By Priya Bhattacharji

The term ‘cult’ draws up images of extreme veneration and devotion. Distinguished by their novelties and fanatical fan following, cults are known to invoke a radical change in those who come in contact with it as well as the landscape around it.

Every autumn, the quaint hill town of Dharamshala has an unusual bustle as it gears up to host India’s cult indie festival – DIFF – in early November. Started in 2012, DIFF today has become a near-pilgrimage site for cinephiles in India. Ask anyone who has been part of DIFF about the festival – attendee, audience or journalist – the answer is likely to be in superlative.

Unsurprisingly, last year, DIFF attracted a viewership of around 6000, of which at least 60% were from out of town from places as far away as Kerala, Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Mumbai. Known to showcase under-appreciated and undiscovered gems from across the globe (that include many Indian premieres), DIFF has earned an indisputable spot on the independent film cartography with its true-blue indie vibe. With inventive screening set-ups and zealous discussions, the fervency for independent cinema is palpable. Also, it is a rare commingling where you don’t simply gawk at celebrities but get to talk to them, or even share a coffee.

In a long and winding conversation, Ritu Sarin – co-founder and festival director of DIFF, and veteran independent filmmaker – shares notes from her prolific filmmaking journey, her ideas on independent filmmaking and valuable lessons on building and sustaining a cult film festival.

Where and how did your interest in independent cinema develop?

RS: It goes back a long way. I was always inclined towards independent cinema, “art cinema” to be specific. While growing up, I lived in London for a while and was exposed to its rich cultural scene. At a young age, the idea of viewing the world in alternative ways through art, through cinema, was instilled. Then I came to Delhi where I studied economics at Miranda College at Delhi University. The University had one common film club at that time called Celluloid Film Club, of which I was the Treasurer. After college, I headed off to Europe to work at the Tea Board of India and spent a lot of time at the Brussels Cinematheque. Till then I had no clear idea of ‘good cinema’ or role models whose work I admired. The Cinematheque opened up a new world of art and cinema. Some of the films were hard to watch and you had to find ways to process, make sense of and appreciate them.

After a while, I decided to pursue a course in Film and Video in the US at California College of the Arts (CCA). This was more like an exercise in exploration, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a film professional but I did want to try out things. It was an MFA, not a high-pressure film school course. I made a number of experimental films. At the same time, Tenzing Sonam (now my husband) was pursuing his Masters in Journalism at UC Berkeley. We were friends from Delhi University and ended up shooting our first film as our joint thesis projects, a documentary called The New Puritans: The Sikhs of Yuba City. Yuba City is this town in Northern California known for its sizeable Sikh population. That was in 1985.

Ever since then, we’ve teamed up for several documentaries and video installations, a couple of features and for the past seven years, DIFF. In 2012, we founded White Crane Arts & Media Trust to promote contemporary cinema, art and independent media practices in the Himalayan regions of India.

Ritu and Tenzing Dreaming Lhasa shoot-min

On the shoot of Dreaming Lhasa (Photo credit: White Crane Films)

While studying, did you manage to watch Indian films? Did you watch a lot of documentaries that made you take up documentary film-making?

We never got to watch many documentaries but we spent a lot of time at the local arthouse cinemas where we got to watch a huge range of classics and international films. I studied at an art school, so a lot of experimental films also influenced me. This is now reflected in our work; in the past ten years, we’ve gone back to making video installations and visual archive exhibitions.

Regarding Indian films – while studying or a matter of fact till date, I’ve never had the chance to watch a lot of mainstream or popular cinema. I live in a town (Dharamshala) that got its first cinema hall a couple of years ago. At the Delhi University film club, we did screen and watch Mani Kaul films and other directors from the parallel cinema. In the 70s and 80s, Mani Kaul was big in parallel cinema in India. Later on in the US, I took up a class, Indian Cinema by Satti Khanna, at UC Berkley. Mani Kaul happened to be a guest lecturer and he made quite an impression on me.

You’ve known your husband since DU days. How has the relationship evolved?

I have known Tenzing since DU days but it was only after we worked on our thesis documentary that we started going out. We’ve worked very well as a team and that’s vital to survive as independent filmmakers. You need that combination of skills and artistic gelling. Of course there is bound to be friction but that improves with working together for years. I’d say professional and personal lines are blurred in such partnerships. As of now, we do work as a team but we do have very different responsibilities and roles. And of course, we’ve also raised two kids who are now grown up!

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Ritu with Tenzing’s family, Tibet, 1995 (Photo credit: White Crane Films)

Can you take us through your film-making journey? You’ve directed a lot of documentaries – mostly related to the Tibetan community in some way. What has compelled you to tell these stories of Tibet?

We make films about people, practices, issues and communities that we care about or have been closely involved with. We made a film When Hari Got Married, which is about our local taxi driver in Dharamshala and his marriage saga.

