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Interview Ladakhi

Praveen Morchhale: Child non-actors make Walking With The Wind special

Fresh off of winning the National Award for Best Ladakhi film, writer-director Morchhale spoke with Cinestaan.com about the joyous experiences of making the film, how the idea came to him and why casting Sonam Wangyal was the toughest task.

Sonal Pandya

It’s been a banner year for regional cinema at 65th National Awards, announced on 13 April. Malayalam film Take Off  won the Best Production Designer award and a Special Mention for actress Parvathy, Marathi feature  Mhorkya  bagged Best Children's Film award and a Special Mention for director Yasharaj Karhade, Bengali film Nagarkirtan took home Best Makeup Artist and Best Actor awards, while Assamese film Village Rockstars won Best Editing, Best Child Artist, Best Audiography (location sound) and Best Film trophies.

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Filmmaker Praveen Morchhale’s Walking With The Wind won the National Award for Best Ladakhi film, Best Sound Design and Re-Recordist. The sweet and simple film is about a young boy who breaks his classmate’s chair and traces his attempts to repair and replace it. Set in the uncomplicated, harsh lifestyle of Ladakh, Walking With The Wind has many layers and you will walk away from the film charmed and delighted.

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Basking in the glow of the recognition the film has received, Morchhale spoke to Cinestaan.com in a telephonic conversation and explained why he chose Ladakh as the location of his film.

“We didn’t want to promote the beauty of Himalayas. No, I just captured [the people] and the background behind them, which is a character. It was very important to have a tough terrain for this boy’s challenge, because there is no other conflict. The only antagonist of the whole situation for the boy was the mountains,” he said.

He pointed out that even though he had not seen a single theatre in Ladakh, the locals are extremely passionate about cinema. In fact, his executive producer, Phunchok Toldan, who also plays the role of the father in the film, had made a Ladakhi remake of Sholay (1975). “In this remake, he used a small truck as a train, donkey instead of a horse! And they took that movie to almost 30 villages showing on a small projector screening, charging Rs 1  to Rs2. They are crazy cinema lovers,” Morchhale enthused.

From this environment emerged Walking With The Wind. The title is also the name of book of poems written by late Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, someone Morchhale admires and looks up to. He shared his experiences of how the film got made in tough conditions, how he cast the lead actor, Sonam Wangyal, and reasoned why he feels child protagonists explain his worldview. Excerpts.

Congratulations on the National Award. How do you feel?

Of course, I’m feeling proud and very happy for the whole team. The crew worked really hard on this. They won two awards for sound designing and sound mixing. A small regional film getting recognition at this level, you feel very happy.

This is your second film after Barefoot To Goa (2015). How did you embark on this film’s journey?

After completing Barefoot To Goa, the encouragement we got from audiences, cinema halls and even the film festivals, I thought I’m on the right path, making this kind of cinema which is slightly different. I’m not saying we’re making superior films or inferior films. We don’t need to compare that. But I was having my own style, making comments on the social, political issues of current India. I think that’s why my stories come from the surroundings and the events happening around us.

This idea came for Wallking With The Wind. As humans, we are trying to blame others for our own mistakes and we don’t try to repair ourselves or take care of our own mistakes. That has become the norm of the day nowadays.

When it came to that idea, I thought why not we put a small boy who breaks a school’s chair of his friend and tries to repair his own mistake very silently, what will happen to him and his surroundings? Can this be a film which can gives us a thought process also? That it can also be our responsibility to repair our mistake. This idea generated itself.

This film is dedicated and inspired by the Iranian filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami. How much did he influence the film? You are obviously a big fan.

Of course, I really love Abbas Kiarostami’s way of making cinema. More than his films, I like his creativity and the innovation in cinema. That is very important. We must understand that.

How I got influenced was that with a small crew, of around 5-10 people, and available facilities, say a small village and local actors, they are making world class cinema. It’s long living cinema, it’s not [just for] three to four months; after 10-15 years, it’s still alive. That’s the real parameter of judging cinema. If it continues for 20 years, that’s cinema.

I thought we can do a similar kind of cinema making model. With little money, a small crew, using the local people and a local story of our own culture to tell a universal story, that is where I got influenced. That is my inspiration from him.

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Can you tell us a little bit about the making of the film? When did you start?

I think we started somewhere in July 2016 and we completed the film in the next five to six months. We were ready by November-December 2016. Last year, it was at the festivals all around. We shot [the film] in 17 days with a crew of around 12 people and all non-actors.

