A still from In Retreat
A still from In Retreat

I wanted to bring out the texture of Leh 'In Retreat' says Maisam Ali

The filmmaker speaks about premiering his film 'In Retreat' in L’ACID, the parallel section of the Cannes Film Festival, capturing Leh in a different light, and more

CHENNAI : Director Maisam Ali’s 'In Retreat' is all set to have its world premiere in L’ACID (Association for the Diffusion of Independent Cinema), the parallel, independent sidebar in Cannes. It will be the first Indian film to play there. The unconventional film is set in Ladakh and plays with the ideas of time and space, geographical expanse, and the sense of belonging and disconnect. The themes are explored through a middle-aged man who returns to his hometown after a long absence but gets late for his brother’s funeral.

A product of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, Ali is the batchmate of Payal Kapadia whose debut feature 'All We Imagine As Light' plays in the Competition section of the Cannes Film Festival this year. He spoke to CE about all that went into the making of In Retreat.


Debut films are supposed to emerge from a personal space. Does it hold true for In Retreat?

The idea came to me in the film school. My forefathers, originally from Kashmir, were traders. They lived in Ladakh but would also travel for trade to parts of Central Asia and China. My father did MBBS in the 80s, went to Iran and practised there. I was born in Iran and then we moved back to Ladakh. I moved out of Ladakh because of studies, work etc. From all this came the ideas of home and the feeling of disconnect. I also remember seeing somebody like the lead character when I was in fifth or sixth standard. Somebody who had come back. I heard a few things about him, how he was roaming around, just trying to make small talk, and I felt a kind of sadness for him. Sometimes, small things create a big impact. The memory stayed with me. Maybe I felt this person was a distant version of myself.

More than the story, the film is about ideas. Is it the kind of cinema that excites you?

I wouldn’t go so far as to say cinema of ideas. I’m just trying to create a larger experience. Also, in the film, there is a sense of disconnect which I like. The disconnected scenes have their own identity, yet they are connected, while still disconnected. Then there is this girl who is doodling and a person roaming in the shadows, being there but not being there. What is the relationship between them? They are also connected in some sense, in time.

I also feel cinema must be rooted in realism. The word realistic might be a cliche but realism is an interesting element for me, I hold onto it to make films.

How did you approach Leh in terms of capturing it on camera?

Ladakh is a tourist place, and its images are of a certain nature. It was very important for me to not to have that. I wanted to bring out the texture of the place. I chose small pockets in the town, where I had some sense of history and memory.

Apart from the lead actor Harish Khanna, are most of the cast picked up locally?

Casting was done, in a sense, to create a realistic feel. So, there are a lot of non-actors and local actors. The kid is my nephew, my cousin’s son. Then there are my other relatives also. In that sense, it became more personal.

Coming to the writing, it is often metaphorical, and poetic.

There’s one of Mahmoud Darwish’s poems—If I were another on the road. I felt it was very apt there. Other than that, there is my own writing. But it is not about making it very conclusive. Just poetic fragments here and there, like the film, like the images. It’s about suggesting something.

Going back to cliches about Ladakh. It is popularly imagined as a Buddhist land. You show the Muslim side, the azaan…

Ladakh is a beautiful mix of Muslim and Buddhist communities. The mannerisms and the rhythm of life are very Asian. It’s very Japanese, like (Yasujiro) Ozu’s cinema. The Buddhist way of life is full of patience and compassion.

Maisam Ali
Maisam Ali

How important is it for you as a filmmaker to get featured in ACID?

In today’s world, film festivals are the perfect place for arthouse cinema, and a lot of them are listening to what the market is saying. But my film is not the kind that is big, with big names, that would typically go to a big festival. So, for a film like this to get selected, it is giving hope to many people. My peers, filmmakers, who want to do authentic, original work, are happy and hopeful.

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