When we started off as film-makers, there was turmoil in Tibet. Tenzing is an exile Tibetan himself. At that time, we realized that there was no Tibetan filmmaker. Most films about Tibet or Tibetan subjects were always an outsider perspective on the Tibet issue. Stories need to be told from the inside. There has to be a kinship with the people to tell their stories. In some ways, we have been the first Tibetan filmmakers to tell our own stories and have played an influential role getting these stories out into the world. All stories are important. An artist opens up these stories to you. India and Tibet have shared a long border and have been neighbours until China took over in 1959. Over the centuries, there has been plenty of cultural exchange between Tibet and India. Why shouldn’t the stories of Tibet not be known to us?

If I had to describe our work, it has been documentary as well as narrative and experimental. Besides documentaries, we’ve done two features and our video installations have been part of several art shows. And now with the DIFF, besides being film festival organisers, we also do a lot of community work.

Has there always been a mix of work to have a creative balance?

In our early days, we had a linear way of working – one project after the other. Now we are in the midst of doing many things at one time. We’ve adapted to this way of working quite well, I suppose.

What does work look like for you these days?

Very hectic. DIFF is a month away. We just had our second feature film, The Sweet Requiem, premiered at Toronto International Film Festival and we are still on the festival trail with the film.

Could you tell us a little about The Sweet Requiem?

The film is about a 26-year-old exile Tibetan woman living in Delhi. A visit to Majnu ka Tilla (the Tibetan Refugee Colony in Delhi) leads her to an unexpected encounter with an older man. Something triggers in her mind when she recognises him and brings alive memories of her harrowing journey as a child across the Himalayas from Tibet. She becomes obsessed with this man and embarks on a search for truth and reconciliation.

Do we get to see it at DIFF this year?

Honestly, I don’t know. We would like to but it depends on our overall festival strategy. We do hope it will be possible to screen it at DIFF this year but let’s see how things pan out.

As a veteran indie filmmaker and director of a cult indie film festival, what does ‘Independent filmmaking’ mean to you?

Ultimately, it is the independence to make the film you want to make. It’s the creative freedom to express your vision. Unlike commercial film where the film is governed by several other factors, particularly financial constraints, an independent film should be one’s unbridled and uninfluenced voice. Of course, for that very reason, funding for these films isn’t easy, especially in India, where the mainstream-indie monetary equation is highly imbalanced. Most of our films have been funded by foreign grants, equity funding or private individuals. But things are changing with more avenues opening up for independent cinema, and as independent filmmakers, you need to be able to constantly adapt to the changes taking place in the filmmaking landscape.

Do you think the government needs to take charge? Most of our highly acclaimed documentaries have been supported by European Film Funds.

Of course, and it’s not just the government, it could be private foundations, CSR money. There are many different ways to channelize money into indie-filmmaking. As of now, it does have an orphaned kind of distribution system that makes it difficult to survive in the field. I do hope the ecosystem evolves soon.

How have you seen Dharamshala evolve as a place, as a community?

I have lived in Dharamshala for over 23 years. My dad’s family is from here. We love being around the mountains and nature, which is why we moved here. But over the years, there has been a lot of rampant construction that has adversely impacted the region and in that sense, it has become over-developed – but then that’s true for most of India. What I find interesting is that a lot of younger Indians are moving to the hills – the ones who wish to move away from the relentless pressures of city life. This has led to a vibrant cultural scene taking root in Dharamshala. There are more creative initiatives opening up. Dharmashala has always had an inflow of visitors from all over the world; you always had Indians, Tibetans and foreigners living and working together. There has always been this inter-connectedness and multiculturalism that makes it a great place for artists and creative people.

Do you feel DIFF has helped it in some way?

We do have a community outreach programme where we show a selection of films in local schools, colleges, villages and at the Dharamshala District Jail. We also have a Films Fellows Programme for upcoming Himalayan filmmakers. What I found interesting this year was a significant number of EOIs from the local people for the DIFF Volunteer Programme. We are used to applications from youth in big cities who want to come and work here for a month. This year there was an overwhelming response from the local youth. Over the years, the local community has become more acquainted with DIFF and appreciative of what we are trying to do and hence more involved. DIFF has also put Dharamshala on the contemporary cultural landscape of India so that has helped in the sense that it is contributing to a growing sense of the place as a creative centre.

Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam DIFF 2014

Photo credit: White Crane Films

You mentioned community screenings. This is a community that for long has been devoid of cinema, let alone indie films.

Yes, it has been a task but things are looking up. Besides community screenings, we try and get local audiences and students to the film festival. We have a film appreciation course for students that introduces them to the concept of active and critical engagement with cinema. These are ways of getting them to think and to discuss issues and open up interesting discussions. People have an interest in such films when the film doesn’t talk down to you. We avoid films that talk down. We screen films that push audiences to think, and engages and encourages them to have conversations.

One of DIFF’s primary goals has been to promote and encourage filmmaking in Himachal Pradesh. This year’s Spotlight on Himachal includes the North Indian premiere of Ridham Janve’s The Gold-Laden Sheep and the Sacred Mountain, a Gaddi-language feature film set in the Dhauladhar mountains with a cast of non-professional Gaddi shepherds. The director and his cast will present the film in person. Shimla-based filmmaker Siddharth Chauhan will also present his much-lauded short film, Pashi.

