The journey of Riding Solo...
I haven’t yet got a chance to talk to strangers who have seen my film. I believe that honest feedback is a must for a filmmaker to know his film and its drawbacks. The screening at the Mumbai International Film Festival started without me. I couldn’t attend the screenings at the Calgary and the SIGNS film festival either. This has left a lot of people in the audience and those who watch the on-line trailer to derive their own conclusions, without knowing the trivia behind the film. Why did he use a vintage bike? How much fuel did he use? Where did he get it from? What equipment did he use? There is a shot in the film where the camera is panning. How could that happen if he's supposed to be alone?
So here I write about the making of “Riding Solo To The Top Of The World”, hoping to give you a better insight into the film.
I wanted to make a documentary series about the romance of travel in India: Five bikers on a two-year ride without a proper film unit or a plan. Without a pre-planned screenplay and film unit, the documentary was to capture the real experience of travel. “Let’s just go there and take it from there”, like a lot of us who travel footloose without a plan. The film was to capture the little moments that stay with us for a lifetime; the places, the people, the highs and lows of travel.
None of the financers found the idea interesting enough to back it with money. Riding Solo... came about from these desperate circumstances.
25 days of Planning
Giridhar Rao, a very good friend of mine is also a reputed executive producer in commercial Hindi Films. He promised to arrange for a camera. I had been to Ladakh on a group ride before, so I had the clothing and spares ready for the journey. The camera Giri arranged was a Panasonic DVX-100e Mini DV camera. I had never operated a professional camera before. So Rajiv, another very good friend of mine and I started reading the manual to understand the light, ND filter and sound settings.
Both Rajiv and I knew that riding the bike wouldn’t be a problem. The problem would be handling the camera. I would have to experiment with the kind of shots I would take, check them, rectify mistakes and learn on the way. But the biggest problem of all was - Who would face the camera? I have been working in films as an assistant director. But that’s behind the camera. The other side is for actors and for people who are camera friendly. The body was prepared for anything but the mind just could not get over the fact that I would have to face the camera and talk to it. Once I accepted this fact, everything fell into place. And throughout, I had the support of fellow 60kph members, the only guys outside Dirt trackers who believed in the film.
Choice of Motorcycle
I didn't have a line up of bikes from which I could choose a 350cc Enfield over a 650cc or 1100cc bike. The Enfield in Riding Solo… is my five year old bike and my only option for a ride. Even if I had a heavier machine, I personally think a 650cc is more than enough for a ride like Riding solo... And in my biking years I have shifted from speed and covering distance to travel and stillness. I have done 1000 kms in 19 hours, but doing just 100 kms on Indian back roads is much more fun and satisfying. Riding in India is not about speed, movement or passing by. It is about stillness and knowing Indians and India. That’s how the tag line - “Romancing the Roads” - for 60kph came about.
The credit for the bike performing so well during the entire journey goes to two great mechanics. Anthony, my mechanic in Mumbai who has been repairing my bike from the beginning. He opened up the whole bike one week before the ride and made a list of spares and tools.
The bike had two flat tyres during the entire journey, one in Leh city and another in Changthang, both of which are not in the film. Apart from the two flats, the other issue was the usual problem of the bike not performing well at high altitude. Juma, the mechanic in Leh did some magic on the bike with airscrew settings and the bike was performing relatively better. But my “down to bare essentials luggage” was still heavy for an Enfield and on top of that the quality of fuel in Leh was not that great.
Regarding fuel, the tank capacity of the bike is around 14 litres. I could carry 19 litres of spare fuel on the luggage rack. The bike consumed 95 litres of fuel in Changthang. Rest of the fuel came from various Indian Army and Indo Tibetan Border Police camps in Changthang. Midway into the ride I did return back to Leh for fuel and most importantly food supplies. But that portion, once again, was edited out of the film. It was present in the initial cut which was 120 minutes long. We had to remove the whole chunk along with other scenes to bring down the film to around 90 minutes. The shot in the online trailer (just after Changthang statistics) “It’s cold here, very cold here...” is from that sequence.
