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‘Padamshri’ Narain Singh Thapa : The Famous Gorkha Documentary Filmmaker of India

The son of mountains – the renowned combat cameraman and well-known documentary filmmaker – Shri Narain Singh Thapa (NST). He was born at the winter of 1924-25 at Lambata situated at a village called Marh-Marle in the Pithoragarh District of Uttarakhand. His parents Smt. Jasuli Devi and Shri Gajai Singh were peasants by profession and lived in abject poverty, as the barren land of the hills could not yield enough to feed the family. NST left Marh-Marle at a tender age of 10 and soon after completing his school education, joined Gorkha Regiment as a Sepoy. At the age of 19, he became a combat cameraman and fought World War-II with camera and at the same time taught his fellow army men as a teacher in uniform. His autobiography ‘The Boy from Lambata’ presents an honest account of his life, successes and failures, difficulties and a host of challenges, which he faced in his life and career. I have had the privilege of reading this book published by PAHAR, Nainital recently. 

I randomly browsed through the book as a reconnaissance but when I found the pearls of wisdom strewn in each page, I really decided to have a thorough reading of the book and believe me I have read the book over and over again ever since I got it. Apart from exceptional writing skills and literary competence of Shri Thapaji, what impressed me most is the characteristic passion and panache with which he narrates his story. As an Uttarakhandi what made me more emotional about the book is the fact that it has a strong resemblance to the story of every PAHADI who has to venture out of the confines of hills to hammer out a living not only for himself but also for his parents back home. There cannot be a better source of inspiration for the young and aspiring Uttaranchali than NST himself who rose from a sepoy to the high office of Chief Producer of the Films Division. This book is not just an autobiography but a unique mix of knowledge, courage, adventure, grit and gumption of an individual who braved the freezing cold, snowy winds, landslides, blizzards and avalanches during his filming expeditions at a range of high altitude Himalayan mountains in Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, J&K and Garhwal &Kumaun regions. 

His daredevil attitude has proved more than once that courage is not just having strength to go on but going on when one does not have strength. He has been witness to the pre and post independent India’s developmental history and was a constant companion of Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru during his gigantic task of building a new and resurgent India. He was there wherever the ‘Temples of Tomorrow’, as Nehru called them, were being built. His lunatic obsession with ‘duty-first’ drove him into taking life-threatening risks throughout his professional career. While covering Nehru’s USSR visit, he met with an accident and suffered injuries to his head. Pt. Nehru himself inspected his injuries and retorted ‘Shaheed Banana Chahte Ho Kya??’ When he was filming the havoc created by Brahmaputra in Assam, he was physically pulled away to safety by Pt. Nehru from a chunk of earth that sunk into the mighty river. He would climb onto the roof of speeding cars to take his favourite shots, which is why he was so successful as a newsreel cameraman.Pt. Nehru had a personal liking for this kumauni lad not merely for his professional competence but for his sheer dedication and determination in carrying out the assigned tasks. 

At times, he was so deeply engrossed in his work that he would forget his wife and son who would be waiting for him on the dining table. His simplicity and down-to-earth attitude only reflect the true character of a true Uttaranchali. This is amply evident from the fact that despite his close proximity with Pt. Nehru, he never pursued personal glory, power and position for himself. On the contrary, he faced many operational difficulties even as the Chief Producer of Films Division as he never fell prey to the tone and tenor of the ruthless and typical bureaucrats. His decisions, which won him laurels outside, were simply criticized within his own establishment. The envious people around him, perhaps for fear of their own failure and frustration,’ could not digest his unique ideas that were practical yet successful. Unperturbed by this coterie, he chose to be hated for what he was than to be loved for what he was not. His super-natural film making attributes, workaholic lifestyle and an unassuming persona won him numerous laurels including many Gold Medals from former Presidents, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, N. Sanjeeva Reddy, R. Venkataraman, and V.V. Giri. He was conferred ‘Padamshri’ by Giani Zail Singh in March, 1983 and IDPA Lifetime Achievement Award by Vilash Rao Deshmukh, former CM, Maharashtra in the year 2002 for his outstanding contribution in the field of documentary films.

- By Kundan Goswami

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