On the rocky slopes of the Lahaul-Spiti mountains in Himachal Pradesh (HP), the Himlayan Ibex is returning. The horned herbivores, through their growing visibility, indicate an effective conservation strategy but a 10-minute film, Dan, by Shimla-based filmmaker Dev Kanya Thakur, insists that the turnaround is also a sign of women’s empowerment.
“People used to go out and hunt these animals until it came to a stage of extinction. This is when local women formed a group and started a campaign, taking personal responsibility to ensure that the Himalayan Ibex would not be killed. Now, I see the Himalayan Ibex roaming in the villages like pets. This, in my opinion, is not a wildlife film but a human empowerment film,” she says.
On April 29, HP Governor Acharya Dev Vrat released the poster of Dan — the film is named after what the Himlayan Ibex is called in Lahauli. Thakur has two more films in the pipeline — Breaking the Ice, based on the personal initiatives and grit that drive ice skiing in Himachal Pradesh, and a documentary on drug de-addiction, still untitled, told through the stories of two hard drug users who have cleaned up and now conduct motivational lectures in colleges and community centres.
Ever since she armed herself with a camera, in 2011, Thakur has explored human stories that lie at the heart of sociocultural politics of the hills. “I was born in Kullu in a family that did not discriminate between boys and girls. My parents used to tell my brothers to help out with housework, but one sees a lot of inequality when one steps out of the house. We live in a world where there is discrimination between women and men. I learned to face and fight it, but I used to think, ‘I could have been in the place of the oppressed person’,” she says.
A doctorate in journalism and mass communication from Himachal Pradesh University, Thakur was making documentaries for Doordarshan and assisting organisations with scripting, among others. She is a news reader at All India Radio Shimla and anchor with Doordarshan Shimla. “I used to write poems and stories in magazines. The HP government assigned me a research paper on tribal women of the state. While reading on the issue, I found one line that said that in tribal areas of HP, women don’t have property rights. I started working on that,” she says.
She went to tribal areas and met women, revenue officers, NGOs and women who were suffering. “It wasn’t like anything I had read in books. I presented the paper on Women’s Day at Gaiety Theatre in Shimla. Everybody appreciated it a lot but I began to feel that the paper, published in a book, shouldn’t be limited to readers in a library only. I decided to make a documentary film,” she says. In 2011, she came to Pune and did a film appreciation course from the Film and Television Institute of India. “This taught me about the platforms and techniques of filmmaking and I was ready to make a documentary on the gender gap in property rights for women,” says Thakur.
The resultant film was called No Woman’s Land (2015), which has been screened in festivals and institutions. Next came a short fictional film called Laal Hota Drakht (2016), about a tradition that requires Brahmins to marry off a tulsi plant and peepal trees with pomp and ceremony even if it leads them to debt and poverty. “We often talk about the challenges of marginalised communities but there is not enough conversation about the oppression that exists among the higher castes. I watched an entire marriage or Tulsi Vyah when I was making this film, and found the expenses and experiences similar to a daughter’s wedding,” says Thakur, who has won the Laadli Media Award for journalism by the Sangeet Natak Academy, Lucknow, in 2011, 2016 and 2018. No Woman’s Land also received a special mention by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in 2018.
Another film, Behind the Bars (2017) follows inmates undergoing prison reform. “Going to jail to shoot this film was very disturbing. I felt that this was like putting a bird in a cage, except there were human beings behind bars and everybody wants to fly,” she says. The film won the first prize at the NHRC’s Short Film Award Scheme 2018.
An evocative style marks Thakur’s storytelling. The cinematography in No Woman’s Land has a lyrical quality as the film captures picturesque locales of the hill terrain even as her narrative reveals practices such as polyandry that stem from the gender-skewed property laws. Behind the Bars is visually haunting while Laal Hota Drakht is studded with lilting folk songs from the hills. “I like to stay updated on the styles of documentary films from across the world but I believe in ‘think global, act local’. I mostly watch art films and documentaries. We have started a festival called International Film Festival of Shimla, which is in its fifth year and brings some of the best short films from all over India and the world to HP,” says Thakur.