I was to start the ride from Mumbai. But Giri, now a co-producer in the film advised that I start from Delhi and avoid lugging the hired camera in the scorching heat of Rajasthan and Gujarat. Result, both bike and I went on a train to Jaipur. The ride actually started from Jaipur, 240 kms from Delhi. None of the shots taken before Delhi were kept in the film, as I was still experimenting with the camera.
Discovery Channel has its office in India at Delhi. I met Pankaj Saxena, the programming head and told him about the documentary I was making on my ride, which I also wanted them to telecast on completion. Pankaj was apprehensive and rightly so because I had no plan. None of us knew how the film would shape up.
With minimum luggage, I started off from Vivek Sharma's house in Delhi. The maximum amount of space was
occupied by the camera box and camera accessories. The heaviest bag had the bike spares and tools.
Once on the road, each time I had to take a shot, I had to untie the camera bag and tripod, remove the camera, tie the camera bag back onto the bike, set the frame, wear the helmet, ride away from the camera, come back to unpack the camera bag on the bike and pack the camera and tripod back onto the bike. Sounds like a lot of work but any film-maker would go to any length to get a good shot.
There are two shots in the film where I have not operated the camera.
One shot is in the trailer where the camera pans while I am riding. That shot was taken by a cameraman of the Zee News channel. Zee News was doing a feature on paragliding near Rohthang pass at Manali and they too were using the same Panasonic camera. I actually wanted to inquire from the cameraman on what all precautions I should take while taking shots in sub-zero temperatures. Second shot was taken by a Royal Beast (a Royal Enfield club from Delhi) member whom I had met en route. I wanted the Zee News shot in the film as it was the only shot where the camera moves while I am riding, But quite a few people after seeing the shot thought that my claim of filming my own journey was bogus, so in the DVD cut, we have replaced that shot with me riding past the milestone of Rohthang pass.
Filming my own journey on the high altitude region was tough physically, but mentally it was satisfying. Any first-time director would be nervous on the sets, crew and cast waiting for his directions. But for Riding solo... there was no one to judge me or look at me for further instructions. I was filming without any plan or schedule and most importantly, I had complete freedom. A perfect scenario for a first time director.
Having said all that, I was never comfortable facing the camera, even at desolate places. The moment I had to say something to the camera, there would be imaginary millions in the empty landscape watching me. Apart from that, I had to keep in mind the sound level, my position in the frame and also analyze my speech. The fear was considerably reduced when I lost my way searching for a place called Datta.
The sun was about to set and it was freezing cold. In that moment of panic, the camera was the only companion I had. If I was not filming, I would have found the place easily, but at that time the most valuable things were the exposed tapes rather than the camera, the bike, my health or my biker's ego. I had to camp to shield the camera and tapes from the cold. My whole approach to the film changed on that restless night. Until then I was taking things lightly - I had never imagined that I would ever get lost or be in a situation where I would fear for my life. This shift in my approach doesn’t come across in the film, but that was the night that changed my whole perspective about the journey. What followed was a more camera friendly attitude and a humbler approach.
The next turning point in the film was my stay with the Chang pa nomads. The film shifts its attention from my journey to their lives. Camping with the Chang pas satisfied and enriched me as a filmmaker and traveler. As a filmmaker I felt privileged to be documenting their lives and as a traveler I was learning age-old wisdom from people who are always on the move. Travel for them is not about getting sick of work and wanting a break. It is a hard life when you have to camp in Yak wool tents for a lifetime, live on just milk products, rice and meat. But the Chang pas had found an inner balance. It had come through knowing and accepting their limitations rather than challenging them. The film here is about my interaction with the Chang pas. It moves from my hardship and problems to theirs. We were camping with very little food. Our lives had a strange resonance, which helped us to understand each other better. When strangers meet, there is no manipulation, no faking of identity.
Out of all Chang pas, there is one Chang pa I formed an emotional bond with – Tsewang.
