THE BOOTLEG FILES: SIKKIM

BOOTLEG FILES 575: “Sikkim” (1971 documentary by the great Indian director Satyajit Ray).

LAST SEEN: The film is on YouTube and DailyMotion.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The least known of Ray’s works.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It is available on an Indian DVD, so maybe it will eventually wind up in the American market.

In our last column, we took a look at the 1973 drama “Distant Thunder” by India’s great filmmaker Satyajit Ray. This week, we return to Ray for one of his most controversial works – one that was banned by India’s government for 35 years. But, oddly, the film is also Ray’s most benign and quotidian production, with nothing to warrant state-ordered removal from sight.

In 1971, Ray received a commission from Palden Thondup Namgyal, the Chogyal (king) of the tiny Himalayan monarchy of Sikkim, to create a documentary about his country. Back at that time, Sikkim occupied a curious place in Asian politics. It was a protectorate of the British Empire during the colonial years, but after World War II it was not eager to become a part of the new Republic of India. Rather than seek out independence, Sikkim signed a treaty with India that made it a protectorate of India – the kingdom maintained its autonomy while India assumed control of its defense and external relations. Most people in the West never heard of Sikkim until 1963, when Namgyal married Hope Cooke, a New York socialite. She became Sikkim’s queen, and it was her love of Ray’s work that brought the master director to Sikkim to create a documentary that was intended to attract increased tourism to the kingdom.

Ray took the duties of film’s narrator, using his rich baritone voice to detail in English the various scenes being presented. For the first half of the film, “Sikkim” is primarily a celebration of the kingdom’s topography and botanical pleasures. Working in color cinematography – this was not typical of Ray at this time, as he was still mostly rooted in black-and-white for his dramatic features – Ray captures the beauty of nature in a handsome manner. The only thing wrong is that it looks like any other nature film. Really, if you’ve seen one rhododendron, you’ve seen them all.

Eventually, Ray has to acknowledge that Sikkim is more than a kingdom of rivers and flowers. When the people of Sikkim finally show up, Ray’s narration explains their heritage can be traced to the Himalayan lands of Tibet and Nepal. While Ray’s camera finds simple villages that appear to be lacking in most modern conveniences, the people seem content with their lives. Indeed, the film dotes on happy school children at their studies and in play, while Ray’s narration proudly notes that one-quarter of the kingdom’s revenue is used to finance free education. Namgyal and his American queen are briefly seen in the film, albeit from a distance. There is also a quick glimpse of a photo of Sangey Deki, the Tibetan who was Namgyal’s first wife until her death in 1957.

The second half of the film highlights an annual religious that celebrates the victory of peace and prosperity over the forces of evil. The chanting of Buddhist monks and a solemn dance ceremony are the key features of this observance, which Ray presents in a straightforward and unemotional manner.

Now, you may be wondering what’s wrong with this type of a film? It all seems rather pleasant and maybe a bit quaint. Indeed, it is so polite that it makes Rick Steves’ travelogue shows look like Al Goldstein’s “Midnight Blue” in comparison.

Well, there was a slight but significant problem with a single scene. Ray included a very brief shot of some poor people hunting for food that was deposited in a dumpster behind the Chogyal’s palace following a royal banquet. When the monarch saw this, he was livid and immediately ordered that the film would be banned until Ray edited the work. By this time, however, Ray was already working on other projects, and some time passed before he could return to cut the offending scene out of his documentary.

By the mid-1970s, however, things in Sikkim were far from travelogue-level jolly. The Chogyal’s popularity was reaching new lows among his people, and rioting in front of the royal palace in 1973 sparked a conversation among the Sikkimese about becoming a part of India. Two years later, the Indian military rolled into Sikkim under the pretense of restoring law and order. The peasants that turned up in Ray’s film as happy subjects of the Chogyal would turn out at the polls in 1975 for a referendum that called on Sikkim to become a state within India. The monarchy was abolished, with the Chogyal leaving to move in with his wife’s family in New York.

By the time Ray was finally able to re-edit “Sikkim,” the Indian government owned the rights to the production. Government censors took a look at “Sikkim” and felt uncomfortable because the film depicted a happy little land and did not show any of the circumstances that led to India’s absorption of the kingdom. Not only did the Indian government ban “Sikkim” from being seen locally, but it ordered the destruction of its negative and all known prints so it could never be seen elsewhere.

In the early 1990s, a global effort was launched to preserve Ray’s films, many of which had been in advanced states of deterioration. “Sikkim” was the most obscure of the films to be rescued – it was never publicly screened and no copies were known to survive in India. A global search located three surviving prints – one in Sikkim that was too battered to be projected, one in the possession of Hope Cooke in New York and one in a London archive. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences coordinated a digital restoration, but for years no one could legally screen the work because of the ban by the Indian government.

In 2010, the Indian government finally lifted its ban on “Sikkim” and the film’s copyright was transferred to the Art & Cultural Trust of Sikkim, an organization that took control of the Chogyal’s holdings following his departure from the kingdom. The film has since been shown at several Ray retrospectives and film festivals and it has been made available on an Indian DVD release. But in the U.S., the film remains mostly unknown except for its weird history.

Sandip Ray, the filmmaker’s son and a director in his own right, would later lament in an interview about why this film sparked so much controversy and was kept from view for decades. “We do not know why the film was banned for so long,” he said. “But it is not a political film and has no propaganda. It is about the flora, fauna, the natural beauty and diversity of the Himalayan kingdom.”

And while the younger Ray is grateful for the restoration, he admits that his father’s work can never be properly appreciated.  “I remember that the original film had excellent colors,” he said. “But unfortunately, now it is lost. However, the present version is viewable.”

Unauthorized postings of “Sikkim” can be found online at YouTube and DailyMotion. To date, these offerings represent the only chance for wider audiences to witness Ray’s work. And, for the moment, let’s be glad that the Indian government doesn’t try to block these postings – after 35 years under harsh government restriction, this harmless little movie deserves to have an audience.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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