When the village beckons

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Saibal Chatterjee
New Delhi

A primary school teacher in remote Arunachal Pradesh reads out a passage about Holi from a Hindi textbook. He tells the class that their state, too, has a similar festival and it is called Kro-Chekor. On cue, one girl asks why the book has no mention of the local festival. The teacher replies: “Because the outside world does not know us.”

The above scene from Sange Dorjee Thongdok’s Crossing Bridges, a film made in a dialect spoken in West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh, sums up the principal reason why a young man from northeast India decided to go behind the camera to tell stories about his people.

Sange asks: “If we do not tell our own stories, who will?” And there is, he adds, no dearth of stories in his neck of the woods.

Crossing Bridges, the story of a retrenched web designer who returns to his village after being away for eight years, is a remarkable effort in many ways.

“All that I had to begin with was a screenplay and a Canon 5D Mark 3 camera,” says Sange, a Satyajit Ray Film & Television Institute (SRFTI) alumnus.

The challenges before the first-time director were daunting, but none was more so than the task of finding the right actors. “There are no professional actors who speak the Sherdukpen dialect, so I had to fall back on my own pool of friends for the various onscreen roles,” says Sange.

Crossing Bridges is none the worse for it. The amateur actors lend the film a feel of spontaneity that professionals could not have achieved. “Before the shoot, I did a three-month workshop with members of the cast to familiarize them with the demands of filmmaking,” the director reveals.

The male lead in Crossing Bridges is played by Phuntsu Khrime, while the pivotal character of a lady teacher who arrives in the village from Shillong is fleshed out by mountaineer Anshu Jamsenpa, the first Indian to climb Mount Everest twice in 10 days.

Crossing Bridges was filmed in and around Shergaon, the picturesque village that Sange left some years ago in order to pursue his dreams. “The film is inspired by my own experiences,” he says. “The return to my village after many years was quite a journey of rediscovery. I wrote down what I saw and felt.”

Crossing Bridges is the second film to be made in Arunachal Pradesh but is the first-ever directed by a native of the state. In 2006, a film in the Monpa dialect, Sonam, was made by Assamese director Ahsan Muzid.

For his first feature, Sange roped in his batch mates at SRFTI who worked with him on his final year diploma film, Pratyabartan – cinematographer Pooja S. Gupte and editor Sanglap Bhowmik, among others. “They were an integral part of the project from the very outset,” he says.

Sange is, however, keen to make a film with technicians from Arunachal Pradesh. “It would be great if youngsters in the state could be trained in various aspects of filmmaking,” he says. Sange is a role model: he is the first person from Arunachal Pradesh to pass out of film school.

Crossing Bridges is currently doing the rounds of film festivals and garnering critical appreciation. It premiered at the 15th Mumbai Film Festival in mid-October and then travelled to the Dharamsala International Film Festival in the last week of the month. The film is due to travel next to the 18th International Film Festival of Kerala in December.

The story of a young man struggling to reconnect with his roots has universal resonance. Made in a simple but visually and emotionally engaging style, the film revolves around Tashi, who is back in his village for a break after losing his job in Mumbai.

As he waits for news of reemployment, he struggles to fit back into the environment that he left behind and moved away from.

His own village has now become an alien land, while he himself has lost touch with the little things that he did as a teenager, like drinking butter-tea and crossing log bridges across mountain streams.

Tashi gets a temporary job as a replacement teacher in the local school, where he meets Anila and his relationship with his own roots begins to change.

Sange weaves legends and fables about forest spirits and shamans, a story of unrequited love and the experiences of Tashi’s boyhood friends, among other strands, into the film’s narrative tapestry.

The views of his boyhood friends are in sharp contrast to Tashi’s restless spirit. Even as he is desperate to get back to Mumbai, one of his pals tells him: “I have a home, livestock, a field, a wife and a child – what more can a man want?” The question that the film asks is: Tashi certainly wants more, but does he need more?

Tashi begins to see his own village in a different light as he interacts with fellow schoolteacher Anila. “She shows Tashi how beautiful his village is. Sometimes it takes an outsider to reveal what is obvious,” says Sange.

The onscreen performances in Crossing Bridges, says Sange, evolved through a process of trial and error. When the non-actors spoke the lines written in the script, they sounded too rehearsed.

So the director allowed them to improvise and use words that they would in real life to convey the emotions and ideas being articulated onscreen. “That imparted an air of naturalness to the dialogue delivery,” adds Sange.

He believes that “making a film is actually pretty easy, especially if you dare to do it without the bells and whistles”. What is difficult, he adds, is getting the film out into the market. “I would want as wide an audience as possible to see my film,” he says.

He wants the film to be a window on Arunachal Pradesh for the “outside world”. He points out that in the last couple of decades, major changes have been sweeping through the state. As a result, the cultures of the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh are under threat.

Sange points out that his state has 25 major dialects but only two have written scripts. “Any audiovisual form of communication is therefore useful in documenting, spreading and preserving our culture,” he says.

Crossing Bridges is already building bridges. The film has been acquired by Montpelier-based Insomnia World Sales for international distribution.

Says Sange: “I am hopeful that as the film travels and reaches out, more people will develop an interest in Arunachal Pradesh and we will see more production collaborations falling into place in the state.”

Crossing Bridges is only one small step in that direction, but the film clearly has the makings of a success story of far-reaching proportions.