Tsewang’s character was mightier than the mountains he lived with. I was treated like a family member from day one. We would talk for hours about Chang pa life and how it was changing. Tsewang, being a Buddhist, accepted change as a way of life. Tsewang had a spiritual calm inside him, the wisdom of the world and philosophy of life. The film, like my stay there, was suspended in time. Without me saying anything, Tsewang would still know what was on my mind.
Changthang is breathtakingly beautiful, but Hanle, at the southern edge, is my favourite place. Each traveler has his “place”, a place where life makes perfect sense. A strange place where one instantly feels at home. It is about how that place makes you feel and how you feel about the place. It’s kind of difficult to explain, but Hanle is the place I could sit and not think about anything. The way I felt at Hanle had nothing to do with the religious ceremony I was attending. Just sitting on the terrace of Hanle Palace and looking at the huge grasslands and the Hanle River, life seemed calm and beautiful.
At Hanle, I also came to know about the remote Chumur monastery where even the National Geographic unit was not given permission in spite of having a letter from His Holiness, the Dalai Lama and the Home Ministry. [ click here for details ]
From my travel experiences in India, I have learnt that in remote regions, one should never calculate time to reach a place by kilometers. Everyone at Hanle calculated Chumur to be 40-150 kms and that it would take me 5-7 hours to reach the place. Chumur was remote and none of the Chang pas at Hanle had been there. According to the driver at Hanle observatory, Chumur was a day’s ride. The track to the monastery from Hanle is the toughest terrain to ride your vehicle on in Changthang. A civilian vehicle goes there once every four months to supply rations to the small population of Chang pas at Chumur. The landscape is desolate, with lots of wild life. There were times when I would ride down from a pass on to the grassland to see hundreds of Kiangs (wild asses).
The ride to the Chumur monastery and back to Hanle was without doubt the toughest ride I did in Riding Solo. That day was the only time I found myself praying and hoping for a smooth run of the bike. I had left everything at Hanle - even the tool kit - to make the bike lighter. I had to return the same day, so I didn’t take any shots with the video camera on the way in order to save time. I reached Chumur in four hours. After a 30 minute interrogation on what I was doing at Chumur, I was allowed to shoot. The scariest part was riding back to Hanle, for now I had the exposed tapes with me. If the bike had given any problem that day, I would have surely died. No tent, no sleeping bag, nothing but the camera. Chumur was a suicide run in the circumstances, but I had to visit the place since no traveler had ever been there on a bike and the emotion of exploring a lesser-known place overtook all the apprehension and fear.
Apart from Chumur, I had a tough time camping at two grasslands, especially Khargyam. Night at Khargyam was freezing cold. I was praying for sunshine all night. A small stream running beside my tent had partially frozen. My camping equipment was not made for high altitude. Just like my motorcycle, it is what I own and could not afford an expensive version. For you to get an idea of how cold it was, at 6 am I took out the camera to take a shot of the frozen stream and the camera battery that normally lasts for 2-3 hours died in 2 minutes because of the cold!
Riding to Marsimek–la, the highest motorable pass at 18,634 feet was also tough, but that was my day off from work. Camera batteries were getting charged at the Army camp. I was not operating the camera or facing it - that day was my vacation on a vacation so as to speak. Getting to Marsimek-la was for the biker in me and not for the filmmaker.
Next day the filmmaker did suffer from the ride to Marsimek-la. This scene was not there in the previous cut, but we have included it in the DVD cut. Here, you will find the jump in the narration commentary. That’s because the voice over for this portion was done recently.
Riding solo… was not tough physically. Riding on the crowded and noisy streets of Mumbai is much tougher than riding in the middle of nowhere. No matter how much you stress it out, a day’s rest is enough to get you going the next day. The trouble I took to take some shots was done to satisfy the film director in me. I wanted the film to have multiple angles, shots that would do justice to the beautiful Changthang. Riding Solo… was tough mentally, when you experience so much in a short time. So many thoughts pile up and you need someone to talk to, someone from the city who can understand and relate to the perspective. It's tough for the filmmaker to decide where the film is going when there is a constant clash between the filmmaker and the biker who wants to enjoy the ride uninterrupted; without having to stop every now and then to set up a camera.
