such as Rakeysh Mehra and Shyam Benegal started approaching him.
Operators usually take care of everything from permissions to enter restricted areas to choppers for aerial shoots. "Hollywood crews can ask for 30 to 40 choppers, " says George.
A lot of regional film units "with good budgets" are also shooting here. A local driver remembers seeing a south Indian film being shot only four weeks ago. "The hero was tall and handsome while the heroine needed loads of makeup, " he says. A peculiar feature of these south Indian film crews, though, is the caterers. "They come with cooks and even set up their own kitchen. You would almost always see a truck full of spices stationed close by during their shoots, " says George, who has had his fair share of idli and sambar, otherwise impossible to find in Leh.
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