What is your general criteria for curation at DIFF? I’ve been to the DIFF thrice. Always been pleasantly surprised by the selection.

We like films that help the viewer enter another world, be it some unfamiliar part of the world – Syria or Georgia, for example – and then empathise with its characters and situations in a way that is universal. Hopefully, a DIFF screening leaves you with an altered state of mind, with something new to feel, to think about. The endeavour is to bring unusual and trailblazing narrative, documentary and short films that have the potential to offer our audience a rich experience. We don’t have a submission process. DIFF is entirely curated by Tenzing and me with the help of a number of programming advisors. Some sections of DIFF like the Indian shorts selection has been programmed by filmmaker Umesh Kulkarni for the past five years. Similarly, our children’s film programme, which is an important component of DIFF, is curated by children’s film specialist, Monica Wahi.


Last year Adil Hussain said: DIFF is one of the best film festivals in the world. There are no frills, no paraphernalia, no formalities of ‘red carpet, black suit’. Here, precedence is given to the art of film. What sticks is the focus with human contact: that involves the film, filmmaker and audience. Excessive gloss and glitter make things toxic.
What do you have to say about its growth sans the gloss and glitter?

Thank you for those kind words! It’s been a constant struggle to keep DIFF going. But it is through our programming and curation that we get good, genuine films and audiences – people who are sensitive to the process of independent film-making as well as to the issues around them. Also, I think the fact that we are indie filmmakers ourselves has an important effect in the sense that other filmmakers want to show solidarity and support the festival. It is because of this that we draw a set of people who operate on a similar wavelengths. It would be great to find organizations that share our vision and join us. We do have grants and private investors that have helped us to sustain, and the HP government has also really supported us, but nonetheless, it has been quite a challenge, honestly.

DIFF does have a thing for design.

Of course! We are artists! Design is fundamental. Until last year, we had Wieden+Kennedy design our logo and creatives pro bono. Starting this year, we’ve adopted a different approach – to invite different artists to imagine the DIFF identity. Visual artists Thukral and Tagra are our first artist partners and have designed our look this year. In this way, we have the possibility of varied interpretations and looks for the festival. The identity creation becomes a collaborative process in itself.

What excites you about the DIFF this year?

This year, we are thrilled to host the first Dharamshala-PJLF Editing Workshop. This initiative is supported by NFDC. Two director-editor teams will receive mentorship from internationally renowned French editor Jacques Comets, along with Bina Paul, the Artistic Director of the International Film Festival of Kerala, and Olivia Stewart, a British producer and script and editing mentor. This is a huge opportunity to be part of the evolution of indie filmmaking in India.

We are also excited to partner with Delhi-based PictureTime to set up a mobile digital theatre with state-of-the-art projection facilities at the festival venue. This gives us an additional screening venue and also opens up a whole new dimension in terms of being able to show films in places without proper cinemas.

Our Opening Night film is the brothers Devanshu Kumar and Satyanshu Singh’s brilliant black comedy, Chintu ka Birthday, with actor Tillotama Shome in attendance. Other Indian films in our lineup include: Thithi co-writer Ere Gowda’s debut feature, Balekempa; Angamaly Diaries director Lijo Jose Pellissery’s latest Malayalam feature, Ee.Ma.Yau; Avani Rai’s award-winning debut documentary Raghu Rai: An Unframed Portrait; Anamika Haksar’s exhuberent debut feature Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon; Priya Ramasubban’s Chuskit; Devashish Makhija’s Bhonsle; and Dominic Sangma’s Khasi-language Ma’ama.

And then we have an excellent selection of international films this year, including some brilliant documentaries, many of which will be India premieres. All in all, it’s a great lineup and we are really excited to share the films with our audience.

Any personal favourite films or screenings you’ve had in the past six editions?

That is a really hard question. We’ve had many, many memorable screenings at DIFF over the past six years, so many great films with so many filmmakers in attendance, it’s really not fair to single out one film!

Your views on the significance of film festivals in the age of Netflix?

I’ve been asked this question before and my response is that in a paradoxical way, as more and more films are delivered online, the need for places where audiences can come together for the collective experience of watching films will only grow. The digital revolution that is shaking the traditional cinema industry has also sparked an explosion in independent filmmaking. But the magic of the movies has always lain in their larger-than-life quality, presented on huge screens in darkened auditoriums, offering collective experiences. And all filmmakers, at heart, dream of their work being projected onto large screens before captive audiences. In India, which has never had a distinct art-house culture, it is rare for independent films to appear in commercial movie halls. Thus, film festivals are usually the only viable option.

I really feel that it’s human nature to be want to be part of a collective, and watching films has always been a collective experience. After a point, watching films on one’s own becomes more of a consumption, but as a collective, it is still an experience. I myself have often wondered what sense does it makes to brave a chilly winter evening to watch a film from Korea at 10’o clock at night? But I’ve seen it year after year, people walking out of screenings, standing in the cold to debate and discuss the movie they’ve just watched. That’s what a collective experience does to film lovers.