Lights, camera and anticipation

[Moji Riba]

The recent initiative of the government of Arunachal Pradesh, in particular that of Chief Minister Pema Khandu, to woo filmmakers from Mumbai to come and shoot films in the state is indeed laudable. Film tourism, if handled well, can actually do wonders for the promotion of tourism in the state.

For one, it will inspirit tourists to visit the state in droves, just like at one point of time song and dance sequences of Bollywood films which were shot in Switzerland made it a popular destination for Indians travelling abroad, when it enthused Indian tourists to spend literally vast amounts of money and fly to Switzerland to see for themselves the sights and wonders which were showcased in films like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge – Bern and Fribourg, Gstaad and the Jungfrau, Lake Lauenen, the rolling meadows, the snow-covered Alps, and the ubiquitous Swiss cows with bells.

And if what transpired in Mumbai earlier this month and the enthusiasm seen in the filmmakers are any indication, it would soon be true of our state too, when filmmakers from Mumbai would come and shoot on location here.

An obvious instance that comes to mind is that of Koyla, which was shot in Tawang district and featured the waterfalls near Jang and the iconic Zonga Tser Tso, the lake that became so much more popular as ‘Madhuri Lake’, quite like how Lake Lauenen is called ‘Yash Chopra Lake’. Here too, it did fuel the imagination of tourists from as far away as Kolkata, Mumbai and Gujarat, who thronged to Tawang to actually come see the sights for themselves, just as at one point of time others did to Switzerland and the Maldives.

The more recent example of Rangoon, which was shot here in the vicinity of Pasighat few years ago, begs to be cited here, for it had a completely different impact on what it meant for the tourism industry. As Pasighat-based filmmaker Mingkeng Osik, who was the sole artist coordinator for the film from the state said, the local tourism and hospitality businesses were much benefitted, as the Bollywood team’s crew members themselves numbered more than 300 – “there was not a single hotel and lodging left free!”

In addition to this, some villagers were hired for fabrication of bamboo rafts and similar props, while others got to play bit roles as extras in the film. Mingkeng says he engaged 171 people on the shoot, though it slipped my mind to ask him how much they were paid. Even if they did not benefit much monetarily, I am quite certain it made for wonderful stories that still get told today of how they did “suting with Kangna Rawat, Sahid Kapur and Sef Ali Khan.”

As can be expected, we do see that the local tourism economy did benefit immensely from films like Koyla and Rangoon having been shot here, leaving the future filled with similar potential.

But, as locals from Tawang district will tell you, Zonga Tser Tso is just not the same as ‘Madhuri Lake’, just as film tourism is just not the same as promotion of the film industry.

And this is where the premise of this rant is. What I can gather happened in Mumbai was the promotion of Arunachal as a film tourism destination – not necessarily of the fledgling film industry in the state.

The thrust of the film tourism policy, as one is able to gather from media reports and social media posts, will definitely benefit the tourism industry, will definitely benefit filmmakers in Mumbai (what with subsidies and incentives being offered). But, in itself, it holds very little for filmmakers in Arunachal Pradesh. And that is what we need to give a thought to.

When we talk about promotion of films and filmmaking, we ideally need to see it from two perspectives. One is what the chief minister is doing so wonderfully well now – to put Arunachal on a global platform and make it popular as a film tourism destination. One where people would come and shoot on location here, tax and other incentives would be extended, so that mainstream filmmakers would popularize Arunachal in the public imagination of wherever Bollywood films reach. Not just that, even independent filmmakers with smaller budgets but amazing stories and committed audiences can find a wondrous background to their films here. All of which will then translate to increased tourist footfalls and revenue generation. There is no taking away from the significance of this visionary move, and the government deserves the highest appreciation for the initiative.

Yet, at the same time, as keen as the government is to promote film production, it has to look at the needs of the filmmakers that are within Arunachal too. Because it is a fact that filmmakers coming from outside, even from Guwahati or Imphal, will not, by far, engage our homegrown filmmakers or technicians, at least for the principal crew. Case in point: Rangoon had a 300+ strong film crew, none of them from the state.

And this has nothing do with how competent we are or not. The process of filmmaking is such that a core crew begins and sees the film through the full production process, and directors invariably choose to work with people they are familiar with. And the preparations, where the crew initially bonds together, would invariably happen much before they land up in our state.

And then we also need to recognize that we are trained differently here. The film industry that we have in Arunachal is substantially different from the film industry in Mumbai for instance, in terms of its functioning, its hierarchy, its experience with changing film technology, and even in its production process. And so it follows that it is very unlikely that a production house from Mumbai would come and engage indigenous technical talent, creating jobs and livelihoods of any significant number.

