“Life is the Present.”
When asked about his life philosophy, Rohan Thakur’s four-word answer discards the trappings of cliché and resonates with a simple and quietening kind of clarity that is reflected inherently in his works. Storytelling is a highly potent formula, powerful and moving when harnessed skillfully, and Rohan Thakur’s audio-visual project Way Back Home, filmed in seven valleys around the entire lower Himalayan ranges, utilises it in a way that hasn’t been witnessed before. A first-person account of the narratives of real people and their passions, it straddles its founders’ myriad interests to include travel, adventure, lifestyle, people and a pronounced soft spot for music and stories, all documented in a cinematic manner ensconcing the grandeur of the snow-clad giants featuring as its picturesque backdrop.
This comprehensive Himalayan travelogue does not shy away from emotions: it warmly and honestly embraces the spiritual connotations behind journeys that organically evolve, an exercise in travelling from one destination to another, as well as a sense of self-discovery - ultimately going on to celebrate them with original scores crafted carefully by Rohan.
Directed by him and Bharati Bahrani, also the writer of the project, this series is a potpourri of creativity thanks to the efforts of a team that has Asad Abid as Executive Producer, Anushka Sani as Assistant Producer and Rohan Jha as the visual designer. It is rare – and almost relieving – to see a project this fiercely original leaving a blazing trail in its wake, and we couldn’t help but dig a little further to find out the story behind ‘Way Back Home’ and how it first started taking shape.
I. The Balancing Act
“Even though I was born in Manali, I’ve spent most of my childhood in a boarding school in Mussoorie (St. George’s), and then I went off to Australia to study further,” Rohan tells us. “So there’s always been this longing to go back there and truly try and immerse myself in the “mountain life”. Asad (founder of Shoelace Films) approached me saying that he wanted to produce a travel show and that’s when I knew that this was my opportunity to go and explore the Himalayas!”
Rohan really seems to have mastered the art of grabbing an opportunity by its pair, we have to admit. No mean feat in itself, we asked him to elaborate a little bit on some of the highlights that he has taken away from his journeys.
“One of the biggest learnings that I had during the journey is that no matter how much one plans, or how much one tries to control things that are happening – shit happens!” Rohan answers. “You have to understand that the Universe will always guide you towards where you need to be. Once you accept that and go with the flow, everything falls into place.”
He explains that the process of shooting Way Back Home was a balancing trick involving spontaneity as well as an accurate depiction of people’s stories. He would set up the shot for Bharati whenever he needed to be in front of camera, and with just a couple of rehearsals, they would be rolling. “But when we were shooting other people, it would really depend on the situation where one of us would be filming and the other one asking the questions,” he remembers. “We were very clear from the beginning that we wanted the show to have a certain casual attitude about it, as well as making it as experiential as possible and very importantly - we wanted to be completely honest about the experience. So the guy you see in front of the camera is exactly the same as the guy behind the camera – which is why spontaneity was not really a problem.”
II. The (Un)charted Trail
Their journey began in Manali, where Rohan is from, with the first episode focusing only on Manali and the lifestyle people lead during the winter. They travelled further up to Solang Nala, which is at the end of Kullu Valley, and finally made their way to Malana, in Parvati Valley.
“The plan was to take the Government Helicopter Service that is used to ferry the locals across the high passes, to get to Keylong in Lahual. But that didn’t work out,” Rohan relates. “So we had to come up with an alternate plan wherein we traveled from the foothills of the Himalayas and slowly made our way higher and higher into the mountains. So basically, as the winter receded, we proceeded towards the places that were higher in altitude.”
Beginning with the lower foothills of the Himalayas, they went on towards Kangra, where they explored places like Bir, Triund, and the Bathu Temples, continuing from there on to drive high up to a village called Kugti in Chamba valley. From Kugti, they drove to Kinnaur, which he explains is like their ‘festival special episode’. Further up still to Spiti, where it ‘was all about the magic’. “Every particle, every rock, every bird, even the very air in that place is magical!” Rohan tells us, effervescent.
From Spiti, they then drove all the way back to Manali to make their way across the mighty Rohtang Pass into Lahaul, which is where Rohan’s ancestors are from, a fitting and poignant end to the Himachal chapter of Way Back Home.
They then flew to Leh from Delhi, and the final two episodes were filmed in Ladakh, ‘the perfect place to finish the journey’, Rohan concludes.
We pick our jaws off the floor as he mentions that the team had been travelling for about four months without a single day’s break during the shoot and scramble to ask –
wasn’t there a point when they just felt too overwhelmed to continue?
“Never! Every day we discovered something new and exciting, and that’s what kept us going! And even though we were there for four months, it still feels like we’ve not had enough,” is his immediate response.
Fantasising about the idea of a four-month journey, we couldn’t help but remark upon his unaffected and easy-mannered way of making friends with the locals– how did this work out so smoothly? Did it help that he was from the area?
“My family being from Himachal helped us find the right people in different parts of the state, which made the logistical bit much easier to handle,” confides Rohan. “Himachal is actually a really small place, and pretty much everyone knows everyone, but more importantly everyone has something to say. We were also quite surprised by how comfortable most of the locals were in front of the camera.”
