Himachal Pradesh’s Kinnaur, with its snow-capped ‘Kinnaur Kailash’ mountain, meandering rivers, forests, and orchards, is blessed to have one of the most enchanting landscapes in the country. Besides such natural beauty, the region is also packed with cultural richness as Kinnauras —as region’s indigenous tribals are called— have their distinctive culture, folk songs, customs, rich traditions, and religious beliefs.
Hailing from Kinnaur, also called the ‘Land of Fairytales’, is Renu Negi, who has emerged as the first tribal woman filmmaker from her hometown to find acclaim in the national sphere.
Venturing into mass media, especially filmmaking, conveys the confidence, creative skills, and focus of Negi, as she knew her off-beat path was going to be arduous — but eventually rewarding.
She tells Outlook, “I was just a 21-year-old, a 5-feet tall Pahari girl venturing into a filmmaking career in Delhi’s media hub. Actually, I used to be very active in cultural functions and local dance performances. After one such event, I was picked up by a director of a production house in Delhi to be an actress in a short-film. This was the time when Doordarshan used to be the only medium and was also highly popular. This was a good stepping stone for me and then I took a plunge for myself.”
An elder daughter in her family, Negi’s skills were natural to her. Her father was a master craftsman and mother was an award-winning handicraft specialist. But life was not easy for her and two siblings —a brother and a physically-challenged sister— with family income that barely met their needs. Therefore, her struggles to support her father, the lone bread-earner, started very early in her life as he was unable to market his artworks.
Negi’s father never wanted her to leave the hills or move to Delhi where she was bound to encounter unforeseen challenges. Eventually, he could not stop her from giving wings to her dreams and doing things differently.
Vividly recalling her journey, Negi says, “Being a woman is not easy. My family and the faith of my parents gave me the strength to handle every new situation in my life. While my colleagues used to have colourful dreams and luxuries, I used to worry about household expenses and medicines. I have seen my father soaking his pillow with tears at night. Whatever I decided about me, I accomplished. No situation, however difficult it was, could break me and my confidence.”
Negi is also proud of her tribal background, crediting her success to it.
She says, “I am proud that I belong to a tribal society where being a girl is equal and is also a pride. Maybe, this was my strength in this industry. I learned my own skills in the sea.”
Beginning with 13-minute short films on Himachali natis —folk dances— of Kinnaur and few other places in Himachal, Negi soon got a break when she got empanelled for the various government ministries and Doordarshan as an independent filmmaker. Soon, she started her own production house named RN Productions in 1998.
Her film ‘Dolma’, based on early girl marriages prevalent in Kinnaur, for which she competed with 700 filmmakers, was a big success. So was her film ‘Pangwals’, shot in landlocked rugged valley of Pangi tribals of Himachal, made her popular.
Negi says, “At the time, not many people in this field knew much about Kinnaur or its natives —Kinnauras— or the natural beauty of the land, customs, and cultural traditions. Few used to relate me to Uttarakhand because of my surname. Yet, my knowledge about my state, its folk dances, and people —the tribals— was my biggest asset. The creativity and talent to hard-sell Himachal Pradesh came handy to me.”
In her 30-year-career, Negi has made films, docu-dramas, documentaries, and TV commercials almost on every subject, including health, tourism, education, art and culture, tribal folk dances, and issues of the girl-child. She has also been active in Uttarakhand; Northeast Himalayan states, including Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya; Madhya Pradesh; and Rajasthan to make films on adivasis.
This is a subject, say Negi, is close to her heart as she herself being a tribal film maker. By now, she has made more than 100 films and documentaries, some of which have got her national and international acclaim.
Negi has also extensively researched and explored vanishing communities like Gaddi, Gujjar, and other nomadic communities in Himachal.
Negi’s film ‘Yak’ —the ship of mountains— that she produced for the ICAR and National Yak Research Centre at Dirang in Arunachal Pradesh highlights how scientific research has been instrumental in saving yak from extinction. She was conferred the Silver Beaver Award for this at the Eighth National Science Film Festival of India in 2018.
On this, Negi says she really poured her heart out while making the film ‘Yak’ as she had spent her childhood with the animal, which is very precious for tribes of the entire Himalayan belt, not as an animal but as part of mountains’ biodiversity.
Asked about her experiences as a women filmmaker and a tribal, Negi says, “My background as a Himalayan woman from a remote area rather gave me strength and cemented my resolve. The daughters of mountains can do wonders. We are gifted with an inner strength for dev-bhumi. I had my share of hardships, yet there is a light at end of the tunnel”
Carrying Himachal in her heart, Negi says she is ready to walk the talk on her tribal identity and give opportunities to lesser-known creative talents in her homeland.