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The story behind Chuskit, a film about a disabled 9-year-old’s attempts to go to school

Filmmaker Priya Ramasubban on her debut feature film Chuskit, inspired by a true story.

Written by Asad Ali | Updated: February 17, 2019 4:57:59 pm
True grit: (Clockwise, from right) Stills from Chuskit; Jigmet Dewa Lhamo (left), who plays the titular role of Chuskit, with Priya Ramasubban.

Disability hardly gets mainstream attention. But filmmaker Priya Ramasubban’s empathetic vision in Chuskit (2018), the story of a nine-year-old girl in Ladakh trying to overcome her physical disability to go to school, has managed to make an impact.

Inspired by the real-life story of Sonam Spalzes, a girl in Karnataka with cerebral palsy, Chuskit has been going strong in the festival circuits. It premiered at Giffoni Film Festival in Italy last year, where it won a special Amnesty International Award, won a gold for Best Feature (targeting children between 5-9 years) in the Half Ticket section at the 20th Jio Mumbai Academy of Moving Image (MAMI) Film Festival, held in October in Mumbai and was well-received at the recent Dharamshala International Film Festival. Excerpts from an interview with Ramasubban:

How did Chuskit happen? How did you go about filming it and selecting its cast, from renowned folk musician and dramatist Morup Namgyal to young actress Jigmet Dewa Lhamo?
The main inspiration for the film was a book by my sister Vidhya’s friend, Sujatha Padmanabhan — Chuskit Goes To School (2011) — based on Vidhya’s efforts to get a disabled girl to school. My sister wanted a film based on the book. She checked if any ‘real’ filmmakers were interested, but when things didn’t work out, I was asked to take it up.

When I started work, I dived right into the subject. I got inputs from Jolein Laarman, my script mentor, whom I met through the NFDC’s Screenwriters’ Lab. Jolein pushed me to make my script more powerful. Vidhya has worked in Ladakh for almost a decade and knew many people there, including Chetan Angchok, a filmmaker. He knew a lot of people in theatre and it was through him that we got in touch with Namgyal and Lhamo.

The documentary has been shot at challenging conditions.

How much time did you spend with Sonam Spalzes, the girl on whom Chuskit is based? What has been her reaction or that of her family to the film?
I have never spoken to Spalzes personally. She has severe speech impediments and lives in rural Karnataka, doing vocational training. Chatting with her was not possible. My sister has worked closely with her in the past. Her parents have approved of the film. While her story was the inspiration for the film, many of its parts have been fictionalised.

You’ve shot documentaries in challenging conditions, from Gaza to Perito Moreno. How tough was it to shoot in Ladakh?
As a documentary filmmaker, I have learnt to roll with the punches. Things don’t go as planned and one has to think on one’s feet, while keeping the goal of the story intact. I had an excellent team who ensured that everything fell into place.

Is Chuskit’s determination to attend school driven by her desire for education or the sense of community she longs for?
Chuskit has a desire to go to school but has no formal experience and that is why she doesn’t know much of what kids her age would know. As a child, she doesn’t know the value of education, but she understands the feeling of being excluded. Chuskit’s objective does become overcoming hurdles. But like most kids, she is not able to articulate this. Most of us want to belong and not to stand aside. Wanting to go to school is her way of wanting to be included.

How did you develop the relationship between Chuskit and her grandfather, Dorje? Did you conduct workshops?
Some feelings of exclusion, her need to be included, her desire to go to school and the idea of the community’s involvement at the end are part of Spalzes’s story, but the fall, the grandfather, and some other elements are fictionalised. For the film, we had Dewa Lhamo and Namgyal develop a bond through workshops, in which he taught her lullabies and they walked around talking about their childhoods.

Dorje becomes the voice of tradition which is resistant to modern values. Did you witness the conflict between tradition and modernity in Ladakh?
I have noticed this quite a lot. The elders lament that the young go to Delhi during winters. They feel that the tradition of winter is getting lost, that the traditional ways of life, with sheep rearing and farming during summer and autumn, have given way to a tourism-driven lifestyle. The rush of changes in the last few decades is unnerving for many.

How did you come to be interested in filmmaking?
I was born in Chennai and lived in Delhi from Class VIII till the end of my undergraduate year. I lived in Mumbai for my post-graduation diploma. Subsequently, I moved to Delhi before going abroad to do a Masters in film and television studies. When I finished school, I forced myself to do Economics (Hons) from University of Delhi. I went to Sophia College for Women in Mumbai to do Social Communications and Media. Documentary films attracted me the most and I pursued it until I recently decided to embark on a feature film.

In your film, the community plays a crucial role in helping Chuskit go to school. How has the idea of community shaped your worldview?
I value interdependence more than independence. If we work together, we can achieve more. This does not mean giving up on one’s individuality. It means supporting an individual’s choices as best as a community can and working together to make a difference.

Would Chuskit have had greater trouble getting to school despite the ‘ease’ of life in the city?
In a city, she might have had easy access to a wheelchair, transportation or a hostel, but in the village since systems are not designed for such situations, she has more intimate connections to humans.

You have worked with economist P Sainath and filmmaker Anand Patwardhan. What did you glean from them?
I worked with Anand on Father Son and Holy War (1994) and accompanied him to various talks and events. Sainath was my professor when he was working on Everyone Loves A Good Drought (2000). He has been an incredibly inspiring figure in my life. He motivated the class to look at India not from the comforts of our urban life, but by travelling and understanding the villages and small towns.

This article appeared in print with the headline ‘The New Girl in Class’.

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