Travelling across India as a female filmmaker: My story and more…

Contents:
How I found myself in a job that allowed me to travel, explore and hog.
How I navigated my way through the same while being a woman traveller cum filmmaker in India over 6 years back. The initial challenges faced, perceptions broken, new perceptions created and the humbling learnings that happened on the way.
Things to keep in mind while traveling as a female in India including self-care, protection, and all the things that one should be careful/ mindful about. Basic rules that shouldn’t be forgotten while traveling where I believe respect for another region/religion/ culture/ people comes foremost, followed by a few more tenets.
A quick look at the top 5 cities/ towns that I explored along the way which should be a must-visit for every traveler.
 

How I found myself in a job that allowed me to travel, explore and hog:

As a woman filmmaker travelling across my country on my job, I have some crazy stories to narrate and a lot to be grateful for.

In mid-2013, I took up a television direction/ writing gig with a small production house as soon as I crawled out of my post graduation in film production. For the next 3 years, my life took a rags-to-riches turn, most certainly not in terms of money, but one hundred other things, travel being the frontrunner.

When I and my motley band of girls were traversing the length and breadth of India looking for unheard stories and trying to piece them together for the travel cum street magic show we were creating for a lifestyle channel, we didn’t know we were signing up for an experience that would change us for the remaining quarter of our lives.

The weekly show which aired every Friday on Indian television was themed around magic placed against the larger backdrop of India, which included its army of people and array of local cultures. Food, festivals, music, lifestyle and folklore were the sub themes, to hunt which we would visit 2 cities a month for shooting purposes.

Social media tells us anything in the world that has two feet and can travel is the only one making their lives most worthwhile, while the rest are wallowing in the pity of their ungodly, less than satisfactory jobs. That is NOT true. If we’re done skimming through glamorous Instagram photos, let’s first break the internet driven myth of travel being glamorous. To begin with, I’d like to tell you that my travel looks gritty, dirty, challenging and sometimes dangerous and that it totally lacks the glamour of a travel influencer.

 

How I navigated my way through the same while being a woman traveller cum filmmaker in India over 6 years back. The initial challenges faced, perceptions broken, new perceptions created and the humbling learnings that happened on the way.

Between 2013 and 2016 when i was actively associated with the travel show, social media was not quite what it is today. Instagram was not listening on you and you were not being bombarded with ads of products that you didn’t need. Suffice to say that people were not used to seeing a woman filming in public spaces as frequently as they do today.

Instances like being mugged by men in the old town of Aminabad in Lucknow, being roughed up by the local police when you’re very surreptitiously trying to film the opening dialogues in front of an ancient monument, or having every shot ruined by a bunch of street kids, aren’t uncommon. But that’s the very beauty of engaging with Indian streets. They’re rough, they’re difficult to manoeuvre and they’re stubborn as hell. People have very strong ideas of territory and space and time and again they’ll make you realise that you’re an absolute nobody in their land. I think this characteristic of people merits a kind of beauty which only travel can make you experience.

An incident I’ve recounted several times in life because of its palpable emotion goes like this. One noon when I was in Bombay walking around Dharavi to capture some B- roll shots, I crossed paths with a middle aged Muslim man with a gentle face. When i asked him if i could snap him, he said to me, “I hope you don’t make a terrorist out of me in your newspapers after taking my photo.” I was shook. What he had said was a result of years of popular media representation which I was in no way capable of resolving. To say I was rendered speechless would be an understatement. So I stayed quiet and extended a hand of friendship towards him, while trying to rest his cynicism to peace. I knew where he was coming from. We all know where he was coming from. We parted happily.

Apart from other things, over the years I’ve learnt that we live in very confined spaces in our heads. We have our own sense of a culture, a people and skewed as it is, it does not change until we have met these people which is a direct result of travel.

In Varanasi, while shooting a food segment in one of the numerous gullies by the ghats, our process was disrupted some 10 times for every ten dead bodies that passed us by. Like the naive girls we were, we stood with gaping mouths and widened eyes. While shopkeepers, middlemen, pandits, touts and the cows went about their daily jobs. Has anyone ever shown you how usual daily life around the business of death can be? Nobody had told me either. And so, I went along and learnt.

 

Things to keep in mind while traveling as a female in India including self-care, protection, and all the things that one should be careful/ mindful about.

I swear by certain basic rules to follow when travelling across India. A few are:

1.     If you’re a solo traveller, book your hotels, cabs and guides in advance. Apps like tripadvisor and MakeMyTrip will guide you to a range of hotels with different ratings. Having a ready cab and a guide will help you navigate through the city easily. This applies to while you’re travelling in a group as well.

2.     Being a woman, what you’re wearing will always attract attention. So it’s best to dress up as inconspicuous as you can so that you don’t get ogled at unnecessarily.

3.     A few inconspicuous yet comfortable outfits like kurtas and t-shirts will not only help you blend in with your surroundings but also keep you cool in the country’s tropical climate. For pants, you can choose khakis, cargoes and shorts with lots of pockets and zips in order to store little belongings.

4.     Carry a backpack instead of carrying a side bag. A backpack feels lighter as weight gets divided across both the shoulders and there are way less chances of it getting stolen.

