The ‘most dangerous man’ in Ladakh works out of a two-storey building on the cold desert plateau, often throwing his Bollywood drawl at visitors. Tall and burly, Zulfikar Ali Shah, 40, is one of the ‘star’ villains of Ladakhi cinema, the tiny movie industry that makes at least four to five films a year.
In Leh, India’s largest district, he is known as Zulzul, the character of a smuggler he played in the 2001 film Tsesems (Love). “Madam, saara sheher mujhe Zulzul ke naam se jaanta hai (the city knows me as Zulzul),” Shah introduces himself, standing outside his office in Leh, where he is a supervisor in the government’s Rural Development Agency. The occasional passerby might also address him as ‘Sanju Baba’, he adds, thanks to his resemblance to Bollywood star Sanjay Dutt.
But the similarities don’t end there. In this ‘mini-Bollywood’, there are swaggering heroes, blushing heroines, rugged villains, scheming stepmothers, and even an item girl, all holding ‘day jobs’ as government employees, monks, teachers, retired Army men, cops, and what have you.
Ladakhi films are shot entirely on digital film and edited on basic software, propped up in tiny rooms in Leh. Budgets range from Rs 1 lakh to around Rs 5 lakh on an average, shooting is mostly limited to locales in and around Leh, and plots are straight lifts from hit Hindi films.
All this hectic activity takes place in summer, keeping in mind an entertainment-starved audience that will lap it up during the harsh winter. No one’s talking numbers yet, but there are murmurs of huge profits — minus tax — from ticket sales and DVD rights.
What’s bringing in the moolah? “All Ladakhis want is to cry in theatres. So we only make love stories and family dramas,” gravely explains scriptwriter and filmmaker Rinchen Namgyal, ‘on location’ in Skarra, a picturesque village in Leh. A song is being shot for his upcoming film, a love story about a Tibetan boy and a Ladakhi girl, with a message. “We want Ladakhis to forget their differences and live in peace.”
Social awareness apart, however, the primary objective remains entertainment. Which is why former police constable Tsering Norzum, the local ‘item girl’, is in great demand. Norzum, who shot to fame with the 2005 ‘blockbuster’ Delwa (good karma) takes her role pretty seriously. “Directors tell me to devise my own steps. I do that by watching Hindi movies,” blushes the Rani Mukerji fan, a clerk in Leh’s Public Welfare Department.
It is characters like her that prompted filmmakers Shabbani Hassanwalia and Samreen Farooqi to make Out of Thin Air, a documentary that brought Ladakh’s movie trade into the mainstream. “This industry acts as a window to a Ladakh beyond the picture postcards,” Hassanwalia told the audience at a screening in Delhi.
A changing culture
Indeed, it is a window into a region which, despite a growing tide of tourists, is trying to cling to its culture. So even as Leh’s restaurants sell global cuisine and desi chai, Ladakhis prefer their film actors to sip gur-gur (salty) tea and feast on thukpa (a noodle soup with vegetables). They want an item girl, but not one in jeans. “Young people today wear jeans. They greet each other with ‘hi’, no one says ‘julley’ (Ladakhi for ‘hello’). They are moving away from their culture,” fumes Shah.
Which is probably what Tsewang Dorjey, a retired Army man-turned-filmmaker and president of the production house Ladakh Vision Group, has in mind when he says, “In our first film, the heroine wore modern clothes. But here, people like traditional, so we stuck to it in our film Las-Del (karmic connection).” Incidentally, Las-Del — at Rs 15 lakh, the most expensive Ladakhi film till date — ran for over 100 days, its CD and DVD are still doing brisk business, and Dorjey and his team are dubbing it in Tibetan.
But while scriptwriters like Namgyal deal in contentious subjects,most others stick to escapist Bollywood formulae, of which the tearjerker Skitsum Sduk-sum (Kabhi Khushi, Kabhie Gham) is an example. The irony here is that Bollywood itself seems to alienate audiences. “Hindi films are trash now,” says leading man Rinchen Norbu, 24, who rehearses his lines between selling Chinese jackets in Leh’s busy market area.
Zulzul, however, cannot get over the smash hit Munnabhai MBBS. “I’ve never played a good guy, so I want to make Zulzulbhai Physician. It will be a huge Ladakhi hit, I think.”