[D] haramshala-based filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam who ruffled a few feathers with their documentary on Tibetan struggle for independence The Sun Behind the Clouds in 2010 are now ready with When Hari Got Married, the story of a taxi-driver’s arranged marriage in the Himalayas. The film has screened at prestigious film festivals like IDFA Amsterdam, DOK Leipzig, Films From the South, Oslo and is all set to release in theatres in India on August 30.
Ritu Sarin in conversation with Nandita Dutta:
How did you meet Hari and why did you decide to follow his wedding?
We live very close to Hari’s village a few miles outside Dharamshala. We’ve known him and his family for many years. In fact, his elder brother works part-time for us and so does his father. When Hari was engaged to get married, he invited us to his wedding. He also told us how he had never seen the girl properly and was agreeing to the marriage only for his father’s sake. Later, a few months before the wedding, he told us that he had managed to get hold of his fiancee’s mobile number and that they had kind of fallen in love on the phone. This was fascinating to us and we decided to start shooting, not knowing whether there would be a film in the end or not.
At what stage did you realize this could be a full-fledged documentary?
Hari has always been a very open and frank person, hugely amusing and full of home-grown insights and opinions on almost any topic. When we started shooting, we realised that he was exactly the same on camera as in his normal life. He was totally unselfconscious. Of course, the fact that he knew us well helped a lot too. When we reviewed the footage we had shot, especially of his phone conversations with his fiancee, we realised that this could make for an interesting and unusual film. In any case, we have always been interested in the subject of how traditional cultures cope with the onslaught of modernisation and Hari’s creative courtship provided us with a unique opportunity to look at this.
Was it easy getting international funding for it?
We started shooting the film without any funding in place. When we decided that we had enough material to make an interesting film, we put together a trailer and proposal. Since finding proper funding for a documentary in India is next to impossible, we applied for various international grants. As anyone who has applied for documentary funding knows, this is a hugely competitive area. For our last film, The Sun Behind the Clouds, we managed to reach ITVS International’s final shortlist, and were sorely disappointed when we didn’t make it to the final selection. This time, we were much luckier. Not only did we get ITVS International to come on board as our co-producer, we managed to get additional funding from IDFA Fund in The Netherlands and the Norwegian South Film Fund.
How was the journey for you personally, following the families throughout the wedding and after?
The great thing about making this film was that it was happening literally in our backyard. We knew the place and the people really well. On top of that, we were always treated like family members during the wedding, so it was almost like shooting a home movie! Since Tenzing was doing the filming and I was interacting with Hari and his family, the whole process was very intimate and close. We learnt a lot about local village traditions and culture during the filming, things we were totally unaware of even though we lived next door. We are still in close contact with Hari and his family and see them regularly.
What do you think of the new avenues that have opened up for documentary and indie filmmakers to release their film in theatres? How important and viable do you think theatrical distribution is?
Since India doesn’t have an art-house or repertory cinema tradition like in Europe or the US, avenues for releasing indie movies theatrically are almost non-existent. But in recent years, things are changing and PVR Director’s Rare is an important initiative to change this. For documentary filmmakers, or any indie filmmaker for that matter, the most important thing is to reach out to audiences, and there is no doubt that showing our films in theatres is a significant and rewarding way of doing this. However, the biggest problem for indie filmmakers in releasing films theatrically is that without a substantial marketing and publicity budget, it is very difficult to get audiences to come to the theatres, and since most of us are working on shoestring budgets, we don’t have the money to do this effectively. This is the problem we are facing with our own release. Nevertheless, when the opportunity to release our film theatrically came up, we decided to go for it because we believe strongly that there is a space for non-mainstream cinema to grow in India, and that there must be alternative ways of attracting audiences.
What keeps you going at a time when there is no infrastructure in India for documentary funding or distribution and filmmakers have to majorly depend on international funding?
Well, we’ve been in this business a very long time, all our working lives in fact, so we’ve been through thick and thin and survived! We have made all our films through our own company, White Crane Films. In some ways, of course, it gets easier to find funding once you have a track record but in many ways, each new film is a struggle and a challenge. What keeps us going is the fact that we are so passionate about filmmaking and it is so much a part of who we are as people that in some senses, there is no separation between work and life. The great thing is that compared to even ten years ago, it’s much easier today to make a professional-looking film that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.
How was When Hari got Married received at festivals?
We went to Films From the South in Oslo, IDFA Amsterdam and the Jeonju International Film Festival. While making the film, we used to laugh a lot because Hari is so funny but we often wondered if his humour would translate to other cultures. But in each place that we personally attended the screening, we were amazed to find that audiences could relate to the film and above all, that they could see the humour in it. In Oslo, all four scheduled screenings were sold out and an extra one added. Even in Korea, the audience laughed right through the film. So that was really encouraging for us.
What are you working on next?
Ever since we made our first and only dramatic feature film in 2005, Dreaming Lhasa, which was executive produced by Jeremy Thomas and Richard Gere, we have wanted to make another one. We learnt so much during the making of that film that we wanted to make another one immediately. However, circumstances took us in other directions and we ended up making two documentaries and some video installations instead. But now, we are determined to get back to our feature film and are working on finishing the script at the moment.
We are also very caught up at the moment preparing for the second edition of the Dharamshala International Film Festival, which will be held from 24 to 27 October this year. We launched the first edition last year through our non-profit organisation, White Crane Arts & Media Trust, and were delighted at the positive response we received. This year, we hope to build on that success and are hard at work putting together an eclectic and unusual package of indie films from around India and the world.