It is not every day that you get to see a film about or from the north-east on the big screen. Reeling under the pressure of making the economics of cinema work, our filmmakers conveniently brush the region’s stories, languages and geo-political issues under the carpet.
Meet Sange Dorjee Thongdok, a filmmaker from Arunachal Pradesh’s Shertukpen community, who in such a time has made a film about his land and its people in an effort to keep his culture alive. The film, Crossing Bridges, the first to be made in the Shertukpen language, was screened at many international festivals and also received a National Award this year. It tells the story of Tashi who returns to his village after having lost his job. The time he spend there among his people makes Tashi, who was waiting to return to the city to find a new job, rediscover himself and his roots.
After a lot of struggle, Thongdok, has finally secured a multicity release for the film through PVR Director’s Rare banner. Geared up for the release on August 29, he speaks to THE WEEK about his childhood, his inspiration to preserve his culture and his thoughts on the independent film scene in the country.
How and when did the idea to make Crossing Bridges occur to you? And how did you go about developing it?
I am from Arunachal Pradesh and I belong to a community called Shertukpen. The dialect we speak does not have a written script. Our stories and songs are passed on orally. But when I sat down with the village elders, I realised that they have started to forget the songs. I have always wanted to do something for my community and so took off time from studies after college and started recording songs and stories of my tribe. I had been fiddling with video cameras, which my dad bought since childhood and as I recorded my tribes’ stories, I found out that I enjoyed shooting with the camera and editing the footage, essentially telling a story. It occurred to me that film would be a powerful medium to preserve and tell stories of my people to the outside world. I applied to Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute, Kolkata, and got through the final selection. I started writing this story back there in the film school. I used to sit in my room alone in the evenings reflecting on my life and as I started putting things on paper, the story gradually developed. After finishing my final year, I was very sure that I would like Crossing Bridges to be my first film. I borrowed finance from my family, friends and spoke to my batch-mates to collaborate with me. I got unconditional support from my village, family and crew hence this film became possible.
Crossing Bridges deals with a lot of things starting from life in a small town to displacement and nostalgia. How much of it is autobiographical?
When you write something, whatever it may be, a part of you inevitably goes into it. Most of my childhood was spent in different boarding schools around the country. The disconnect the protagonist Tashi feels when he comes back to his village is something I always felt when I went back, too. So there are similarities on the experiences, but not necessarily on the incidents. Therefore the journey of the protagonist was something that I could tell the audience truthfully. Hence I chose to stick to the themes of migration and rediscovering of roots as I have strongly felt for it.
This is the first film in Shertukpen. What gave you the courage to make a film in your own language?
Yes, this is the first film in Shertukpen, but I didn’t have the fear of it not reaching the audience as the basic idea of making the film in my language was to preserve it in whatever small way and at the same time show rest of the world, which knows very little about our culture and way of living. Thankfully today we have internet portals, film festivals, initiatives like NFDC Film Bazaar and PVR Director’s Rare giving opportunities and a wider platforms for all independent young filmmakers to showcase their work.
You have cast people from your own area in the film. How difficult was it to direct non-actors?
When I decided to make the film in Sherukpen, my mother-tongue, I knew I will have to cast people from my community, which basically meant non-actors. I called up and requested a few friends and village enthusiasts to act in my film. I conducted workshops on how to face the camera for almost three months before we went on floor. It was also a learning experience for me in terms of character handling and taking out performances. I really think Phusto Khrime, who played Tashi, and the actors who played his parents in the film were very convincing. All the supporting cast also did a commendable job.
What are your thoughts on the independent film scene in the country?
I truly think we have good filmmakers in our country and in recent times a lot of independent cinema is being appreciated. But there is really very little space for independent cinema commercially. A lot of good films are made, shown in film festivals and even get awards, but getting them distributed in theaters is a big task for filmmakers and producers. Hence, I feel the platform provided by PVR under Director’s Rare is a boon and encouragement for independent films.
A bit about your background?
I belong to the small village called Jigaon in the western part of Arunachal Pradesh, although I was born in the picturesque town of Ziro. Most of my childhood was spent in different boarding schools around the country. I graduated from Hindu college, Delhi University, with honors in Sociology, but at that point in time I really wasn’t sure what to do with my life. One thing I was certain of, that I didn’t want to end up in a 9 to 5 job. As I enjoyed the audio-visual medium to tell stories therefore I was sure Film School was the only way and I applied to Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute.
I hope to keep making good cinema on subjects that are relevant to the northeast region as there are a lot of stories here that needs to be told and which the people everywhere needs to hear. I’m currently working on one such project.