Tales of his journeys blend to form a picturesque mirage before our eyes as we listen to him. Since this travelogue breaks new ground with its original music inspired by the Himalayas, we probed into the significance of music in his travel experience, and his life. “Music has always been an integral part of my life. I cannot imagine going anywhere without my guitar,” Rohan discloses. “The songs are more about how I perceive the mountains, and what I imagine my future to be like, and just my connection with these giants. All the songs are pretty much about having a good time or taking it slow or about connecting with nature and truly feeling it. I wrote these songs because they describe the lifestyle of my people and take me into the minds of the locals.”
What a terrible and beautiful gamble it must’ve been to attempt a project with so much soul. But as is the case with a lot of ‘lovechild’ endeavours, we asked mildly about whether there was ever any kind of conflict in turning something rooted in passion, into a lucrative venture.
“Not really,” Rohan seems quite unfazed. “When you’re out there with a purpose in mind that you have to find something to show, you push yourself to find new experiences. The camera makes me look at the world around me differently. I look for light, for colours, for lines, I look for stories and for interesting people and places.”
Already envisioning dramatic soundtracks, we went out on a limb and asked him what he would title a movie based on his life
‘“Aaah jii…” It’s an expression that folks in the mountains use when they are blissfully peaceful,” comes the reply. ‘It’s like the first sip of chai in the morning, when you sit after a long hike, the first snowfall of the season…. The simple joys of life make you say that!’
And that was it: we were sold on this one. Awed as we were by a project like this, Rohan sheepishly admits that he’s still trying to figure out how to avoid falling back into the ennui of ‘normal life’ or ‘routine’ that he was trying to escape while travelling, slyly adding that the internet was definitely a guilty pleasure he had missed.
We weren’t about to give up on the elephant in the room question at this point – did he find what he was looking for?
“Yes I did, in fact I think I found a lot more than what I went looking for. When I started this journey, it was more about trying to find out who “I” am. But as the trip went on it, I realized that it was more than just about me - it was about the people, the community, about the importance of family and discovering the simple joys of life.”
Our curiosity piqued, scores of questions remained unasked so we also engaged Rohan in a quick question round to give us the dirt on the experience as a whole:
I. What inanimate object became your best friend during this journey?
My portable speaker! Could not have made it through without that!
II. You can travel with any 3 people of your choice, who would you choose and why?
Bharati would definitely top that list because she’s AWESOME! My dad because we haven’t had a trip in a long time, and finally with the guys at Sherpa Cinema because they make some mad-ass films which I would love to be a part of someday!
III. The most unforgettable meal you’ve had while travelling in your life?
An Andhra Meal at Spicy Avenue in Hyderabad – literally put me into a food coma!
IV. If you could have done one thing differently on this trip, what would it have been?
Gotten better equipment to shoot with.
V. The landscape that stunned you the most when you saw it?
Spiti – hands down!
VI. Three destinations you would immediately recommend to a traveller who’s never been to India.
From the WBH journey I’d recommend anyone and everyone to go to Manali (Kullu), Langza Village (Spiti) and Bir (Kangra). In India, I’d say you have to go to Rajasthan, Kerala and Himachal.
VII. Your greatest travel inspiration?
There is a show called “Departures” made by these Canadian guys – Scott Wilson and Andre Dupuis – which has definitely been one the greatest inspirations to make myself go out there and do this.
VIII. One album you never get sick of?
Gone are the days of albums… I listen to 8tracks constantly! (laughs) It’s too tough to pin down just one album.
IX. The last time you were really moved by something?
Two months back I got an opportunity to work with Mr. Pan Nalin on a feature film he was directing, and I think now I truly understand the meaning of filmmaking.
X. Craziest meal you’ve ever eaten?
Meat-chawal, rajma-chawal, kadi-chawal – LOVE!
XI. If you were confined to travel in only one country for the rest of your life, which would it be and why?
It has to be New Zealand – even though I’ve never been there, I feel like it’ll be my kind of a place. It’s definitely got the landscape. And on the last project I worked on, I worked with a crew from New Zealand, so I know that they are definitely my kind of people!
XII. The most overrated place you’ve ever been to?
XIII. The strangest place you’ve ever spent the night?
Six nights at a Casino in Sydney with a Malaysian gambler dude – it’s a long fucking story!!
XIV. A word you’ve learned in a foreign language while travelling that’s always stuck with you?
It’s actually a song (in Mandarin) that a Chinese friend of mine taught me, which goes something like, “Wo aai nahi, aai jo nahi, jo shang lau shu, aai da mi”, and I think it means, “I love you like a rat loves the grain”. And in return I taught him, “Tu cheez badi hai mast mast.”!
XV. Where would you like to retire?
XVI. Someone gives you 100000 dollars to spend on anything but travel, what would you spend it on?
A state-of-the-art recording studio in a swanky-ass LA style crib in Manali.
Catch Way Back Home tonight at 8 pm on PEPSI MTV INDIES. Full Schedule & more features around the show will be out very soon on Homegrown.
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