5.     Wear lightweight, comfortable shoes with a good grip as you’ll be walking a lot.

6.     Do a thorough study of the place that you’re visiting. Apart from knowing popular tourist destinations, know the markets, important landmarks, police stations and popular restaurants. In case you land in an emergency, these are some spots you can always refer to.

7.     Be extremely patient and respectful while interacting with locals. They’re mostly going to be helpful. Remember to not divulge too much information about yourself, not accept any invite and not accept over-friendly gestures. A little tip would be to ask more women for help as compared to men.

8.     Be respectful of local people and their religion and culture. If you’re visiting a place of worship, have your head covered as it is required in most temples in India.

9.     Beware of street kids who act cute but are instead eyeing your belongings. You may choose to oblige them with some lose change but anything more than that will mean that you’re pandering to their demands.

10.  If a local woman insists for a selfie, oblige her. If a man insists for one, polite refuse and move on.

11.  Some essentials you can keep in your backpack are :
– Water bottle
– Hand sanitiser
– A fully charged battery bank
– Cash upto 5k (apt for a day’s expenses).
– A 50 SPF sunscreen
– Sunglasses
– A cotton scarf
– Hand towels
– Identity cards (Try and have copies made of these so that you always have a backup lying elsewhere)
– A small travel journal, for the beauty of journaling your travel still lies in the pages of a journal.

A quick look at the top 3 cities/ towns that I explored along the way which should be a must-visit for every traveler.

 

Manali:

Accessibility:

Buses from Delhi to Manali run throughout the year. Make sure you take the state run HPTDC bus (pickup from Mandi House) as they offer the safest, most comfortable rides.

Best Cafes:

Dylan’s Cafe
Fat Plate
Johnson’s Cafe
Lazy Dog

The Feels:

Manali is one of those rare places in India which is a round-the-year attraction for tourists. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make tourism very sustainable to the small Himlayan town. However, that is something you can ensure by travelling mindfully and sustainably. The town offers great avenues for white water rafting, paragliding, and hiking. The old part of the town is where you’ll find some of the best cafes and homestays. Some of them will be playing blues all day long and you wont remember where the day began since you’ll get busy jamming with an old musician in one of those many cafes.

But that’s how life in Manali is, slow, steady and surreal. Visit this town for long stays in case you want to find some lone time, take a writing retreat, do a yoga detox or just spend time with your friends or a partner.

 

Jaisalmer:

The Feels:

Think Arabian Nights, think Jaisalmer. A city of fables, stories and mysticism, a city made whose history is written in gold and a city that may be remote but definitely not forgotten, Jaisalmer is also called the Gateway to the Thar. Housing the oldest living fortress in the world along with a medley of temples, lakes and havelis, Jaisalmer has chosen to remain stuck in time.  Standing strong since 1156, the Golden Fort or Sonar Qila still has more than 2000 people residing in it, which makes it a bridge between the ancient and the modern worlds. Such is the charm of this fort that the Oscar winning director Satyajit Ray based a novel and immortalized this fort in his film, Sonar Qila.

About 2000 years ago from today, this hot, unlivable terrain used to be a part of the Silk Route that connected India to far off countries like China, Egypt and the Middle East. You can easily get guided tours of the area through the hotel you’re staying at.

Accessibility:

By Road and Train from Delhi and Jaipur

Best Cafes:

Trio

Little Italy

Dunes Bar

The Traveler’s Cup Premium Coffee Shop

 
 
 
 
 

Varanasi:

The Feels:

Varanasi is how India is typically represented in most world cinema! And Im not kidding. Its attractive, its filthy, its mystical and its home to Hinduism. Varanasi is one of the oldest living and continuously inhabited cities of the world, which also makes it a permanent hub of a flurry of cultures and people. Lying in the south of Uttar Pradesh, North India, this city is home to all that is discarded, abandoned, orphaned and born out of death- primarily a center where Hindus come in order to cremate their loved ones and bid them adieu on their final journey. Time tested, this appallingly unclean city claims to cleanse one’s mind, body and soul. The city is ruthless, it’s dangerous, it’s unabashed yet it offers you a kind of hospitality that no seemingly sophisticated city of the world can ever give.

Accessibility:

By road, train and air from Delhi

Best Cafes:

Varanasi Cafe and Bakery

Open hand Shop and Cafe

Blue Lassi

The Brew Room

Aum Cafe

The best part about travelling across India is that the journey is always unpredictable and you never know what to expect next. Having said that, the ride is certainly not ordinary, it’s always good to be safe, and kindness extended means kindness returned. Hope you enjoyed reading this and will be able to quench the thirst of your travel when the world begins to normalise.

 
 
 

Bio:

The writer of this guest blog is my dear schoolmate and friend Aishwarya Kandpal. Aishwarys is a female filmmaker who has been travelling across India for over 7 years and enjoys every single bit of it. For a long time, she was always accompanied by a small crew of people, which fortunately consisted of two of her best friends. She loves capturing people on her camera and listening to their amazing life stories. And in a country like India, each story sounds different because the dialect, as they say, changes every 2 kilometers! She also enjoys chasing sheep and has a special fascination for mountain dogs.

 

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