Riding Solo… came about out of my desire to make my own film. The director in this case is seen behind and in front of the camera, that’s why it gives the feeling of being very tough physically. But what I and everyone else went through to complete this film was far more agonizing physically and mentally.
After 70 days I returned to Mumbai with 40 hours of material. Actually I had sent seven tapes I had shot from Jaipur to Leh back home to Rajiv, so that he could point out the problem areas before the actual ride to Changthang began. His two comments were, bloody well start talking to the camera and whenever you are saying something to the camera, speak loudly and keep facing the camera. Don’t look away and speak. Visuals and shots are nice but since you are not talking to the camera, the viewer won’t be able to relate to you. What followed was me saying dumb things to the camera. For example, “now we are at Pangong tso lake” “ as you can see behind me is Chang la pass” I have wasted 2 hours of tape recording these unwanted shots just to please Rajiv :o)
Compiling forty hours of material is not a kid’s play. Rajiv and I transferred all the materials on to VHS tapes to log and mark okay shots and scenes. After 3 months of watching all the tapes over and over again, we started editing at Sankalp’s studio.
Sankalp and Rajiv are the guys who really shaped up the film. Each shot is so personal to me that I wanted them all in the film :o) They only selected shots which would give a natural progression to the film. My take on edit was, it is a film about Chang pas. Their say was, if I want to make a film on Chang pas, I should go there with a proper film unit, spend at least 6 months and most importantly take a proper anchor who can talk properly to the camera. :o) Their take was - with all the audio and video drawbacks it’s a film about a journey.
The material is the same, but the concept dictates what all would come in the film and what will be left out. If the film was on the Chang pas, it should not have started from Delhi and should definitely not have covered the travel from Delhi to Changthang.
My title for the film was “Nomads of Changthang”. Sankalp suggested “Landscapes of
Solitude” and “Biography of a Motorcycle Chang pa”
“Riding Solo To The Top of The World” came halfway at the edit.
One interesting incident I remember at the edit was - Every now and then, Giri would come to the studio to watch the progress of the film. We had skipped the Delhi to Leh ride portion and had started editing from where I leave Leh. Seven minutes into the edit came Datta, the first Chang pa settlement. Giri saw the first rough cut of 25 minutes, which primarily had scenes from Datta. I was anxious for his feedback - he didn’t say anything for five minutes - then slowly he said, “Anna, don’t you think there are too many goats in the film? It looks like a documentary on goats” I said, I can’t help it, it’s not as if I got all the goats there. He said, “I know, but cut down on the goats, too many goat shots happening”. I think he was indirectly trying to convey a point to make the film more interesting. Just because one person has worked as a one man film unit, it need not make the film interesting. We eventually did cut down on the goat shots by balancing the journey, the Chang pas and Changthang.
A point of argument, actually the only one during the editing of the film, was regarding the Hemis festival. I had shot the festival and its preparation extensively, exposing seven hours of tape. Because of the number of tapes, we had decided to edit Hemis festival at the end. But before we could start on Hemis, the rough cut itself had become 120 minutes long. Everyone was of the opinion that the film should not exceed 90 minutes; otherwise there are bound to be comments like too many goats, too many bike shots etc etc. Rajiv and I were of the opinion that we could do away with Hemis. But Sankalp and Giri were firm that Hemis festival should be there. Giri was of the opinion that if nobody buys the journey, we could always make a 22 minute film on Hemis and recover the money invested :o) So much for trusting the director. After lengthy arguments, Giri and Sankalp won. Hemis has been edited beautifully - Sankalp wanted to prove a point by showing us what a great segment of the film we were ignoring. Hemis was kept in the end of the film just for the producer to showcase a sneak preview of a 22 minute film in the waiting :o) In the DVD and Discovery cut, Hemis festival has been shifted to its right place, after the segment where I reach Leh.
