(Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam’s When Hari Got Married is releasing on 30 August as part of PVR Director’s Rare in Delhi, Gurgaon, Mumbai, Pune and Bangalore. Here, Tenzing writes about their background in films and their long journey to this point.)
My partner Ritu Sarin and I have been making films together for more than 25 years, first as students in the San Francisco Bay Area, and then as independent filmmakers in the rough and tumble of the British television industry in London, and now for the past many years from our base in Dharamshala.
Ritu was born in Delhi but moved around all over India during her childhood. I was born in Darjeeling to Tibetan refugee parents who had fled Tibet in the wake of the Communist Chinese invasion and occupation. We first met as undergraduates in Delhi University where we were both studying Economics for want of anything better to do. We met again in the Bay Area where I was doing a Masters in Broadcast Journalism from UC Berkeley and Ritu was doing an MFA in Film and Video from the California College of the Arts.
Although both of us were drawn to filmmaking because of our love of fiction films, our first film was a documentary about the Sikh community in Northern California, The New Puritans: The Sikhs of Yuba City. It explored inter-generational issues within the community and went on to win several awards and was broadcast on national PBS. That set us on the path of making documentaries and – despite some digressions – this has remained our main focus. What we love about documentaries is the access and freedom it gives us to discover and explore people’s lives and stories in a way that would otherwise be difficult. Many of our films, like When Hari Got Married, are intensely personal films that follow a character on a journey, both physical and metaphoric. As nomadic people ourselves who have moved between cultures and countries, we have always been drawn to journeys; in some ways all life is a journey to an unknown destination.
People often ask us how we can be partners both in our personal lives and as filmmakers and whether the one doesn’t interfere with the other. But we’ve never thought of it in those terms. It seems natural to us to be living together, making films together and at the same time raising a family. On a more prosaic level, over the years, we’ve developed a working method that has now become second nature to us: Ritu produces, I write, we co-direct; Ritu goes out into the world, I take care of back-end stuff. This is not to say that our creative process is without tension; in fact, we have very strong and differing opinions and often have long arguments and discussions. The bottom line though, is that in such situations we always reach a compromise; one of us accepts the other’s position, and we move on. Otherwise, we would never finish a film!
As a Tibetan exile, the Tibet situation has been an integral part of my life, and by extension, of Ritu’s. When we started out making films, there were no Tibetan filmmakers making films on Tibetan subjects. Most films on Tibet were made by foreigners. We consciously set out to redress this imbalance, which explains why we ended up making so many films on Tibetan subjects.
In 1986, after finishing our studies in the US, we moved to London where we lived and worked for the next nine years. While there, we started our film company, White Crane Films, and all our films since then have been made under this banner. One of our early documentary films, The Reincarnation of Khensur Rinpoche, followed a devoted monk’s search for the reincarnation of his recently deceased master. We shot the film on 16mm and edited it on a Steenbeck, which seems a very long time ago indeed! The film was initially funded by some grants and then we were able to pre-sell it to the BBC and Canal + based on the rough cut. The film had a great response and went on to screen at all the leading international documentary festivals and was broadcast on the major channels worldwide. It also had a theatrical release in Germany, Austria and Switzerland and in the US. In America, we were fortunate to have as our distributors, Zeitgeist Films, who would go on to become one of the most prominent American indie film distributors and with whom we struck up an enduring relationship.
While documentaries have been our primary medium, we have always been drawn to fiction films. Among the directors who influenced us profoundly when we were starting out were Orson Welles, Satyajit Ray, Jean Renoir, Antonioni, Fellini, Chris Marker, Kurosawa, Tarkovsky and Wenders. In 2003, we were finally able to realise our long-held dream by beginning work on our first dramatic feature, Dreaming Lhasa. The film was executive produced by Richard Gere and Jeremy Thomas, one of Britain’s leading producers and a great supporter of indie films. His sales company, Hanway Films, represented the film. Showing the film at the Toronto and San Sebastian International Film Festivals was a major highlight.
Another unexpected treat was when the film was invited to the Amazonas Film Festival in Brazil. We were flown all the way to Manaus, a city deep in the heart of the Amazon. For the next few days we were in the intimate company of luminaries like Roman Polanski, Victoria Abril, Claudia Cardinale and Alicia Silverstone, taken on excursions up and down the Rio Negro and the Amazon, and a night out in an amazing jungle resort built entirely on stilts above the treetops! The film was screened at Manaus’ famous Opera House, which anyone who has seen Fitzcarraldo, will immediately recognize. We have no idea why our film was selected but we remain grateful for a very unique experience. These are some of the unpredictable perks of being an indie filmmaker!
