This Indian-Tibetan couple is championing indie cinema in a place with no theatres

Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam are exposing local audiences in Dharamshala to contemporary world cinema and encouraging budding filmmakers from the region.

As a child, I used to love hearing stories about how my grandmother would sneak out to watch a Gregory Peck film at the Metro Theatre in Calcutta or how when there was an Elvis Presley film playing at the Sunday morning show at a nearby theatre, people would clamour for tickets and his fans would swoon.

With a proliferation of broadband and increase access to overseas market, Indian audience almost struck upon the Holy Grail with access to movies not just from Bollywood, but films across the world including the revered Japanese and French films.

Where do we place a sleepy town in the foothills of Himalayas, without any theatre in this matrix of movie buffs?

As unique as the place is, it is not an exception when it comes to the movie mania that pervades most of the other cities of this country, and houses many young talented filmmakers on the lookout for exposure. The fact that Dharamshala does not have a single theatre was hardly ever a hindrance in the ever increasing love for cinema, the art and aesthetics of filmmaking.

As residents of Dharamshala for many years, the Indian-Tibetan filmmaking couple, Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, long believed that the town’s exciting profile would make it a perfect location for an international film festival.

Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam

Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam

Such an event would not only expose the local audiences to contemporary cinema and encourage budding filmmakers in the region, but would also draw audiences from all over India to enjoy independent cinema away from the chaos of cities. With this in mind, they started a non-profit organisation, White Crane Arts & Media Trust, to promote contemporary art, cinema and independent media practices in the Himalayan region. Dharamshala International Film Festival, DIFF, was its first venture.

DIFF was born out of the belief that cinema and art have the potential to be a force for good; the ability to transform perceptions and foster understanding; and the power to reach deep into the cauldron of human experience and offer insights in a language understood by all.

In the highly competitive industry of filmmaking where thousands of movies are released in a year and where movies under a big banner easily overshadows and triumphs over a humble independent film, DIFF seeks to thus establish itself as a patron of independent cinema, promoting at the same time the cultural nuances of Himachal Pradesh.



The 2014 edition of DIFF proved to be a cornerstone for the festival in many ways. To begin with, it saw in its attendance some well known and respected faces of the industry including film critic Namrata Joshi and the veteran actor-director, Rajat Kapoor.

Speaking about the vivacious quality of DIFF, Kapoor commented, “I’ve been to many festivals but the spirit behind the organisation of DIFF is absolutely unique. I have never been to a festival that runs its engine on the passion of everyone that comes in contact with it. Over 60 volunteers made a festival in Dharamshala possible – a town without a single cinema screen. They have already done three years and they are good for the next thirty, I believe. Bravo!”

Starting as a small fish in the vast expanse of an ocean, DIFF ventured on its journey by fostering partnership and collaborations with several organisations. DIFF has actively partnered with various organisations in India and abroad to sponsor screenings of specific international films and to help bring their filmmakers to Dharamshala including the Polish Institute, the Swiss Embassy of India, Goethe Institute, Instituto Cervantes, British Council and the Japan Foundation.

DIFF has also forged partnerships with a range of local groups and entrepreneurs and as part of the festival hosts a Food, Arts and Crafts Fair. It gives special preference to NGOs working with local arts, culture and handicrafts. These include: Jagori, Nishtha, My Earth Store, Rogpa, Greenshop, Moonpeak, and Woeser Bakery to name a few.

A big milestone achieved last year by DIFF in the attainment of its vision was the foundation of DIFF Fellows Program, which aims to encourage and develop filmmaking talent in the Himalayan regions of India. Five participants were selected from a total of 25 applications by an eminent jury, which included two well-known filmmakers, Hansal Mehta and Anupama Srinivasan, and Bina Paul, the former Artistic Director of the Kerala International Film Festival.

This year DIFF is to be held from 5th to 8th November and hopes to strengthen and consolidate its reputation as a platform for young talent to blossom. Not only does it wish to promote itself as a pioneering venture in the scope of festivals, it also wants to fulfil its responsibility in the front of education by increasing its outreach and inviting a wider pool of applicants from all over the country for its Fellows program, holding workshops and instating a mentor:mentee system for the same.

This year’s line up includes both features and documentaries, addressing several important issues that often go unnoticed. For example, “Lung Ta” by Tokyo born filmmaker Kaoru Ikeya tells ongoing self-immolations in Tibet through the eyes of a Japanese architect.

On the other hand, in the feature ‘Tashi and the Monk’ a former Buddhist monk seeks to transform the lives of abandoned children through love and compassion. Unlike Kaoru Ikeya, the makers of Tashi and the Monk, John Burke and Andrew Hinton, hail from London and thus bring a different perspective to the table.

Not only does the festival have films relating to just Tibetan culture, but also features films from across the world. Polish film ‘Body’ directed by Malgorzata Szomowoka, set in present day Poland, Body explores the intertwined stories of a criminal prosecutor, his anorexic daughter and her therapist, who claims to be able to communicate with the dead.

In this country where diversity and multicultural forces reign supreme, DIFF with its unique efforts wishes not only to sustain facets of Himachal Pradesh’s culture but also to open its doors to many such aspirations film lovers to showcase their talent, making it a truly pluralistic and innovative event.

Literature student. Part time journalist. Harbouring crazy dreams of changing the world since 1993. more


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Literature student. Part time journalist. Harbouring crazy dreams of changing the world since 1993. more

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