The only talent that they will use is fixers, artist coordinators, local resource people, guides, and the archetypal travel and hospitality industry. And perhaps the odd member of the extras cast if the script demands it, like it happened with Rangoon. But to think that those villagers are today making a living out of acting after featuring in cameo roles in Rangoon would be to stretch the imagination a bit much, even for a fantasy medium like film.

Eventually, to effectively promote filmmaking in our state, a two-pronged approach and strategy is what would work better. Where on the one hand, there is film promotion of the kind we see in film tourism and destination tourism – which is being done so wonderfully well now.

The other is the promotion of the indigenous filmmakers and the state’s fledgling film industry. And to do that, what we need to look at is persistent and sustained initiatives in training and capacity building, enhancement in technical expertise, film infrastructure, funding, and, importantly, film distribution.

If anything needs support on a scale of priority today, it is the small but committed film industry that has emerged in the state. For, even as considerable growth is being made by a crop of young women and men filmmakers today, a journey triggered since Taro Chatung made his Meri Zindagi in 1987, much remains to be done.

No doubt we have the flagship Film and Television Institute (FTI) that has come up in the state. But that continues to operate out of temporary rented premises near an upscale hotel in Itanagar and with a much restrained capacity for a film institute. It functions under the control of the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute (SRFTI), Kolkata, which calls the Itanagar FTI its ‘extended campus at Itanagar’ in the official website and even requires aspiring candidates to send admission forms and other documents to the SRFTI’s Kolkata address and not to Itanagar!

In addition, we have a virtually nonexistent film distribution network, with only a few theatres having come up recently. And while we have had a spurt of film festivals, we have also felt the need for more workshops, skill-specific training programmes, and for these film festivals to travel to the districts so that people across the state can begin to appreciate what has now confidently emerged as Arunachal Cinema – with its own unique flavour and variety, with its own triumphs and failures.

In effect, what the industry needs most today is a definitive film policy. To supplement the already firmed up film tourism policy, we need a well-thought-out framework of how to create long-term jobs in the sector and how to sustain livelihoods for the many who have taken up filmmaking in the state and who are telling our stories to the world.

For indeed, there is amazing potential within the state itself. In the successive Arunachal Film Festivals and an ever-growing presence on the internet, we are witness to an emerging body of filmmakers and film technicians who are today doing great work in spite of all the challenges that we face. In a state that has virtually no government support for their initiatives, its filmmakers have released between 3-5 feature length films every year for the past few years, often at the risk of losing investments. And that is an outstanding achievement, even if I say this as a member of the fraternity itself.

When I shared these ideas with Hali Welly, president of the Film Federation of Arunachal, the apex body of the industry which has a team of some of the most motivated film folk I have met, he said that things are overdue.

“The creation of a film development board has been a long-felt necessity of our fraternity,” he said.

He added that in the interim time the government should provide much-needed relief to filmmakers by subsidizing the existing theatres within Arunachal to screen films by indigenous filmmakers, which will help not just the exhibitors but support the directors and producers too.

The need today, in addition to what happened at Mumbai, is for the government to take clear steps towards setting up of a state film board (or film council, as I prefer) steered by peers of the community itself. We need for the council to function as a well-managed professional body that will fund projects, take venture risks on films, and support capacity. When subsidies are made available to farmers and weavers under various schemes, or to entrepreneurs under the Deen Dayal Upadhayay Swavalamban Yojana, surely similar mechanisms can be made available to indigenous filmmakers too.

But most importantly, the government has to begin looking at the indigenous film industry not just as grant seekers but as partners in progress, and recognize them as tellers of our stories. Because when we talk of the true purview of good governance, film, art, literature, music and culture are also sectors of governance, just as infrastructure, education and health are – perhaps more so.

This is not to say that the government hasn’t thought about this or talked about this at all. At consecutive film festivals that I have attended over these last years, there have been discussions and appeals suggesting these very things. On other occasions, representations have been submitted by successive federation committees and I myself recall being member of a core group along with other filmmakers, many years back, on framing a draft document for the film council, which was drawn up and submitted.

To its credit, there has been genuine support and earnest assurances from the state government that these would indeed materialize.

Five years down the road, we are still looking at that door to open. With the annual budget presentation round the corner, you cannot really blame us if we stare at the door again – with anxiety, anticipation, and just a little bit of hope. (The writer is a filmmaker and cultural activist, and teaches documentary film at Rajiv Gandhi University)