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Cinema’s home in the hills: Dharamshala International Film Festival

  • This year’s edition, from 7 November, has films by Pedro Costa and Agnès Varda, and a strong Indian lineup
  • The festival has been running successfully since its inception in 2012

Adil Hussain (right) will conduct an acting workshop at this year’s festival
Adil Hussain (right) will conduct an acting workshop at this year’s festival (courtesy Diff)

Imagine watching Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Jallikattu, a film from Kerala, in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh, a plate of momos in front of you, a stiff wind blowing outside. Imagine washing that down with hot tea and Gurvinder Singh’s Khanaur, which was shot in Bir, also in Himachal Pradesh, a couple of hours away. And now picture Pellissery watching Singh’s film, and vice versa. Such are the easy-going pleasures of the Dharamshala International Film Festival (Diff).

It began in 2012, when long-time Dharamshala residents and film-makers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam realized that the cosmopolitan mountain town—home to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan community in exile—was a great setting for a boutique festival. “Having been to so many festivals, we knew how important a space like could be for nurturing indie cinema," Sarin says over the phone. “Also, Dharamshala is a place with people from so many communities from across India and the world—we thought about those as our key audience. But we didn’t expect people to be coming from all over to attend."

A still from Gitanjali Rao’s ‘Bombay Rose’.
A still from Gitanjali Rao’s ‘Bombay Rose’.

This year’s edition returns to the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, where the festival had started out (the auditorium has been rebuilt). It is still essentially the same festival, with a few dozen titles—but with one difference. For the first time this year, they have invited submissions. This has resulted in a strong Indian section: In addition to Jallikattu and Khanaur (which travelled to the Toronto International Film Festival and Busan International Film Festival, respectively), there’s also Prateek Vats’ idiosyncratic Eeb Allay Ooo! (winner of the 2019 India Golden Gateway Award, Mumbai Film Festival’s top prize), Gitanjali Rao’s animated feature Bombay Rose (winner of the 2019 India Gold Silver Gateway Award) and Kislay’s sensitive drama Aise Hee.

Sarin says they don’t sort submissions by subject matter. “We are not looking for a particular focus area. Films that are important and kind of move people—that’s what we want." Like previous years, Diff ( has a focus on non-fiction and personal stories this time as well. One of the strongest features in the international section is Edward Watts and Waad Al-Khateab’s For Sama, a documentary on the Syrian conflict which reduced the audience to sniffles at the Mumbai Film Festival.

The global selection takes in films from Macedonia (Teona Strugar Mitevska’s God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunya), Cambodia (Kavich Neang’s Last Night I Saw You Smiling), Palestine (Bassam Jarbawi’s Mafak) and Iran (Ali Jaberansari’s Tehran: City Of Love). There are also two festival circuit crowd-pullers: the late Agnés Varda, directing her own swansong, Varda By Agnés, and Vitalina Varela, by Portugal’s Pedro Costa, winner of the Golden Leopard at the 2019 Locarno Film Festival.

Diff can’t offer many India premieres or major titles, but it can give patrons two things: the unique experience of watching films at 1,450ft, and the opportunity to meet directors and film professionals. This year, actor Adil Hussain, who was there in 2017 with Mukti Bhawan, will be conducting an acting workshop. There will also be workshops by Swiss video artist and director Samuel Weniger, on the creative possibilities of images in non-fiction and essay films, and Japanese director Kazuhiro Soda, whose Inland Sea is part of the selection, and who will talk on the observational documentary.

Sarin says that gathering the funds necessary to run Diff remains a challenge. “Sadly, it hasn’t become easier over the years. Funders can’t stay with you forever, so there isn’t one big one. The government has pitched in over the years but it’s quite challenging." Those with fond memories of the festival will hope that Sonam and Sarin continue to find a way to bring cinema to Dharamshala.

The Dharamshala International Film Festival will be held from 7-10 November. Tickets, 750-10,000, on

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