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Local Ladakhi films trump India's Bollywood in Himalayas

By Staff writer / October 9, 2009

Actors Sonam Spaldon and Rigzin Dhondup perform a scene.

Mary Knox Merrill

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Ladakh District, India

Around every corner in this distant Himalayan district of India, someone is in the movies. Bureaucrats and Buddhist monks write screenplays, taxi drivers and cops play villains and heroines, and the superstar actress gets paid $1,000 a movie.

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Ladakhi films première to packed crowds in the capital, Leh, in an auditorium just off the polo field. Then they head to the villages, shown with LCD projectors and portable speakers. In this northern nook of India bordering China and Pakistan, Bollywood no longer holds sway.

The film industry here emerged right about the time, early in this decade, that cellphone towers and tourists saturated this once-isolated community. Ladakhis quickly put 21st-century social media toward preserving a traditional culture they felt was under siege.

"The young generation nowadays are influenced by the Western people – what they eat, how they dress," says Dorjay Khanang, a former soldier and one of the founders of Ladakh Vision Group, the region's original film studio. "Through these films, we are saying we have our own culture and tradition from ancient times in Ladakh."

Their brand of traditional movies turned out to be wildly popular.

"Traditional," explains Mr. Khanang, means using Ladakhi language and clothes. Modern roads and vehicles are nowhere to be seen. But portraying a Shangri-la that was can be a challenge.

"There are only a few places we can shoot," says Tashi Dawa, a local filmmaker, "because everywhere there are electric wires, cell towers, and greenhouses."

For a recent "blockbuster," titled "Las-Del" ("Karmic Connection"), Mr. Dawa explains how an electricity pole got in the way of a bucolic scene. Their solution? Cover it in Buddhist prayer flags.

There's a tinge of irony in the backlash against modern technology, since ultramodern digital video and movie-editing software made this regional film industry possible. Outside filmmakers say some of the Ladakhi films are starting to show high production values.

Last year, for example, the Ladakh Vision Group bought a 30-foot film crane. It enabled them to stage a scene in "Las-Del" in which a boy, girl, and horse topple off a cliff.

"People in the theater got up and shouted; some people didn't want to look. They hadn't experienced such a [realistic] scene in Ladakhi film," says Dawa. "After seeing the movie, many people said to me: 'This time you did a very difficult job – you climbed on trees.' I said, 'No we used a crane.' And they said, 'What's a crane?' "

Change is rippling through the thin air of Leh town, which is 12,000 feet above sea level. The number of tourists has more than quadrupled since the turn of the century, to 74,000 last year.

Only 115,000 people actually live in the district of Ladakh, mostly in villages nourished by glacial runoff and watched over by medieval monasteries. Cellphone towers are no more than five years old; satellite TV is another newcomer.