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Sikkim review: Snapshot of the Himalayan kingdom and a way of life gone by

Release Date: 02 Apr 1971 / 60min

Cinestaan Rating

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Sonal Pandya

The hour-long documentary, commissioned by the erstwhile king of Sikkim, shows life in the kingdom before it was annexed by India.

Originally lost, only to resurface later, the controversial documentary Sikkim (1971) was screened in public once again at the 16th Mumbai International Film Festival of India. The film was banned by the government once Sikkim was annexed by India in 1975. Later, when it was screened at a film festival in 2010, it was again banned by a Sikkim court.

Filmmaker Satyajit Ray was commissioned by the erstwhile chogyal (king) of Sikkim, Palden Thondup Namgyal, to create an account of life in the kingdom. The filmmaker had unrestrained access to turn the camera on all aspects of life in Sikkim. The result is a gorgeous snapshot of another era, aesthetically filmed by Soumendu Roy, wherein Ray showcases everything from daily life to nature to tradition in the Himalayan region.

Sikkim opens with a wet, foggy intro into the kingdom, home of the Kanchenjunga mountain. Ray narrates that what the kingdom lacks in size, it makes up for in scenery. The documentary short takes us through various ways of life from simple farming at Lachung to the bustling Lal Bazaar marketplace in Gangtok, the capital. From nature to handicrafts, all aspects of Sikkim's natural beauty are shown.

But the most candid shots, of course, are of Sikkim's people, especially the children. The documentary points out that education was free in Sikkim, and 20% of the kingdom's budget went into ensuring the futures of its next generation. The different tribal peoples of Sikkim and the religions they follow are also named; Ray particularly points out that the kingdom is a tolerant place.

Naturally, the focus turns to the chogyal and his American queen, Hope Cooke, who is always by his side. A large portion of the second half of Sikkim moves to the grand New Year's celebrations held at the royal palace which involves a whole parade, including bands and jesters, and ends in a lawn party that seems to have invited the whole kingdom.

Ray and his cameraman Roy linger on actions and scenes that others wouldn't, and it's their gaze that frames this travelogue that also serves as a documentary.

Four years after this film was made the monarchy was abolished by referendum and Sikkim became the 22nd state of India on 16 May 1975. The fear that the documentary could be seen as an endorsement for the monarchy and Sikkim's king probably contributed to the ban on it in the first place.

Because it was lost for a while, Sikkim is today a historical account of the kingdom and serves to show a simpler time unsullied by modern ways. Presented in Ray's inimitable style, Sikkim is another gem in his illustrious career.

Sikkim was screened as part of a special package on The Legacy of Satyajit Ray at the 16th Mumbai International Film Festival on 31 January 2020.

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