Watch: A famed Himalayan town comes to grips with the pandemic

A new documentary captures the suffering inflicted by the lockdown on the people of Dharamshala, and celebrates their resilience.

ByAnna Priyadarshini
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Covid Response: A Himalayan Story, a documentary by the independent filmmaker Munmun Dhalaria, critically examines how Himachal Pradesh dealt with the coronavirus pandemic through stories of ordinary people and grassroots activists.

After the Narendra Modi government locked India down to contain the pandemic, Dhalaria began documenting its impact on the people in her hometown, Dharamshala. The pandemic and the lockdown “worsened their suffering”, she found.

“We were locked down for way longer than most cities. Only in September did we open our borders and open for tourism,” she explained. “The situation here was so different than what was happening in metro cities such as Mumbai or Delhi that I thought it was a compelling story in itself. It was impossible for most people in cities to get out and film during the lockdown. I thought I must use this opportunity to film relatively safely in Himachal Pradesh to tell these local stories that are microcosms of India’s Covid experience.”

Munmun Dhalaria during the shooting of the documentary.

Munmun Dhalaria during the shooting of the documentary.

The 25-minute documentary isn’t merely a litany of complaints, however. It also celebrates the “self-reliance and resilience” of the people through the stories of individuals as they went about their lives between May and June. It explores, for example, how social activists mitigated the migrant crisis created by the lockdown through the eyes of Aditi Vajpeyi, a young activist at the Himachal Pradesh Workers Solidarity, a voluntary collective that provides assistance and support to migrant workers.

“For me, Aditi is the most compelling character. She’s an environmentalist who turned to labour rights almost overnight,” Dhalaria said. “During the lockdown, she got innumerable distress calls from migrants seeking help to get on Shramik trains. And amid so much chaos and ruckus, she helped many migrants board these trains and reach their respective hometowns.”

Covid Response similarly spotlights the work of individuals like Meenakshi Sharma, who used Gunjan Radio, a community radio station, to keep the townsfolk informed of the latest developments and guidelines, and organisations like CORD, which works to help empower villagers, particularly women. The characters she picked for her film, Dhalaria said, “stood out in the Himalayan space and were flagbearers of a rural community’s collective response”.

The documentary is slated to be screened at a film festival in Switzerland in November.


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