Dreaming Lhasa was picked up for theatrical release in the US by First Run Features and had a limited arthouse run of more than 20 American cities. This was our first hands-on experience with independent distribution in the US and we discovered just how difficult it is to turn a profit on a small, subtitled indie film without any backing or funding for marketing and publicity. This continues to be the major obstacle to low budget films being able to reach out to a larger audience. But in today’s world of internet and social networking, filmmakers are finding creative ways of overcoming this handicap, and this is an area that we are very interested in.
Dreaming Lhasa was shot on Super 16 and we did one of the first Digital Intermediate transfers from Super 16 to 35mm in India at Prasad EFX in Mumbai. It was a journey fraught with technical glitches but we ended up with a beautiful 35mm print. We learnt so much while making this film, both technically and creatively, and have wanted to make another dramatic feature ever since. In fact, I am working on a script right now and we hope to get this film off the ground soon.
In the last few years, we have also been making video installations. The gallery space opens up a whole new dimension to how you approach filmmaking, and in many ways, gives one a lot more freedom to express one’s ideas. One of our video installations, Some Questions on the Nature of Your Existence (2007), which was commissioned by Thyssen- Bornemisza Art Contemporary in Vienna, went on to show at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, the 2009 Busan Biennale, South Korea and is a currently screening at the Tibet Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. We are continuing to work on video installations and have our first solo show coming up at Khoj in New Delhi next year.
Our last major Tibetan film was The Sun Behind the Clouds: Tibet’s Struggle for Freedom (2009), which followed the events of 2008 when a massive uprising against Chinese rule spread across Tibet and major actions in support of the protests erupted across the world. The film won the Vaclav Havel Award at the One World Film Festival in Prague and receiving it from President Havel in person was an unforgettable moment. The film also won the Silver Conch at MIFF and the Best Long Documentary at the Kerala Documentary Film Festival. Interestingly, the film became a major media story in the US when Chinese officials put pressure on the Palm Springs International Film Festival not to screen it. When the festival refused, two Chinese films were pulled out, apparently on orders from the Chinese government.
The film went on to play at New York’s venerable arthouse cinema, Film Forum (five screenings a day!) for two weeks and at Cinema Village for another week. Buoyed by this success, we followed the hybrid model of distribution by separating the theatrical rights and releasing it ourselves in the US through a releasing company, Balcony Films. The film showed in 19 cities across the country and had very good reviews. But once again, lack of a publicity and marketing budget meant that we could not capitalize on the release. The difficulty of getting audiences to come to the cinema to watch an indie film was dramatically illustrated to us when we found our film playing in the same multiplex as that year’s Sundance winner, Winter’s Bone. Peeping into the auditorium, we were shocked to find it nearly empty. With this film, we renewed our old connection with Zeigeist Films when they took the US Home Video and Educational rights. Cat&Docs in Paris represented the film as its international sales agents.
The Sun Behind the Clouds was a long and exhausting process; we shot the film over ten months in India, China, Tibet, England, France, Germany and the US; edited it for several months; and then spent nearly another year distributing it. At the end of it, we retreated to Dharamshala to rest and recuperate.
One thing we had always wanted to do but never found the time to focus on was the idea of starting a non-profit organisation to promote cinema, contemporary art and independent media practices, especially in the mountain areas. In 2012, we were finally able to realize this dream. We founded White Crane Arts & Media Trust and our first two projects were the Dharamshala International Artists’ Workshop, which we organised in association with Delhi-based KHOJ International Artists’ Association, and the Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF).
The first edition of DIFF was held in November last year and we were thrilled with the response. We showed 26 films, both documentaries and dramatic features and were able to invite 10 filmmakers from India and around the world. We had several India premieres, including Oscar-nominated Five Broken Cameras (with co-director Guy Davidi) and Hara Kiri: Death of a Samurai. Indian features included Shahid (with director Hansal Mehta), Deool ( with director Umesh Kulkarni), Miss Lovely and Gattu. The success of DIFF 2012 has spurred us on to make this an annual event and this year the festival will be held from 24th to 27th October.
In between all of this, we found ourselves unexpectedly embroiled in another film, this one quite different from anything we had done before. This was When Hari Got Married and in my next article, I will write more about its genesis, its production and post-production, and how it happened that it is about to have a theatrical release in India.
– Tenzing Sonam