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Ladakh Chale Rickshawala: An Impossible Dream, An Arduous Journey

July 20, 2019 | By

Bengalis are known for their wanderlust. They blow up their year’s savings on their sojourns to the hills and the seas, to forests and ruins, to places sacred and profane. But Satyen Das, a humble Bengali rickshawala in Kolkata beats his Bengali brethren in his daring journey to Ladakh on his rickshaw. Indrani Chakrabarti, another Bengali with a wanderlust, captures Satyen’s journey on camera. The result is a charming documentary film Ladakh Chale Rickshawala.

Ladakh Chale Rickshawala documentary

Satyen Das with his rickshaw

Ladakh Chale Rickshawala stands on three journeys. Firstly, a rickshaw puller’s journey from Kolkata to Ladakh, 3000 Km away from his city traversing the heart of Northern India, crossing the different cultures of Bengal, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, Jammu, Kashmir valley and finally that of Leh-Ladakh in his tri-cycle rickshaw. Secondly, a filmmaker and her team’s journey to make a film on the rickshaw puller’s mammoth journey to Ladakh with very little financial resources and thirdly, the journey of the rickshaw puller’s wife to survive in spite of her husband’s wanderlust hoping to see a silver lining if her husband succeeds in his mission. How will they finally reach their destinations?

A review of the award-winning documentary film by Indrani Chakrabarti

Some of us try to transcend mundane existence through meditation, some through action, some through imagination. Satyen Das, a rickshaw puller in Calcutta, has chosen his three wheeled vehicle to take him miles and miles beyond his mundane existence, to stretch his destiny and transcend the safety ring of predictable, comfortable life.

When in April 2014 Indrani Chakrabarti first met Satyen at a rickshaw stand in Naktala, he was lost in reverie. Sitting atop his rickshaw, he was transported to the rarefied atmosphere of Ladakh. When Indrani heard about this expensive reverie, she was skeptical. Satyen nonchalantly replied that he would paddle his rickshaw all the 2721 Km of the journey from Kolkata to Ladakh. Disbelief was writ large on Indrani’s face. Satyen opened the cabinet of his rickshaw and pulled out photographs of himself and his family posing with his rickshaw against the Taj Mahal and the Golden Temple.

Satyen and his dream of riding his rickshaw to Ladakh

The filmmaker in Indrani was awakened. Satyen’s adventure deserved something more than still photos. But a quick calculation of the huge expenses invloved in travelling to Ladakh with the camera crew put a brake on Indrani’s plans… till she met Satyen again after the general elections of 2014. By now Satyen’s reverie had shaped into a plan and a roadmap. Indrani had an idea – why not give him a handycam to record his own journey? Thus began the production process for a film that would eventually go on to win hearts and awards – the saga of Satyen’s sojourn to the Himalayan plateau at a height of 3000 metres.

As Satyen started receiving training in handling the handycam, Indrani started taking shots of his family life in Kolkata. Satyen’s wife was skeptical and resentful of her husband’s reveries. Munni’s struggle to keep life going for her and her daughter was also worth recording.

Satyen getting a tutorial on how to handle the camera

Satyen was eventually flagged off on a hot summer day in 2014. At 10 minutes 14 seconds of the film Ladakh Chale Rickshawala, we see a banner hanging from Satyen’s rickshaw, modified for the uphill task. The banner announces “Incredible Journey for World Peace”. At 11 minutes he presents a red rose to his wife and at 12 minutes 8 seconds Satyen is off on the roads, leaving behind the concrete jungle and hitting the highway to Bardhaman. He takes a bath at a roadside tap in preparation for the long journey ahead. Indrani’s camera follows him till dusk. Then waits for Satyen to return with pictures of his journey captured in the handycam.

Ladakh Chale Rickshawala

Satyen’s “Incredible Journey for World Peace”

Satyen’s first halt is at Kalyaneshwari temple. He clandestinely shoots pot smoking sadhus and hits off on the road early next day. He crosses Jharkhand and moves up north. Suddenly the screen goes blank and Satyen’s voice is heard, “Oh! God. I dropped the camera and stepped on it.”

It is a moment of crisis – more for Indrani than for Satyen. The handycam has to be repaired and given back to Satyen. She heads for Varanasi and waits there for Satyen. She is in no mood to absorb the piety in the air of the holy city. The river, the ghats, the devotees slip off her anxious mind. Finally she retraces her path by 70 Km to meet Satyen and take the camera from him. The repaired camera is again given back to him in Haridwar.

Ladakh Chale Rickshawala is as much about an underdog’s daring dream and his determination to fulfill the dream as it is about the filmmaker’s dream to make a film about the dream. Both these narrative strands follow the classical trajectory of protagonist – goal – obstacles on way to fulfill the goal. In Satyen’s trajectory the obstacles were physical – the steep climb, the rough dusty road, the barren treeless landscape deprived of oxygen. On the other hand, obstacles in the journey of the filmmaker came in the form of the handycam going dysfunctional, Satyen going out of the network area and a constant shortage of funds.

Ladakh Chale Rickshawala

Satyen with Indrani

To these two strong narrative strands Indrani decided to add a third strand – that of Satyen’s wife Munni’s struggle to stay afloat during Satyen’s long absence. Satyen’s strand and Munni’s strand are deftly woven together with intercut sequences of these two protagonists. While Munni complains about lack of safety, lack of money and laments about Sayten’s lack of responsibility, Satyen paddles from city to city, from village to hamlet and captures footages of other dreamers like him who set impossible goals for themselves. He rolls the camera while on the move, sings to himself, talks to himself and to the people he meets on his way. Sometimes he puts the camera on a concrete beam and records his own activities.

