Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam’s hilly affair
Posted by Navleen on November 5, 2014 | No Comments
The town of Dharamshala is said to have no movie theatres but the splendid Dhaulandhar ranges of McLeod Ganj seems to have some tiny video parlours to show pirated latest Hollywood and Bollywood flicks. Till 2012, this place had made news for being the Tibetan exile hub of India, Dalai Lama’s home, an admired destination for tourists from across the world and even the Dharamshala cricket stadium of international repute. These hills were known for everything but cinema. Two years ago, husband-wife—Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam—added another trait to the introduction of Dharamshala. And this was the launch of Dharamshala International film Festival in 2012 that aimed at bringing independent high quality films along with their filmmakers and to promote and encourage local filmmaking talent by organizing special screenings and workshops.
As they successfully enter the third season of DIFF (30th October 2014 to 2nd November 2014), we indulge in a conversation with Ritu Sarin to know more about the festival and the couple who has made films such as Dreaming Lhasa (2005) which had it’s world premiere at Toronto International Film Festival, The Sun Behind the Clouds: Tibet’s Struggle for Freedom (2009), an another important film that won the Vaclav Havel Award and the recent When Hari Got Married.
From your birth place to the place you studied at and the current city you are based in, how has your journey been?
I was born in Delhi but my family is originally from Dharamshala. As a child, I grew up all over India as my father was in the army. I finished high school in London, did my undergraduate studies in Miranda House and worked for a few years in Europe before doing an MFA in Film and Video at the California College of Arts in Oakland. Tenzing’s parents are Tibetan refugees and he was born in Darjeeling and went to school there. He graduated from St Stephen’s College and then lived and worked for many years in the US before doing a Masters in Journalism at UC Berkeley. We knew each other from our college days at Delhi University and met again in California. We started our filmmaking careers in the Bay Area, then lived and worked in London for many years before moving back to India and settling in Dharamshala where we have been based for the past 18
What is Dharamshala for you? What was it about the place that made you shift your base here?
As I mentioned, my family was originally from Dharamshala so I had a personal connection to the place. For Tenzing, it was a special place because it is where the Dalai Lama lives and is the centre of the Tibetan exile world. When we lived in London, we used to visit Dharamshala regularly as we made a number of films with Tibetan subjects. Both of us fell in love with the place and it was the obvious choice for us to move to when we decided to move back.
What kind of relationship do you share with celluloid? What is cinema for you?
I have been a film buff since my college days in Delhi when I was a member of the film club called Celluloid. My interest in films further developed in Europe. When Tenzing and I were students in the Bay Area, we used to watch films all the time. There were so many art-house cinemas where you could watch old classics and films from around the world. Both of us love cinema and films and filmmaking are an integral part of our lives. For us, films are an expression of who we are as people.
Interestingly the subject of most of your films have revolved around Tibet? It’s said that through your work you have attempted to document, question and reflect on the issue of exile, cultural identity and political aspiration that confront the Tibetan Diaspora. Was this a deliberate decision?
When we started out making films as students, it was at a time when there were very few films being made about Tibet and the Tibetan issue. Whatever was out there was made by foreigners. Both Tenzing and I felt that it was important to tell Tibetan stories from an insider’s point of view. Also, we are both very involved with the Tibetan freedom struggle so it was important for us to spread the message about Tibet through our films. However, not all our films are about spreading that message.
How did Dharamshala International Film Festival happen? How long did it take for the first season to see the light of the day?
We had been thinking about starting a film festival in Dharamshala for many years and often talked about it with like-minded friends. Part of the reason we wanted to do this was simply to bring good independent films from around the world to our town and give its residents an opportunity to watch them. We always felt that Dharamshala would make a good venue for an event like this because it is such an interesting and beautiful place, and already has a cosmopolitan feel to it. As independent filmmakers, we also realized there is a paucity of venues to screen Indie films in India. The challenge was first, to find some time from our own filmmaking and secondly, to raise the funding to pull it off. In 2012, we finally found some time to take off from filmmaking. At the same time, we were able to raise some funding, so it all came together then.
Share the hurdles that came your way when you decided to host a festival at a place which doesn’t even have cinema halls.
