Seeking the Silver Screen: Sikkim’s film making potential

We get to the theatre early and, at first, take our seats in the press box, far to the side and uncomfortably close to the stage. We quickly realise that the film will be projected on the wall at the back of the stage, and from this wayward spot we will hardly be able to see half the picture. The Sikkim Government College auditorium is still mostly empty, so we surreptitiously pick up and move in to two middle rows, right behind the director. A few minutes later an annoyed woman in the traditional tribal garb being worn that night by the event organisers comes over and implores us to move back to our section, at least until the movie starts. By this time guests were shuffling in, and we could tell it wasn’t going to be worth it to her to make a scene. So we held our ground and eventually the woman gave up. We wanted good seats. It isn’t every day that you get to go to a film premier in Sikkim.

The movie was called Mangar Jong, a full-length Nepali language film shot in rural Sikkim. Set in the 1971 conflict with Pakistan, it had a love-in-wartime sort of plot, but the main purpose of the film was obviously to showcase the virtues and unique qualities of traditional Mangar village life and ceremonies. There were scenes of awkward romance, and courtship dance/dance numbers, and finally a tearful funeral after our soldier protagonist is (spoiler alert) killed in the war. More than any of these, however, what will stick with me are the supposedly accurate re-enactments of Mangar rituals, particularly the scene where they cut out a sheep’s still-beating heart and count how many times it thumps on the floor before going still (several animals were harmed in the making of this picture). All in all not the best film premier I’ve been to, but, ah, unforgettable.

Some weeks earlier I went to another film premier here in Gangtok, this one by local documentary filmmaker and hydel project hunger strike legend Dawa Lepcha. Much shorter — only 40 minutes this time — it played to much smaller and cosier audience — Mangar Jong’s premier had Chief Minister Pawan Chamling as the chief guest — at Rachna Books. This film also depicted Sikkim’s tribal village life, though it was less obviously fictional. In fact, its portrayal of mundane rural struggle was so flat and and believable that I believed it to be a documentary until the end when (spoiler alert) it is revealed to have been a scripted story all along, peopled by actors.

Though their subject matter was more or less the same, these two films represent two remarkably different approaches to film making in Sikkim. Both were made with relatively little money, what Dawa Lepcha called “a shoestring budget.” But Mangar Jong obviously took its stylistic cues, however well it executed them, from larger production Nepali and Bollywood films, while Dawa’s semi-nameless faux documentary was much more conservative in its cinematic flourishes, and in doing so managed to keep from looking at all amateur.

Whichever style one goes for, conventional or indie, seeing two film premiers so close together — not to mention all the the little cultural films released at this political event or that development programme every month, not to mention the occasional closing of MG Marg to shoot some big dance scene — left me with the impression that Sikkim is seeing something of a film making boom. While the state may make more films per capita than one might expect, according to prominent Sikkimese filmmaker Prashant Rasaily talk of a “boom” just isn’t true.

“There is really nothing at all, and what there is is makeshift, often on very small budgets of less than one lakh,” he says. Mr. Rasaily started his career in Sikkim but got his big break on the reality TV show Gateway to Hollywood, where he was the first runner-up. He went on to work in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New Mexico and was assistant director on the Bollywood film Kites. more recently travelled around Sikkim, West Bengal and Kathmandu shooting Acharya, the true story of a famous Sikkimese singer who lost his tongue to cancer.

According to Mr. Rasaily, there are few truly experienced or original filmmakers in Sikkim; most merely imitate Hindi or Nepalese cinema, but badly. There are a few bigger films being shot here in Sikkim, but these productions are usually based in Nepal or Mumbai. Whether a local attempt or a Bollywood blockbuster, however, nearly any film shot in Sikkim can’t get by without bringing production talent in from outside the state.

“We need to educate our filmmakers a bit,” Mr. Rasaily says.

Prashant Rasaily maintains that Sikkim really could have a great local film industry, even a “boom,” if a few conditions were changed.

“We have everything here,” he argues, “Good stories, actors, good places, good faces. And it’s cheaper, too. The people are quite cooperative in Sikkim, but something keeps filmmakers away.”

What are the issues stymieing Sikkim’s movie-making potential? Part of it is definitely development, both in general and of the local movie-going culture. There are only two proper theatres in the whole state to screen films at, both here in Gangtok. That makes it pretty hard for local filmmakers to turn anything resembling a profit among audiences here in the state. According to Mr. Rasaily, Sikkim has “enthusiasm but no infrastructure.”

The other problem is, perhaps unsurprisingly, government bureaucracy. The rules restricting entry into and travel around Sikkim are notoriously troublesome for tourists, but for film crews it is apparently even worse.

“Wherever we want to go to film, it is either protected or sensitive,” Mr. Rasaily complains, frowning. Then he grins: “So many places to shoot, but nowhere to shoot.”

The rules restricting documentaries and other film production in certain parts of the state are often based on genuine concerns about the exploitation of Sikkim’s pristine environs and remote village peoples. But as films like Mangar Jong perhaps show, Sikkimese filmmakers are more interested in revering, even fetishizing, tribal culture, not exploiting it. If the government were a bit more flexible about all these rules, Prashant Rasaily argues, more films might come to Sikkim. Who knows? With a few accommodations, perhaps Sikkim really will see a film boom in the years to come.

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