As first films set in the director’s backyard go, Ralang Road is quite a surprise.
Karma Takapa’s movie plays out in Rabong and Borong in southern Sikkim and the winding road that connects the towns. The 112-minute movie smothers its characters in bitingly cold mist rather than swaddling them in the gauze of fond and cherished memories. There are young kids running around, and at least one of them qualifies as cherubic, but these young souls are upto no good. There are elderly wisened faces, but some of them are drunks and the others are thieves. There is violence, a kidnapping, torture, and alcoholism. And did we mention copying during a school examination?
Ralang Road has been selected for the competition section at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in Europe (June 30-July 8) – the first Indian film in 13 years to be screend in the category. Produced by Human Trail Pictures, Ralang Road represents South Sikkim as a tinderbox of anxiety, crime and strangeness.
“The film is shot at my place of origin, and is my attempt to create a narrative that is dramatic and mundane, both of which somehow define this place,” the 31-year-old director told Scroll.in. “There are moments where I have used humour to contextualise Sikkim, and at times I use violence and darker shades. I guess that is my way of exploring the duality of this place.”
The plot is a crossweave between characters and incidents. A pair of fidgety teenagers gets embroiled in the affair between a non-Sikkimese teacher at their school and a local woman. As the tensions between outsiders and locals take unusual turns, a bag of money makes its own journey from one owner to the next.
The richly atmospheric film recruits the local weather conditions in the cast. Takapa grew up in Borong and returned to his place of origin after graduating from the Film and Television Institute of India in direction and screenplay writing. “Having spent a good part of my life outside my hometown, I have always felt the need to return, and maybe try and create an expression for all the memories I have had as a child,” he said. Rabong and Borong are “fogged up for most of the year”, he added. “When the sun is out, it is most beautiful and when it isn’t, which is most times of the year, it is very cold, foggy and eerie. This contrast has somehow shaped the film.”
Apart from ensuring a wealth of local detail of how people live, work and go about their daily business, Takapa was also keen to “de-exotify the place” for audiences. “I wanted the film to go beyond the perceived beauty that Sikkim is associated with, and make the characters and situations the anchor of the film, and not the landscape and mountains,” he said. “The underbelly forms the inner layer of the narrative, and I guess it makes it exciting for the viewers as well, because they have not seen a Himalayan town with this perspective.”
At times, Ralang Road has elements of an eco-horror movie. Takapa uses folkloric motifs, such as masks, the suggestion of spirits, and the uncanny presence of animals in key sequences. “I think it is a struggle between nature and urbanisation,” Takapa said. “It is also a struggle between cultures, changing demography and traditions. The folk elements used in the film try to contextualise this and at the same time evoke the idea of an unknown force.”
Except for a few trained actors, most of the cast comprises locals who have never faced a camera before. Sonu’s camera is both observational and stylised, capturing the daily rhythms of life as well as conveying the darkness that lies beyond the relentless fog.
“I attempted to try and find the most naturalised sense of their being within scenes, which would require them to do minimum acting,” Takapa said about the cast. “So the nature of the characters in the film and the nature of their being weren’t too far from each other.”
Ralang Road might be an unconventional first feature, but at least in terms of its struggle for seed money, the production has faced the same challenges as other independent films. “It is an uphill battle to get funding,” the director said. “We have been lucky to have supportive families and friends, from whom we have taken loans and they have helped our films reach completion.” After the premiere at Karlovy Vary, Human Trail Pictures plans to distribute the film as widely as possible, especially in Sikkim, where it all began.