Revisiting one’s homeland post long bouts of staying overseas can usher in emotions aplenty, while also resurfacing feelings of evident contrast. Filmmaker Rohini Chandra took note of these emotions, documenting her revisit to India from the USA with each passing day. The result? An award-winning film titled This Beautiful Journey that celebrates India’s abundant diversity, adventure, and culture, as shown through the lens of a light-hearted, free-spirited queer American-Indian tomboy. Chandra takes us through her bountiful journey, unravelling the various anecdotes that find a space in this travel diary. By Bayar Jain
1. Tell us a little bit about your movie, This Beautiful Journey.
This is a travel film on India unlike any you would have seen before. Shot completely on-the-go with a DSLR camera and gimbal, I take viewers on a virtual journey through Haryana, Delhi and Kolkata. Through my movie, I offer real and raw mini adventures on a spontaneous rollercoaster ride through a section of the new and old India. My journey is called Yeh Sundar Safar in Hindi, or This Beautiful Journey in English because it unfurls just so! This travelogue displays all the impromptu, nostalgic and personal moments that travel can bring along with it; and life lessons through the artistic and honest perspective of my eyes and heart. It reminds me of the light, fresh, and simple moments I had while living in or visiting India during summer vacations. It also serves as an inspiration to revisit the motherland and reconnect with one’s humble roots.
Since its release, the film has garnered more than 1,00,000 views on social media. It has even won acc0lades at honourable film festivals such as Tagore International Film Festival; Picasso Einstein Buddha International Film Festival; and Kashmir International Film and Cultural Festival where the movie emerged as the best documentary and travel film. The movie was also amongst the finalists at New York International Film Awards, and entered as an official selection at Montreal Independent Film Festival; Los Angeles Lift-Off Film Festival; and Chinh Youth Film Festival.
2. What inspired you to create this movie?
I thought of shooting this travel film because I was excited to visit India after four years. This excitement also reminded me to capture the motherland’s rustic essence and simplicity. I have always seen India as an escape from western society, and a place to slow down, explore, and pioneer into new landscapes.
During my childhood summer vacations in India, I found it ironically interesting how the Indian youth was more “western” or “American” than me. I wanted to capture the advancement of India’s youth and modernity in contrast to India’s cultural traditions. Plus, I wanted to visit America this time as a queer woman out of the closet. I wanted to humorously see if my “tomboyish” behaviour would, at all, affect my interactions with the more “traditional aunties.” I discovered that people in India were nevertheless loving and hospitable, and also intrigued by and appreciative of the message and purpose I was carrying while travelling.
I was also curious to see how people would react when I would pull my camera from my backpack. I realised that the power of storytelling through filmmaking brings people from different walks of life together. People may find it interesting how this combination of factors adventurously, but gently, broke social boundaries in an unconventional way. It allowed me to immerse in offbeat cultures. Hopefully, you will agree that my film experiment worked!
3. What are the various destinations and cultures you’ve captured in your movie?
This travel diary explores a range of 24 topics and locations involving individuals, family, politics, history, food, social issues, spirituality and religion. Viewers can experience up close and personal accounts through diverse thoughts, colours, voices, smells, sounds and emotions in this fast-paced film.
Some of the unique destinations in New Delhi include:
- A calming Shiva ashram in a local neighbourhood of Gurgaon
- The incredibly generous and dedicated Gurudwara Bangla Sahib (hail to the volunteers in Gurdwaras who feed the needy every day!)
- India Today’s Mindrocks conference, which displayed India’s future, and the voice and face of India’s youth Marina Abey Thomas, a journalist and writer
- The Jama Masjid from where namaaz resounds
- The lavish and royal Lakhori – Haveli Dharampura Restaurant in Chandni Chowk
- Ramjas College in Delhi University where my dad graduated from
The lovely destinations in Kolkata include:
- Gorgeously intricate Durga and Maa Kali pandals spread across the city
- Local lanes in Central Kolkata where my parents grew up, including the famous Coffee House where the late legendary singer, Manna De, used to perform
- Bustling bazaars where you can find fish, typewriter services, and the likes sold
- Pristine BAPS temple where peace is abundant
- Howrah Bridge and river where cremation ashes are thrown in and visarjans take place
- ITC Royal Bengal Hotel, which was my escape from the monsoon
4. Your movie takes viewers through local treasures of Delhi, Haryana and Kolkata. What were some hidden gems you discovered during the process?
A hidden gem is revealed in each of the film’s mini-adventures or segments. My favourite one is experiencing the joy of being with family and neighbours in Dharuhera, Haryana. Travellers should definitely consider this as their accommodation during their next trip. Indian neighbours are generally curious, friendly and hospitable. They want to welcome you into their homes, feed you their most delicious dishes, and invite you to community events so you feel like you’ve been living in India for long by the second day of your trip.
I also loved visiting the local farmers there. This was an absolutely unforgettable experience, as they were incredibly warm. They immediately invited me to their homes to gift me roti and buffalo milk. I became fond of my “Indian farmer uncle,” who generously and freely handed us bajra (pearl millet). What made the experience even more interesting was that despite me not understanding a single word of his language, I could feel the love emanating from his expressions and gestures.
5. How did you fund your movie — This Beautiful Journey? How long did it take for you to finish the project?
This film was self-funded, and the budget was around USD 7,000 (INR 5,10,540, approximately). The process of shooting, writing, hosting and editing happened organically over six months.
6. Did the lockdown hinder your movie-making process in any way?
The lockdown motivated me even more and inspired the idea of virtual travels. My goal is to reach audiences who need an escape from their quarantine cocoon or who yearn to fly during the ongoing pandemic. I hope that people will also connect with the film’s powerful message during this dark phase. The film showcases how we can break social boundaries and connect with others through spirit, ideals and values or—in essence—through love.
7. Virtual travel is becoming a booming space. How do you ensure to stand out?
While it is important to be original or to stand out, I simply love to tell stories that are from the heart and believe this purpose will touch people on a spiritual or soulful level. This Beautiful Journey gracefully and ultimately discusses how India embraces visitors with open arms while valuing hard work, generosity and hospitality. Virtual travel, in this case, showcases how such humble values are to be cherished in our world! This is also a special chance for viewers to remotely escape and find local treasures in places no commercial tour guide will take a traveller.
8. If you were to make a sequel, what would the next part focus on?
This travel film displays only a section of India, so I definitely imagine developing more travelogues on my visits to the remaining and contrasting regions of India. This includes the monsoons of the Malshej Ghat, Kerala, Santiniketan, and the mountains and lakes of Kashmir. Each region of India is a different world, so I can’t contain the excitement of finishing this bucket list of destinations!
This travel film is also the foundation to expand to other countries and continents. My vision is to join an artist on their visit to their motherland, or to the country where their parents or ancestors are from. I want to observe their journey as they reconnect with their humble roots and notice the different lifestyles and cultures.
In This Beautiful Journey, I seek to discuss both the old and new, and feel the constant push and pull between tradition and modernity. I hope to carry this theme forward in my next travel film. My ultimate goal is to bring people together from all walks of life through the power of film, music or storytelling. This higher goal transcends any trend or limit of time!
9. How did you ensure you were being sustainable throughout your travels?
First, I kept in mind that I wanted to live in a very simple way, in contrast to my fast-paced life in America. This meant purchasing fewer items that would involve recycles. I also ate more from local street vendors who generally serve vegetarian food, which is great for the environment. Finally, I used public transportation including the rocky rickshaw rides and threw away all waste into litter bins.