Production Notes

Tenzing Sonam
20 January 2004

A belated but very Happy New Year to all of you!

We finally finished our shoot on Christmas Day! Soon afterwards, the last goodbyes were said and hugs and kisses dispensed with and suddenly, this magical, unreal, self-contained and utterly intense experience that nearly 50 of us shared, day in and day out, for the past two months had come to an end, leaving Ritu and me stranded, as if in a vacuum - elated, relieved and not a little sad.

Acting Workshop with Barry JohnOctober was when the whole lumbering machinery finally started to pick up speed as cast and crew gathered at our temporary headquarters at the Om Hotel in McLeod Gunj in Dharamsala. The noted Delhi-based, expat British theatre director, Barry John, came up to conduct a two-week acting workshop. His vast experience in working with non-professional actors and preparing them for the rigours of a film shoot proved invaluable. This was when our actors began the crucial process of working as a team and getting to know each other. Barry also helped start us on our first scene rehearsals. Never having worked with actors in our life, this was our biggest apprehension, but in the event, all our actors proved totally committed and cooperative and not only helped us to settle into this unfamiliar role without any difficulty but actually made the process fun and exciting.

Jigme's cracked kneeIt was early on in the workshop that our first disaster struck: during a particularly strenuous exercise, Tenzin Jigme, who plays the role of Jigme, one of the three main characters in the film, got a little over-enthusiastic and cracked his knee-cap. He was promptly put in an ankle-to-upper-thigh cast and told by the local doctor that he would be on crutches for at least the next six weeks. Fortunately, specialist advice from an orthopaedic surgeon recommended that the cast be removed and the knee be allowed to heal naturally. But the reality was that Jigme would not be able to walk without a serious limp for the duration of the shoot and that's how his character in the film developed a physical handicap that gave him an unexpected dimension!

Then, a week before our original start date, 10th November, we had our second setback. Our friend, the cameraman Alphonse Roy, whose Arri SR3 we were hiring, had done a routine camera test in Madras. We expected no problems as he had only recently serviced his camera in London but the test blow-up to 35mm showed soft focus. Another test was immediately done using his zoom lens and the same problem cropped up. This was serious as we had already rejected the only other Super 16 camera of comparable quality available in India on technical grounds and getting a last-minute replacement was going to be almost impossible. Alphonse hopped on the next flight to London and we pushed our shoot by a week, hoping that he would be able to sort out the problem fast. Fortunately, it turned out to be a minor hitch and we were finally able to start on the 16th of November.

First day of Shoot at Snooker HallFor the previous two months, every single day had been spectacularly clear and beautiful but, as a special auspicious omen, the day of our inaugural shoot dawned overcast and bitterly cold. Before long, it was raining and we had to make a last-minute change of schedule to accommodate the inclement weather. Instead of shooting an exterior scene on the rooftop of the Kelsang Guest House, we decided to do the interior of the Cue Ball snooker hall, a scene where Jigme and his friend, Lee, have an altercation as they play a game, a far more complex shoot that we had originally scheduled for much later. Several extras had to be hired and their movements coordinated. For good measure, we laid a track for the opening shot. For a first shoot, this was pretty challenging stuff!

Outside, two policemen, along with our team of enthusiastic production assistants, were on hand to help block traffic and keep the noise level down. It didn't take us very long to discover the torturous hazards of doing a sync sound shoot in India and the pattern was set for the rest of our production: vehicles of every size and shape loudly thrummed their engines just as we were ready for a take, or worse, in the middle of one; stray dogs did battle on the streets just for fun; errant school children insistently screamed their heads off; builders employing crude implements made unimaginably loud sounds; various pieces of machinery switched on and off at will; evil hordes of cawing crows hovered overhead; and always, gangs of human beings predictably walked or talked when they should have bloody well stayed frozen and kept their mouths shut!

