When the Mongolian film The Story of the Weeping Camel was screened at the Osians-Cinefan Festival in Delhi in 2003, spontaneous applause broke out as the dromedaries popped up in the cast credits. Delegates at the upcoming Mumbai Film Festival might be similarly moved by the animals that flock the screen in Ridham Janve’s The Gold-Laden Sheep & the Sacred Mountain. Janve’s feature debut is about the movement of hardy men across mountain slopes – and their sheep and goats and dogs. Janve and his crew steer humans and animals with equal expertise across the film, which explores themes of mysticism, determinism and the ability of nature to keep the desires of humankind in check.
The Gold-Laden Sheep & the Sacred Mountain will be screened in the competitive India Gold section at the Mumbai Film Festival (October 25-November 1) and at the Dharamshala International Film Festival (November 1-4). The Dark Matter Films production is set among the pastoral Gaddi community in Himachal Pradesh, and has been made in the Gaddi dialect under trying circumstances with non-professionals and a skeletal crew. The movie combines anthropology, folklore and metaphysics as it explores the adventures of elderly shepherd Arjun (played by Bhedpal Arjun Pant). The curmudgeonly Arjun is forever sniping at his assistant and complaining about his aches and pains. When news spread across the valley of a plane crash, along with stories about the gold and silver that had been aboard the aircraft, Arjun shuffles to his feet and sets out on a life-altering journey.
The elemental story has been shot in the Chamba and Kangra regions. The slow-burn narrative, which highlights the harshness of life in these parts, evolved out of the severe constraints on the production, which included dealing with the vagaries of the weather, performers who had never faced a camera before, poor electricity supply, and the distance between one shepherd post and another.
The film was shot in August and September three years ago. “Our entire production was timed with the natural movement of the shepherds and their flocks,” Janve told Scroll.in over the phone from Goa, where he currently lives. “This was the time when they had descended from even higher pastures.”
The cast features members of the Gaddi community who have never been in a movie before. Many of them doubled up as camera and sound assistants. “Only the cinematographer and sound recorder came from Bombay,” Janve said. “Since the film is about the myths within the Gaddi community, it didn’t make sense to cast somebody from the outside.”
Having non-actors became an advantage – it helped the film move between fiction and documentary. “We were looking for that energy between fiction and non-fiction and the energy that non-actors bring on naturally,” Janve said. “The dialogue was both scripted and improvisational.”
The biggest nightmare – casting for the main part – was solved by a seemingly miraculous act that mirrors the experiences of the shepherd in the film. “Out there, the shepherds live at least a day away from each other,” Janve explained. “To meet even one shepherd, we would have to walk for a day. We had done two reccees, but we weren’t finding the right person. When I met Arjun, it was a prophetic moment for me. This was then I felt that this was all a part of the deal – if it had to happen, it would.”
Bhedpal Arjun Pant met the filmmakers in the beginning of August. “In March that year, 51 of his sheep had died in a lighting strike, but he escaped without scratches,” Janve said. “He would wonder, what else is left to be done in life, why has god kept me here? When I met him the first time, before I could say anything, he told me, I know why you are here, and I was waiting for you. I had been doubtful until then whether the film was possible at all. Casting Arjun Pant didn’t make anything easier, but it gave us the strength to continue.”
Janve was 28 years old when he embarked on the production. He had been friends with the film’s producers, Akshay Singh and Kabir Singh Chowdhry of Dark Matter Films, for years. Dark Matter Films has another entry in the India Gold section at the Mumbai Film Festival, Chowdhry’s genre-bending Mehsampur.
“I didn’t want to make the film with any pre-conceived notions,” Janve said. “We were uncertain about our production capabilities, and we kept the script very loose – it was almost like a treatment note. When the production wouldn’t work out, we would keep improvising. We could not do retakes, we could not cut in the middle of dialogue.”
Janve graduated from the National institute of Design in Ahmedabad in 2011. At the institute, he had veered towards films that experimented with the language of cinema and pushed the boundaries of narrative. In 2013, he made a short film, Kanche aur Postcards, and was offered the opportunity to direct a crime thriller and an experimental road movie. But these productions didn’t work out.
“The weight of these unfinished films was on me,” Janve said. Along with producer and co-writer Akshay Singh, Janve took off for Himachal Pradesh, where he met members of the Gaddi community. Janve and Singh spent a lot of time with the shepherds and their families, and they became fascinated with Gaddi myths and folklore about mystic mountains and the folly of trying to challenge nature.
“We would venture out aimlessly and walk for days in the mountains, and I think it was one of these treks that the story came to our minds,” Janve said.
Once the production kicked in, there were other challenges, such as the shortage of electricity. “We made the film on solar power,” Janve said. “The nearest electricity source was two days away, and it was difficult to carry generators on mules. We wanted to make the film quietly, just like being in the mountains. I didn’t want to have the noise of the generator at all. Solar power wouldn’t work on the days when it rained, of course.”
Janve compared the experience to the time when films used to be made on celluloid, forcing crews to be disciplined and rigorous. “We didn’t have the chance to shoot a lot, and we had to save batteries for our computers to save the footage for the day,” he said. “I now understand this as a guiding force – the production constrains were really important for the film to be made interestingly.”
The 96-minute movie captures the unhurried rhythms of life on the mountain slopes as well as the rugged beauty of the landscape. There seems to be a striking frame wherever Saurabh Monga’s camera looks, and yet, the filmmakers wanted to guard against postcard prettiness. The palate is muted, rather than bright, and grey, white and dull green abounds.
“I really wanted to bring out the characteristics of the mountain,” Janve said. “This is really harsh terrain, a no-mercy kind of place, which is as devastating as it is beautiful. We consciously avoided a lot of beautiful shots. The palate of the film is what you see there.”
The sense of time in the narrative, in which nothing seems to happen for many minutes followed by a rush of events, also mirrors the actual physical experience of being on the location. “Everything happens very slowly on the mountains, but this slowness also gets speeded up in your mind,” Janve said. “The physical landscapes are also like mindscapes, in a way.”
Although the film went into production in 2015, it has taken the filmmakers three years to complete the project. “We could have finished the film earlier, but we would keep running out of money for post-production,” Janve said. “We would do odd jobs to make a little money. We got some money from Anurag Kashyap, who saw the film and loved it.”
While the film will be premiered in Mumbai in October, the Gaddis who feature in it have watched a rough cut. “The film was screened during a wedding ceremony,” Janve said. “They enjoyed it, and they were giving a running commentary during the screening. When there were was abstraction happening on the screen, some of them picked it up immediately, and it made me really happy.”