‘You Can Feel Buddha’s Teaching In Ladakhi Culture’

‘I have nostalgia for Ladakhi culture, which is common to both Muslims and Buddhists.’
‘It is kind of a Buddhist way of life. You are compassionate and nice to each other.’
‘You are good human beings.’

IMAGE: A scene from In Retreat.

In what may be a great acknowledgment of the Pune-based Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), three of its graduates have films selected at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

In addition to Payal Kapadia whose film All We Imagine as Light is playing in the festival’s competition section, there is a short FTII production and a first feature by a 35-year-old film-maker Maisam Ali.

Ali’s film In Retreat, a lyrical and meditative narrative about a lonely middle-aged man who is attempting to reach his brother’s funeral in Ladakh, will play in the ACID (Association for the Diffusion of Independent Cinema) section. The film stars Harish Khanna (12th Fail and Gangs of Wasseypur).

In talking about In Retreat, Pamela Varela, a programmer in the ACID section said this to The New York Times: ‘I didn’t know the director was young because when you see the film, it’s incredibly deep, really mature. This is really a film by someone.’

In Retreat will be screened at Cannes on May 18.

Ali spoke to Aseem Chhabra about the making of In Retreat, a week before he headed to Cannes, saying, “I connect with Iranian cinema at many levels, like when I see works of, say Abbas Kiarostami. There are no big villains in their films. It’s just how life is. Looking at their films, you feel inspired to find your own voice.”

Maisam, I loved the way your film’s title appears in a quiet manner, in the same way as the whole narrative unfolds. The English title is In Retreat, but what is the Urdu title?

Be-qayaam.

What does that mean?

Qayaam means a place where someone can rest. So be-qayaam means without rest.

But doesn’t In Retreat refers to your protagonist attempting to return to his home?

No, In Retreat can also signify restlessness.

What I like about the film is that it has the texture of Iranian cinema. Of course, as a coincidence, you were also born in Iran. But was there an influence of Iranian cinema? What kinds of cinemas have you been exposed to? I am sure it was the FTII training that led you to find the voice of this film.

Absolutely. At FTII, we were exposed to various kinds of film-makers, including those from Iran.

I was born there and I also come from the Shia community. So I connect with Iranian cinema at many levels, like when I see works of, say Abbas Kiarostami. You feel it’s very close to you.

I also connect with the works of other directors, including (Yasujir┼Ź) Ozu and Satyajit Ray.

There are no big villains in their films. It’s just how life is.

Looking at their films, you feel inspired to find your own voice. It’s eventually a personal thing, how you explore the world.

IMAGE: A scene from In Retreat.

A lot of your film is shot at night.

It’s a story about a man who is not able to return to where he is heading and is comfortable within the shadows of the night.

I am really interested in creating a larger cinematic space or a different kind of experience.

I didn’t want to follow the traditional, linear, story structure.

But you still have a story that evolves. There is a family and they have already done the mourning for an old man. And then the grand uncle is in touch with the grand nephew via Facebook.

I went to Ladakh two years ago in the summer of 2022. The early scenes in the film are in Leh, right? The houses, the structures and the streets looked very familiar.

The entire film was shot in Leh. We all have our own set of images and experiences of a place.

As a film-maker, you would want that personal touch to be there, how you like to see the place.

Of course, with what the film is demanding, what the character is wanting through that, what he is looking at.

The night is also good for me because I am little rebellious. I didn’t want to shoot any kind of beauty in that sense.

A lot of people said you are shooting in Ladakh and you are not showing the beauty of the place, then what is the point?

My response was, this is what it is. This is my thing. I will do it like this.

IMAGE: Director Maisam Ali. Photograph: Kind courtesy Maisam Ali

Tell us about your background. You were born in Iran because your father was posted there? Are you Kashmiri?

My father is a physician and he was posted in Iran. But we are proper Ladakhis although I think Muslims in Ladakh have some connection with Kashmir.

My great grandfathers were from Kashmir. They were traders.

They traveled up to Yarkant, which was a part of Central Asia, but it is in China now.

Ladakh was one of the destinations. Over a period of time, they settled in Ladakh.

After the Communist revolution, China took over all of that region and my great grandfathers lost a lot of properties.

One sees more Buddhism in Ladakh. What percentage is Muslim?

If you consider Leh and Kargil, it’s almost 50:50 because Kargil has a significant Muslim population. Leh has a larger Buddhist population.

I have nostalgia for Ladakhi culture, which is common to both Muslims and Buddhists.

It is kind of a Buddhist way of life. You are compassionate and nice to each other.

You are good human beings.

You can feel Buddha’s teaching within the culture.

Of course, now with tourism, people have become more materialistic.

But there is a nice history of Buddhists and Muslims living together. It is so even today.

IMAGE: Harish Khanna in a scene from In Retreat.

Harish Khanna is the only well-known actor in the film.

Yes, he is the protagonist of the film.

It is his story, but not in the conventional sense.

I wanted other characters to look at his point of view.

There are other junior actors, non-actors, some who are my relatives.

Harish is a fantastic actor but he really underplays. What qualities were you looking in him?

That is how cinema actors should be. They should underplay.

I believe acting shouldn’t be about expressing something.

It’s interesting when you are hiding something because the camera is very powerful.

If you are doing some drama, the camera will know.

He has this vulnerability but it is a nice blend. He has a strong presence.

The way he looks at everything, it is more sensitive, natural. It slow and poetic.

In a lot of the film, he has no dialogue. It’s so quiet, whether he is on the bus ride or just walking. He does encounter people along the way.
As a director, you must have spoken to him before every shot. What directions did you give him? What did he have in his mind as he was flowing through the night?

Yeah, we would have long discussions.

Making a film is a larger collaboration, so I would talk to the crew as well.

But with Harish, I would try and get my own sense across, what my philosophy was based on, what the poetry lines meant.

Slowly, we started to understand each other.

He is a fine actor, so I was open to his improvisations.

IMAGE: Harish Khanna in a scene from In Retreat.

You gave him poetry that he recites.

Yes, poetry and fragmented monologues.

In my mind, somebody who’s just roaming around, he doesn’t have to have complete and coherent thoughts. Because who has complete answer anyway?

Having a natural actor, you don’t need to work on small things.

You don’t need to direct every move, every gesture, every look.

I like his presence.

There is a certain rhythm to him.

You and Payal Kapadia graduated from FTII in 2018. What a coincidence that you both have films at Cannes this year. Have you been in touch with Payal?

Yes, of course, I congratulated her.

It’s great for FTII.

It is a very special place and with talented people.

I hope people take FTII students seriously.

We regularly have films at international festivals, representing India.

But when it comes to the film industry, they think FTII students have a lot of opinions, so often, we don’t get work. This is a very sad thing.

They hire technicians of course, but I am talking about direction students.

I have been lucky to be able to make this film, but it is not easy.