Crew MembersIt took us two days to finish the snooker hall scene (it was a day's schedule) but by the end of it, we were elated…we had done it and now there was no turning back! Ritu and me were in a state of feverish excitement. It was unimaginable that this thing that we had nurtured for so long, that we had struggled to keep alive against all odds, was actually taking form, becoming real, in front of our very eyes. As a creative process, this was perhaps the most intensely rewarding experience of our lives. Of course, the inescapable part of any film shoot is the fact that more than any other creative venture, it is finally a team effort. And in this we were truly fortunate that everyone, from the most skilled technician to the rookie production assistant, gave us their best, literally put in a bit of themselves into the project.

Before we knew it, the days had rolled into weeks and the various departments - camera, lights, sound, production design and production department - had meshed into a fully-functioning unit. The usual frictions, born mostly out of logistical stress, flared up…and just as quickly died down. In between the hectic schedule of the actual shoot, sub-groups formed, friendships were kindled and romances blossomed (and then a few wilted). As the head honchos, Ritu and me found ourselves in the unfamiliar position of being the authority figures…a very strange feeling indeed! But very early on in the shoot, we realized that this hierarchical setup was somehow necessary for the film to proceed smoothly and consequently, much against our natures, we stayed mostly to ourselves, spending our free time discussing the film or endlessly reflecting on our own experience of being in the process of making it. Shooting to Kill, the book about filmmaking by the New York indy film producer, Christine Vachon, became a trusted companion and we took very seriously her admonishment that we were not here to win a popularity contest!

Ritu and Tenzing with Ranjan Palit (DOP)Our cameraman and old friend, Ranjan Palit, had been in on the project for years and we worked closely with him on the look and style of the film. From the beginning, we knew we wanted two contrasting styles to run through the film; a handheld, restless look juxtaposed against a more quiet and stylized one. We had already worked out a detailed shot list and storyboarded the entire script. During rehearsals, we had shot most of the key sequences on mini DV and edited them on FCP, so by the time we came to the actual shoot, we had a pretty good idea of what we were aiming for. Still, it was one thing to shoot a scene on a small camcorder and another to do it for real, with all the paraphernalia and people required to set it up and the unrelenting pressure of time, fading light, extraneous noise and everything else that could be imagined, constantly bearing down upon us.

We had a number of ambitious scenes that required serious logistical coordination. These included: a fight scene in a disco jammed with Mcleod's finest who continued to party long after we had wrapped up (the much-anticipated fight happened seamlessly in one take); a busload of "new arrivals" from Tibet coming up to Dharamsala (most of whom were sick by the time we had stopped and started a few hundred times); a Gaddi wedding procession carrying a palanquin down a steep hill; a candlelight vigil of around 40 extras, old and young, who patiently chanted the same prayer and yelled the same slogans well into the early morning hours; a hunger strike in the heart of Majnu ka Tila, the crowded Tibetan settlement in Delhi, that could have been a disaster in terms of crowd management but proved surprisingly straightforward.

Bus Breakdown shootPerhaps, the most maddening shoot of all was a sequence involving a bus breakdown on the main highway some 40 kilometres from Dharamsala. Our two main characters, Karma and Dhondup have an intimate conversation a little way below the road. This was one of the key turning moments in the film and we had to get it right. As the sun slowly changed angle, we did take after frustrating take, trying to stop traffic on the highway, which only invited crowds of onlookers who refused to keep silent. As our frustrations built up, we wondered if we were ever going to be able to complete the sequence. Astonishingly, against all odds, and to the credit of our two actors who maintained their focus, we did. There were many other similar occasions where extenuating circumstances threatened to undermine our efforts but somehow, we always managed to overcome them. Here again, we are thankful to our cast and crew whose total commitment enabled us to surmount these difficult hurdles. Thanks are also due to the various individuals who helped us in innumerable ways; to the homes, hotels, shops and organizations in and around McLeod Gunj that we used as locations; and to the inhabitants of McLeod Gunj who, by and large, kept quiet when asked to, didn't create a scene by crowding around us, and didn't make our lives too miserable!

A word about our actors: our initial fears about working with a cast of largely non-professional actors proved to be totally unfounded. Our trio of leading actors, Tenzin Chokyi, Jampa Kalsang and Tenzin Jigme, led the way, placing complete faith in us, showing absolute dedication to their work and giving us some truly moving performances. The rest of the supporting cast, particularly the older actors, constantly amazed us with their natural abilities and their patience and willingness to try out whatever we asked of them.