Well, we had never organised such an event before so it was a very steep learning curve. The first edition of DIFF was pretty much organised by a group of our friends and us. What helped was the fact that Tenzing and I had been to many international film festivals so we had a good idea of what made a festival great. Not having a cinema in our town is a logistical challenge but since we do have a large auditorium at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, it was a question of getting projection equipment in place. Since DIFF 2013 we have been hiring professional High Definition equipment from Delhi.
What is the process to select the films to be showcased in DIFF?
The selection process is very simple. The only criteria we gave ourselves was to select films that we ourselves really enjoyed, that we felt were relevant in some way to our world today, and which showcased the best of what was happening in contemporary independent cinema. We were lucky in that we have a wide network of filmmaker friends, festival programmers, contacts with sales agents and distributors, etc., so we could ask for recommendations and pull in favours when it came to waiving or reducing screening fees.
What are the changes that the third season of DIFF will witness?
This year, we focused mainly on consolidating what we had learnt from the past two editions and making the festival much more professional and streamlined. One addition this year is the launch of DIFF Film Fellows initiative, which has been on our minds from the inception of the festival. This is a programme to encourage and support budding filmmakers from the Indian Himalayan regions by bringing them to DIFF to participate in the festival and engage in mentorship sessions with some of our visiting filmmakers. We are very happy to welcome the first five fellows to the festival.
What has changed after two seasons of DIFF—- both for the people of Dharamshala and you?
Well, I think the people of Dharamshala have now begun to see DIFF as an important event in the local calendar and look forward to it. There is a lot of goodwill and support from the local community and even our local government is very helpful. As for us, this has been a prolonged sabbatical from filmmaking and while we are very proud of what we have achieved, we are ready to go back to making films! Hopefully, this will now be possible with DIFF becoming more established.
What does it take to become a pioneer in hosting a festival which is first-of-its-kind?
Like everything else in life, you need to have passion and commitment. For us, we did it because we love cinema and because we wanted to do something for the community we live in and for the community of Indie filmmaking that we’ve been part of. I don’t think we could have done it for any other reason.
How do you see the filmmaking scene in Punjab, Himachal, Haryana and Jammu & Kashmir? Don’t you think there is a dearth of independent filmmakers from North region?
Well, there is definitely a shortage of meaningful cinema coming from the regions you mention. But this is true of most of India outside of a few states that have an established film tradition. The challenge is to create a film culture first. But we do think this situation will improve, especially with cheaper technology and easier communication and accessibility to all kinds of films on the internet.
Tell us more about the script called The Sweet Requiem on which you guys have been working?
Tenzing has been working on the script for a new feature film, The Sweet Requiem, for some time now. We are at a point now where we have a good draft of the script and hope to be able to start production early next year. Briefly, the film is a drama about an exile Tibetan woman living in New Delhi whose unexpected sighting of a man she holds responsible for a tragic event she witnessed on a Himalayan pass reawakens long-suppressed memories of her traumatic escape from Tibet and propels her on an obsessive search for reconciliation and closure.
Tenzing has worked in Security Department of the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamshala, as a dishwasher in Manhattan, a gardener in Scottsdale, a janitor in Berkeley and was the manager of Del Rey Car Wash in Marina del Rey, California, for a year. Has this side of his life helped Tenzing in observing life more closely? Do such experiences play any kind of role in the stories we create for cinema.
Certainly, as a filmmaker, the more experiences you have in life the wider your understanding of the varied and diverse nature of the world around us. Both Tenzing and I have lived and worked in many different countries and situations. These experiences have been crucial in shaping our outlook on life, which reflects in the films we make.
And if I may ask, when a husband and wife share a career how exciting is the path? Especially when those clichés about regular tiffs between couples is much talked about topic?
Well, we’ve lived and worked together for about 30 years now. Along the way, we’ve made several films and also found time to start a family. Our children are both in college now. It’s been an exciting journey and one that continues to surprise us. Of course, being fundamentally very different people, we have strong views and opinions, which don’t always match. But the key to our relationship, both professionally and personally, has been to be able to make compromises on the big issues that might divide us. And to enjoy life, while staying busy doing good work!
By Navleen Kaur Lakhi