Editing was done over a period of nine months. Machine problems, money problems and other films Sankalp was editing forced us take breaks in between. It was good in a way. Time away from the film helped us to realize new things about it when viewed after a long time.
Music sessions for the film were fun. The theme for compositions was to use solo instruments which would gel with the theme of Riding solo... Instruments one could carry while traveling. And of course we didn’t have the budget for an orchestra. The melody was to be simple and catchy. The music has lifted the film and has paced up some portions.
Everyone’s energy level was high at the music recording. We were all quite confident that if nothing else, at least the music of the film would be appreciated.
After the edit and the music came the toughest part of the film – NARRATION – phew! One needs to be a voice artist to emote through words. In the dubbing studio, one has to maintain a certain level/throw of voice, correct diction, clarity of words and also emote at the same time. Certainly not a job cut out for me. My use of words is very casual - I speak by jumbling words and I am not ashamed about it. That’s the way I am. I am fascinated with images and not words. Recording narration was the toughest job in Riding Solo... I wasted four hours of studio time trying to dub match just one line. “Hi, I am Gaurav and I welcome you to join me in my journey”.
After the four-hour fiasco, Sankalp suggested that I read the script over and over again as loudly as possible and practice for a week. I practiced for about a month, reading the script so loudly in my house that my neighbors surely must have thought that I had gone crazy. The trick really helped - I did manage to record 30 pages of narration script in 14 days :o) but at least I did it. Hiring a regular voice over artist would have killed the personal touch in the film. I have to really thank Rajiv and Ruchika, another filmmaker, for being so patient during the dubbing session. Before the dubbing session, I never knew that “r” in Army, turmeric and many other words is silent :o)
The first copy of the film was ready on September 22nd 2005, sixteen months after I had set out from Mumbai for the shoot.
The ride continues
A week after completing Riding Solo... I left for “One Crazy Ride” along with Vinod, Nicky, Sanjeev and Saurabh, fellow 60kph members.
The shoot for "One Crazy Ride" lasted for 100 days. On my return, Sankalp informed me that the selection jury of the Mumbai International Film Festival had left for their respective homes after they saw Riding Solo... I said, come on man, our film is not so bad for them to react like this. He said “Idiot, they loved the film so much that after watching our film, they didn’t want to see any other film and spoil their mood”.
The night Riding Solo... won the best documentary and critics award at Mumbai International Film Festival, Discovery channel sent an e-mail showing interest in the film. All the hard work had finally paid off.
But in the process, I did lose something. Riding Solo... is about freedom. Freedom to live one’s life on his own terms, freedom to make choices. But in these two and half years, I have lost the freedom the film speaks about.
Even Changthang is changing. Last I heard, the Government is making a road to Hanle, the foundation for which has already been laid. Marsimek la, at the height of 18,634 feet, can be ridden to in one go now. Two and half years back the incline before the pass was arrogant and sandy making it impossible for any bike to do that stretch in one go. None of the 350 cc bikes from 60kph’s group ride made it. Only after consistent pushing and great difficulty did the two 500 cc bikes make it. But the real character of Changthang lies in the one-liner from Tsewang - “It’s better to live here than to work for somebody just for a better life”. One who lives up to this philosophy is always free. And I hope to be free again too on another one man unit film to nowhere, without a plan and without putting myself in a situation where I am answerable to somebody.
City life feels more chaotic after Changthang. I have forgotten the lessons learnt from the Chang pas while marketing the film. Even after selling the rights for the Indian territory to one of the best travel channels, I've only managed to recover one-fifth of the cost of making the film.
I am lucky to have a supporting family. My mom living in the US will never give a single buck if I tell her I am going on a motorcycle ride, but she saw the film on her last visit to India and lent me money to shoot "One Crazy Ride". Friends in the film making community and in 60kph have gone out of their way to help me, be it with time or money. In fact, the DVD release has been completely funded by my brother Uday in the US and friends in 60kph.
The film is now complete. It has it’s own fate now. All we can say is - we have really worked hard on it and have put our sincere effort. It is one film we would proudly say we were part of, for years to come.