Jampa getting his makeup doneJampa Kalsang, who plays Dhondup, the newcomer from Tibet, was the only one among the main cast who had had prior experience as an actor (he had a major role in Lungta - Windhorse and a lesser one in Himalaya - Caravan) and he was crucial in setting an example to his greener colleagues. His total dedication in coming to grips with his character and his professionalism in the way he approached his work proved an inspiration to all of us. As he got under the skin of his character, he underwent a truly remarkable transformation and literally became Dhondup. Until the end of the shoot, wherever he went, no one had any doubt that he wasn't actually a recently arrived newcomer from Tibet!

In many ways, Tenzin Chokyi, who plays Karma, the New York filmmaker who comes to McLeod Gunj to discover her roots, had the most difficult challenge to overcome. As a Tibetan who had grown up in the States with virtually no experience of either India or the exile Tibetan community there, she was the one real outsider in the entire group. As the leading lady, she was naturally the focus of everyone's attention, which put enormous pressure on her. And as someone with no prior acting experience and whose real-life personality was as far removed from the character she was to portray as could be imagined (Tenzin works in a bank in suburban DC, whereas Karma is an East Village bohemian), she really had to work hard to prove herself. And prove herself she did with aplomb. By the end, Tenzin was Karma and perhaps, not a little of Karma became Tenzin.

JJI Brothers - the bandTenzin Jigme, who in his normal life is one third of the McLeod-based rock band, JJI Exile Brothers, turned out to be a natural-born actor - a one-take, shoot-from-the-hip artist - who constantly surprised us with his unexpected improvisations and character interpretations. As a McLeod boy himself, who had done his fair share of hanging around, he had a real understanding of the character he was to play. The fact that his alter-ego was also called Jigme led to some confusion in his mind; in fact, his biggest dilemma was to find a separation between himself and his character but it was this very tension that enabled him to give his performance a depth and vitality that went far beyond what had initially been imagined in the script.

The last two weeks of the shoot were on the road. After the relative comfort of McLeod Gunj where we had lived and worked as a unit for over two months, we were suddenly thrust into the unfamiliar territories of Clement Town, Majnu ka Tila and Jaipur, moving fast and working on the run. In Clement Town, we filmed at the Tashi Kyil Monastery and it was thanks to the cooperation of the monks there that we were able to complete our shoot - which included a fairly complicated funeral sequence - without any hitch. Majnu ka Tila was a big worry, given that this was the busiest time of the year there and we had a very real concern about noise and crowd control. Our very first shoot there, a night scene where Karma and Dhondup walk up to the Lhasa Guest House late at night, threatened to be disrupted because the lights we had set up in the alleyway attracted hundreds of curious bystanders who simply refused to move out of frame. We resolved this by doing a dummy shoot, complete with exaggerated instructions of "Action!" and "Cut!". This seemed to satisfy our uninvited audience who slowly dispersed. Much later, at around one in the morning, we came out and did the actual shoot! Our biggest problem in Majnu ka Tila turned out to be two days of power cuts, which meant that every single generator in the vicinity was turned on, making it almost impossible for us to continue. Jaipur was the first location where we were out of a Tibetan setup and in a totally Indian environment. Here again, our work would have been well nigh impossible had it not been for the support and cooperation of the local Tibetan sweater sellers' association.

With some of the crew members in Mcleod GunjOur last shoot was scheduled on Christmas Day. A greatly reduced crew along with our two leads, Tenzin Chokyi and Jampa Kalsang, took the train to Moradabad. We were to return to Delhi by car and shoot the last of our road sequences on the way. And so it happened, quite by chance, that the very last shot of the shoot took place inside a speeding Maruti van on a gloomy, wintry afternoon, somewhere on the highway leading to Delhi. As soon as we had called "Cut!" for the very last time, we stopped by the side of the road and all of us hugged each other in celebration, our excitement and relief already tinged by a sense of something magical and wonderful having just ended.

As I write this, Ritu and me are getting ready for the edit. The rushes look good and we are moving forward with anticipation and optimism.

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