On his way to Ladakh Satyen earns his share of punya by taking a dip in the Ganga at Haridwar and paying a visit to the deity Vaishno Devi in Jammu. On his way to Vaishno Devi he meets a man who has been rolling on the road for eleven months to reach the abode of the Godess. As Satyen busies himself in these holy places, his wife sheds tears of despair and worries how she will keep herself and her daughter safe from stalkers and evil eyes. She says, “People ask me, what does Satyen do with the money he earns? I am kept in the dark. I know nothing about the money he borrows from people.”

Munni’s rootedness comes in sharp contrast to Satyen’s vagabond nature. The clash of binary opposites propels the narrative forward… till Satyen is lost to Munni and Indrani. He has moved out of network area. His phone is ‘unreachable’.

Indrani bides her time browsing pictures of Ladakh on the internet and suddenly Ladakh begins to beckon her. The call of the hills is too strong to shrug off. With two more team members, she hops into the train to Jammu.

Every member of the team is armed with a camera. Everybody records the journey to track down Satyen. Dhabawallahs, tourists and passersby can recall Satyen. They all have been impressed by his determination. The image of his three wheeled vehicle with messages of world peace hung from its back is etched in their minds. They point to the direction in which Satyen headed. Indrani and her team members follow that direction. Finally, Satyen is tracked down one night at a roadside dhaba.

Ladakh Chale Rickshawala

Dhabawallahs, tourists and passersby can recall Satyen

The two strands come together and the goals of the two protagonists become one. Satyen and Indrani together admire the beauty of the stark landscape the next morning. Together they negotiate the oxygenless climb. To get a feel of Satyen’s struggles, Shirshendu, Indrani’s associate director starts pushing the rickshaw and soon goes out of breath.

Four months after Indrani’s first encounter with Satyen at Naktala, Satyen enters Leh, the capital of Ladakh. Indrani captures his triumph on her camera.

After this climactic moment at a height of 3000 metres, begins the denouement in the narrative. Back in the plains Satyen takes the bows, appears in TV shows, makes newspaper headlines and becomes a celebrity. Munni asks, “So what? What difference has this momentary glory made to our lives?” Satyen nonchalantly prepares for the next journey. This time he is flagged off more ceremoniously by actor Sabyasachi Chakrabarty.

Just like the three interwoven narrative strands, LCRW is woven together with footage from three cameras of varied specifications. In fantastic post production work, the varied footage has been given a homogeneity. Sound captured by the handycam mike has been cleaned and made clearly audible. Bit by painstaking bit, the film has come to life on the editing table.

Ladakh Chale Rickshawala in spite of its apparently simple and straightforward narrative, communicates at many levels. It is a film about triumph of an underdog. The underdog protagonist is far from an ideal character. He is irresponsible, self centred and makes empty promises to his wife. In appearance he is far from heroic. Yet he wins the hearts of his audience because of his unpretentious candidness. LCRW is also a film about an adventurous journey, about a film maker’s struggle to make the film and most importantly about the “idea of India” or Bharat darshan. Films Division came forward to acquire the film after it was made.

Ladakh Chale Rickshawala

Ladakh Chale Rickshawala went on to win the Best Adventure & Exploration Film at the 65th National Awards, 2017

Ladakh Chale Rickshawala went on to win the Best Adventure & Exploration Film at the 65th National Awards, 2017. The film had its first public screening in June 2018. Indrani and her team were not at all sure if the film would hold the attention of the viewer. As it turned out, the 150 strong audience at Nandan III were spellbound. The applause at the end of one hour and five minutes proved that Indrani had passed her litmus test. Somebody in the audience said, “This is better than a movie”. Somebody asked, “Were the critical moments in the film scripted?”

The film was commercially released at Nandan II and ran to full house for two weeks. Those who came to watch posted words of praise and recommendation on Face Book. Some of them came back to watch a second time with their friends. NGOs brought groups of children to watch the film and be inspired by Satyen’s determination to actualise his dream. An advocate of Calcutta High Court said that this was her most memorable film of 2018. A cancer patient said that she identified totally with Satyen’s struggle.

Ladakh Chale Rickshawala has been to festivals in India and abroad. Schools, clubs and NGOs are sending requests for special screenings of the film. Through these repeated screenings, the film is poised to have a long life. But this does not make things easier for Indrani Chakrabarti. The struggle for her next film will again begin from ground zero. She is waiting for the next film to ‘come’ to her, just as Ladakh Chale Rickshawalah and all the films she made before that ‘came’ to her.

Ladakh Chale Rickshawala stands on three journeys. Firstly, a rickshaw puller’s journey from Kolkata to Ladakh, 3000 Km away from his city traversing the heart of Northern India, crossing the different cultures of Bengal, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab,  Jammu, Kashmir valley and finally that of Leh-Ladakh in his tri-cycle rickshaw, Secondly, a filmmaker and her team’s journey to make a film on the rickshaw puller’s mammoth journey to Ladakh with very little financial resources and thirdly, the journey of the rickshaw puller’s wife to survive in spite of her husband’s wanderlust hoping to see a silver lining if her husband succeeds in his mission. How will they finally reach their destinations?

More to read in Documentary Films

Calcutta Sonata – The City’s Sustained Love Affair with the Piano

A Little Sci Fi Gem: To Celebrate 200 Years of Frankenstein

Raghu Rai – An Unframed Portrait

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Subha Das Mollick is a media teacher and a documentary filmmaker. She has made more than 50 documentary films on a variety of subjects, most of which have been aired on the national television. She had been the head of the Film Studies and Mass Communication Deptt. at the St. Xavier's College, Kolkata.
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