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A young Mumbaikar, armed with a camera and a bike, travels to the remote Changthang Plateau in Ladakh and returns with treasured sights and insights
At the Chumur monastery, 350 kms from Leh, the capital of Ladakh, Gaurav Jani, 33, of Mumbai was struck by the sight of an embalmed body of a monk. Around 50 years ago, the monk, who lived in the gompa or monastery, had said he liked the place so much he did not want to leave. So, when he died, his body was embalmed, and his face was painted in gold.
Right next to it, hanging from a wall, was the hand of a woman. The story went that she had seduced some men in the village, and killed them. “The monk called her to the monastery and chopped her hands off,” said Jani. “Later, she was killed. People said she was a sorceress and had committed evil and deserved to die.”
For Jani, this was a once in a lifetime experience because he is one of the first outsiders to come to this tiny village of 50 families. In fact, the National Geographic magazine had been denied permission, because Chumur is only eight kilometres from the Chinese border.
Chumur is part of the Changthang Plateau of Ladakh, one of the remotest regions in the world. It was to fulfil his twin passions of travel and film-making that Jani undertook the trip on his 350cc Bullet Enfield over 50 days. He transported his bike by train from Mumbai to Jaipur and then set out on National Highway No 1 with 300 kgs of equipment, which included a tent, fuel, clothes, food, a sleeping bag and a Panasonic DVX-100 e Mini DV camera, to shoot his adventures.
He had no assistants; it was a solo trip. So, when he had to take a shot, he had to unpack the camera, place it on a tripod, wear his helmet, zoom away from the camera, come back, and check to see that the scene has been shot well, pack his cameras and start riding again. “I know it sounds like a lot of work but any film-maker would go to any length to get a shot,” he said.
Jani shot 40 hours of material, which has been pared down to a 94-minute film, Riding Solo To The Top Of The World. It won the Golden Conch for Best Documentary in the Indian section and the National Critics Award at the Mumbai International Film Festival. K. Hariharan, director of the Chennai-based L.V. Prasad Film and TV Academy and chairman of the jury, said the freshness of approach by this one-man crew was one of the factors in awarding Jani the prize. “His discovery of new people and places was a big plus,” he said.
Nrupen Madhvani, a photographer and film-maker, who has visited Ladakh, was impressed by the truth and integrity of the film. “It is rare to see a film where there is no compromise on the intellectual and emotional front.”
Riding Solo also won the Best Documentary Award at the Signs Festival, conducted by the Federation of Film Societies of India (South-West Region). And Discovery Channel has bought the telecast rights for the Indian territory.
Simple and compassionate
At Changthang, Jani befriended the nomadic shepherds, the Changpas. They moved from place to place, in small groups, with their goats, sheep and yaks in tow. He stayed with a Changpa called Tsewang, ate with the family and spent hours talking with them.
Tsewang told Jani he kept hearing stories of people dying of hunger in other parts of India.
“That is so strange,” said Tsewang. “This can never happen in Changthang. If we know somebody is suffering, or is sick, we just adopt that person and his family. Nobody in Changthang has died of starvation. The village will take care of that family for as long as it takes.”
Jani said he could not help but contrast this attitude with city dwellers. “In Mumbai, people lead such selfish lives,” he said. “We only get in touch with each other when we need something.”
There was a time during the trip when Jani himself needed help. One evening, at a place near Datta, Jani realised he had lost his way. It was getting dark and he needed to protect the footage that had been shot. The exposed shots were the most important thing he was carrying. So, rather than risk trying to find his way in the dark, he decided to set up his tent even though the temperatures were at sub-zero levels. At an altitude of 16,000 feet, the oxygen levels were also low. “Once I zipped up the tent, there was very little ventilation,” he said. “I was breathing in the same carbon dioxide that I was exhaling. “As a result, I experienced a lot of restlessness.”
The next morning, suffering from a headache, he managed to locate a group of Changpa dwellings some distance away and made his way out of danger.
At Hemis, he experienced one of the highlights of the trip when he was able to see the religious festival at the Hemis Monastery. This particular festival, which takes place once in 12 years, is celebrated only in the year of the monkey in the Tibetan calendar.
Lure for adventure
Jani worked for a brief while as a fashion designer in Ahmedabad before he moved to Mumbai and worked as an assistant director on Ram Gopal Verma’s Jungle. But he could not ignore the siren call for adventure and finally succumbed and is into this full time. For the Ladakh trip, because he wanted to do a trip without any prior planning, he could not get any sponsors and had to depend on family and friends for funds. So far, he has spent Rs 18 lakh on the film and has barely recovered one-fourth of the cost.
At his home in Malad, Jani sets up the DVD for me to see. His sincerity and love for the Changpas is palpable and the scenery is breathtaking: the high mountain ranges, the clear streams, the blue skies, the tankas, (the Buddhist prayer flags), flying carelessly in the breeze, the tranquil and weather-beaten faces of the Changpas, as they go about their daily life, the children, with their open faces and sweet smiles, playing with the sheep, the women shaving off the pashm from the pashmina goat, which will form the highly expensive pashmina shawl and the haunting prayer meetings: the monks in their red tunics banging on drums and blowing long horns as hypnotic chants are mouthed, and all these scenes are accompanied by the soul-stirring music of Ved Nair.
The long-haired Nair, a freelance music composer, who is at Jani’s place when I watch the documentary, says, “We wanted the music to be a progression of Gaurav’s journey. So, we started with an electric guitar and as he went higher and higher, we used humming and whistling and flutes, which the Changpas use.”
It is a remarkable documentary, and hats off to this young and brave film-maker to go where no Indian has gone before.