Not a single person in the film was an actor. They were all locals, we had a blind person, a real carpenter, [an actual] poet, even the Japanese girl, we found her in Ladakh. She is the only Japanese person living there. The boy [Sonam Wangyal] is from the next village. Everybody was doing their own character. They were playing themselves.

I found that Sonam Wangyal has the right amount of charm and innocence required for the lead role. How did you cast him?

That was the toughest job — to find a good boy. I went twice [to the location] to do the recce. The second recce was to find which shot I’ll be taking where and I was doing casting as well. There are only 20 to 30 villages in the whole of Ladakh. I was very sure that I will go to a village and cast a boy [from one of the villages]. I was searching in the villages and hardly you will find three to four boys in a village, because most of the small kids have moved to Leh for school.

I was searching in a nearby village, Hemis, around 5kms away from the location, and there was this small girl, I asked, ‘Do you have a brother or some boy in this village?’ She said, ‘Yes, I have a brother’. This boy came out, and he was looking at me very blankly, not knowing why I’m asking and what we’re doing. Phunchok Toldan explained to him that we’re making a small movie here and I’m looking for a boy to act in the movie.

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There was 12 kg stone on the road. I said, I want to see if you can pick it up. When he was picking it up and looking at me, I could see the charm in the face and the eyes. I felt real pain can come out. If you feel the pain inside in your heart, it can be seen on the face. I want the pain to be felt on the inside. I said, ‘I’m done, you’re my boy’. That was the audition, no discussion, no dialogue, how he acts, nothing. I had a gut feeling that this boy can do wonders.

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I think it was wonderful. Of course, when we started living in the village, there was nothing. There were five to six small tents outside the village near where we were shooting. But these things didn’t matter much because when we saw the people over there, they were so helpful and happy.

They would always say ‘jullay’. It means hello. If you cross them within 10 seconds, they will say again ‘jullay’. Always smiling, even if they don’t have roads or water. I said if these people are living in such a beautiful mountain and they are so mixed with nature and have imbibed it within themselves and they are not complaining. We are there only for 30 days. If we are going to complain, we can’t make a movie. Our movie will reflect that if we always crib about this or that. We were so happy with the locals, in fact, we felt very sad when we were leaving that place.

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Everybody said we wish we can stay longer. True, there were physical problems — we could not walk very fast because of the low oxygen levels. The sun is very harsh sometimes or maybe it’s very chilly in the night, but all those things are nothing in the front of making good cinema. I was so happy that nobody in my crew never ever said anything about any problem. That’s the beauty of cinema.

What do they think of the film and now, the National Award?

They are so happy. The moment it was announced, I sent some publicity materials about the film across. They are arranging interviews of Sonam Wangyal and others. I said you must publicise it in the local newspaper because that is very important.

I requested them to arrange one big screen or projector in Leh city and in the middle of the ground, we’ll screen [the film]. I’ll manage the expenses for the screening. Let’s show the whole film to the public in Ladakh.

This is their own movie. We were outsiders to that place. It [the film] belongs to them. This movie is for their culture, their happiness, and the lifestyle they are living. We just did not manipulate anything, it was real.

Both of your films feature child protagonists. Is there a reason why you see the world through them?

Children are very honest in depicting emotions. It is very important, for us, as adults to see life and the world, our whole social political systems, from the children’s point of view. They react very innocently and honestly and with what they feel, they are not manipulating their emotions. I always believe children tell my story much better. They express the whole meaning much better, even if they don’t speak.

My child actors, they never tried to speak like adults. They speak in their own language, with their own words. It’s very difficult to keep away from your own dialogues, own thoughts from the children, because generally as a writer, you try to imbibe so many things. It generally doesn’t work out or it looks fake.

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It is better to keep silent, let them observe, let them say whatever they feel. It’s like seeing the world from their point of view. These child non-actors make my film very special.

What’s next for you, and for the film?

I hope [Walking With The Wind] goes to the theatres and sees the big screen, as every filmmaker wishes. But it is very difficult nowadays with the [current] cinema business model. In India now, cinema is treated like a commodity, not like a communication tool. I made this film because I wanted to say some story, not because I wanted to make some money out of it. It was a need of a communication of the situation, so we made this film.

We believe online platforms will be very helpful and after the National Awards, I think Doordarshan would be able to acquire the rights and screen it on television. Of course, we’ll be talking to the online platforms like Netflix, Amazon and all.

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Are you working on another project?

Yes, it’s set up in Kashmir. It’s about women’s situation in contemporary India. It’s a very sad film of three women, from their point of view. Hopefully, it will pick up with the audience.