The Making of India’s first Himachali feature film with Ajay Saklani
Regional films have always worked towards bringing progressiveness to our cinema. Somewhere in the lap of Himachal Pradesh’s snow-clad mountains, a filmmaker and his creation are melting the thick-walled cocoon to breathe in cinematic artistry. Debutant Director Ajay Saklani went back to his roots to make Saanjh, India’s first feature film in Himachali. The film, which has traveled to various international festivals and charmed the audience with its honest content, is now available on JLTplex.com, a video on demand platform for independent filmmakers.
In an exclusive interview with Pandolin, Ajay talks about his journey and the struggles he faced during the making of his film.
How did the idea for Saanjh germinate?
It started a few years ago. Earlier, I was working in Delhi but my plan was always to come back to Himachal and start cinema here. So, I shifted here in 2004 and started my own production. I wanted to meet all the artists in Himachal and went on a tour of the entire state. During that tour, one of my Facebook friends, Dr. Kashyap who lives in the US, called me and said, “(Since) you’re going towards Kundu (a remote village in Himachal Pradesh), there are two singers you can meet. And, my mom lives there alone. If you go and meet her, she would be very happy.”
I went there and met his mother and she told me, “Thank God you came. My Internet is not working, I’m unable to connect with him (Dr. Kashyap) and couldn’t even see his face for the last two weeks.” I could feel the tears in her eyes. It was then that I realized how lonely she must be feeling. At that time, I wrote a few lines of our theme song ‘Pucche Amma Meri’. When I came back, I was thinking about how to utilize this song because I wanted to convey that message to the people. That’s when I came up with the idea to write a script on the same theme and felt that it would be better to tell the story through a feature film.
You come from a theatre background and have also worked as an editor. You also honed your skills as a DOP and finally started with direction. Was this a conscious effort to learn the craft and nitty-gritty of cinema or you just went with the flow?
I did theatre during my college days, post which I did documentary filmmaking. Then, I entered the TV industry as an editor. Since I’d been associated with documentaries, I started working as a camera attendant. I worked as a freelance cinematographer and also continued my job as an editor with TV channels.
During my work hours, I was continuously reading and watching different kinds of cinema from Iranian, and Italian to French and Japanese. From India, I saw a lot of Bengali cinema, films by Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and so on. In Hindi, I watched films by Mrinal Sen. It was a routine to watch two movies everyday, watch videos about filmmaking and filmmakers’ interviews. So, it was a continuous learning process.
Cinema or any art form for that matter always plays an important role in preserving the cultural integrity of a place or civilization, is this something that inspired you to go back to your roots?
I was born & brought up in the hills. For 17 years, I lived in a small village in the district of Mandi in Himachal. Till then, I never spoke Hindi, English or any other language. We used to speak our local Pahadi language. I never got to know about the world outside. So, I was very connected to my roots.
My father was in the army in other ranks, and when he became an officer in 1998, the family came out (of Mandi) with him. After around 6 – 7 years, I went back home to my village. It was during the time of Diwali celebrations, which are of a different kind here. People here celebrate Diwali because of new food grains like corn or rice. But I noticed that the way of celebrating had changed completely. People had surrendered their culture, there were no direct relations with each other, the language had changed and people were talking majorly in Hindi instead of Pahadi. It was a completely different atmosphere for me. And it made me feel that I needed to do something about this.
So, in 2005, I made a documentary about the Diwali festival in Mandi which is titled Dyalee. People saw the film and were almost in tears because it made them remember the actual culture that they had and how it had changed completely. I realized that we needed to work towards our culture, language and society and cinema was the best medium to create respect for our own culture.
Finding producers is a herculean task for every film. What challenges did you face that led you to step up as a producer?
When I told anyone that I was going to make a film in Himachali, people would laugh at me saying, “You can’t make a film in Himachali because we don’t have a single language, we have different dialects.” No one was ready to invest in the film thinking about its release because we don’t have cinema halls in Himachal.
Then, my co-producer Mr. Anil Chandel, who is a very good friend, told me, “I’ll give you 5 lakh, utilize it for your film and whenever you have (the money), you can pay me back.” That’s how it started and we opted for crowdfunding as well. Some friends also came forward and I also took a bank loan. Somehow we completed the funds and the whole process took us a year and a half.
What aspirations do you have for Himachali cinema?
They are many filmmakers from Himachal who are working in Mumbai and some other places, making short films. There are other filmmakers in Himachal as well. They have been making films but those films were not up to the mark. They were not technically strong enough to be released in theatres. But now, this film (Saanjh) has opened a space for filmmakers in Himachal. It has spread a message that Himachali films can be released in cinema halls. We (team Saanjh) are also associated with JLTplex.com, so, the films can also be released online too. Now, more and more filmmakers will come forward. And I will definitely continue making films in Himachali (language). Even if I make a film in Hindi, I’ll make it in two languages i.e. Himachali and Hindi.
Being your first film, in your native language, what were the learnings from Saanjh?
I’ve learnt so many things and handled many issues regarding the budget and team requirements. So, when I’ll make my next film, I know how to save on the budget, and how the process actually goes from pre-production to post-production to releasing the film. Releasing this film was the biggest hurdle we had. No distributor was ready to release a Himachali film. We had to dub it in Hindi. Some distributors were happy to release it as a Hindi feature film, but some of them refused to release the Himachali part. I had to fight with them saying that if they wanted to release it in Hindi all over India it was fine but, in the North, at least in Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and J & K, I wanted it to be released in Himachali only. They agreed and finally, we released the film in April in Hindi and Himachali both.
But, the lessons learnt were in marketing and technical issues because I was doing the entire technical work, promotions and everything, all alone. Though the film was liked by everyone, the footfall (in theatres) was not that high. Then I spoke to Harini (Daddala), the founder of JLTplex.com and we decided to release the film online.
How did you get associated with Harini Daddala and JLTplex?
Harini has been working for independent filmmakers and she herself is an indie filmmaker. I met her in Goa and that’s when she told me, “We need to create a platform for independent filmmakers so that they can get the best out of it. And they can take their film to the global audience.”
What tips would you like to give budding filmmakers?
First, I want to tell each and every person who is planning to make a film that always make your first film in your regional language. It could be a Hindi film but, always try to shoot it in your own community or with people around you because then there are more chances to get support from people. Since you’re born there, you know each & every aspect of the geographic locations and the society very well.
The second thing is that whenever you plan to go on floors, be clear that you have everything written on paper; you have your entire script ready and you have all your shots designed because if you plan to do that on the field, you will face many problems.
Also, try to keep your team small.