Close to his roots
Sange Dorjee Thongdok’s Crossing Bridges, the film that won the national film award for best film in Shertukpen, was made with the money borrowed from the director’s friends and family. He tells Divya Kaushik that the challenge for northeastern filmmakers is to find distributors. That is why only a few films of the acclaimed and prolific filmmaker Jahnu Barua are released pan-India, he argues
It is not the first film talking about youth migration in quest of better opportunities, but Crossing Bridges sets a benchmark on many levels. It is the first film to be made in language of Shertukpen, which is an indigenous dialect native to the state Aruanachal Pradesh. The film that won the national film award for best film in Shertukpen in 2013 has opened sea of opportunities for its director, Sange Dorjee Thongdok, and has given hope to the youngsters from Arunachal Pradesh who aspire to be a filmmaker.
The film tells a story of Tashi, a man in his early 30s who is compelled to return to his village in Arunachal Pradesh after eight years when he loses his job in the city. While he awaits word on any possible job so that he can go back to the city, Tashi begins to experience the life of his people. While he is wrong-footed at first, he gradually begins to rediscover his roots and when he finally receives the call he had been waiting for, he now has a much tougher decision to make — whether to stay in his native land or chase higher ambitions in a big city.
The director says that the protagonist’s journey reflects his own experiences. He shares, “We tell stories we can relate to and on subjects that are close to our hearts. I therefore thought that my own experiences would be a good subject to make my first film so that I could tell it to the audience truthfully. Also it would be a good story to introduce my people and our way of life to the outside world. This phenomenon of social migration actually took off from my generation a decade back and it has only increased. But thankfully the present generation understands the value of unique cultures and is mindful that it needs to be preserved in a world that is strangely beginning to look the same everywhere.”
Sange belongs to the small village of Jigaon in the western part of Arunachal Pradesh. Most of his childhood was spent in different boarding schools around the country. He graduated from Hindu college with honours in sociology. “But I wasn’t sure what to do with my life. I didn’t want to end up in a nine to five job. I wanted to do something for my community because I could see the rapid changes taking place due to the onslaught of modernity. So I took off time from studies after college and started recording songs and stories of my tribe. I was fiddling with video cameras which my dad bought since childhood and as I recorded my tribe’s songs and stories I found out that I enjoyed shooting with the camera and editing the footage, essentially telling a story. It occurred to me that a film would be a powerful medium to preserve and tell stories of my people to the outside world. I applied at the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute in Kolkata and got through and that’s how it all started,” informs the director who chose to direct the film in Shertukpen, a dialect and tribal community living in West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh, because he wanted to promote it among his own people. He adds, “There are very less youngsters who communicate in their own tongue. When one makes a film, whatever you shoot gets stored forever so I thought making films in my dialect, about our way of life, will help preserve my language.”
As is the case with many debutants, it was not an easy task to get the film on floor. Sange says that shooting the film was like a big get together with friends and family. He shares, “Since this film was to be shot in my tribal dialect, I had to source actors from my community itself. So I ended up calling all my friends and relatives and made them act in my film. It was a wonderful experience, but also tough. We needed snowfall in the film so we shot in the month of December and January. It was bitterly cold and temperature went below zero with the sunset and my crew was not used to the cold. Our equipment needed extra care. There were no roads to a lot of locations so we had to trek through mountains and cross rivers on foot. And since the crew was small, we carried all the equipment by ourselves. The name Crossing Bridges came about during one such excursion to a location when we were crossing a river on foot and my DOP Pooja Gupte suddenly said, ‘How many rivers are you making us cross, Sange?’ And I suddenly thought hey, that’s a nice name right there, Crossing Rivers, and she and I talk about it and it eventually became Crossing Bridges. I did not approach any other producers as I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to pay them back, this being a small film about the people no one knew about. But it was a story I wanted to tell so I borrowed money from my parents, relatives and friends and went ahead with the project.”
Now that the film is made and is already receiving acclaim, it is a biggest reward for Sange. “There’s a dearth of good cinema going out from the northeast. What I noticed in my interactions with the audiences all over India is that people really want to see cinema from our region as it’s a new experience for them to see a part of their country they know little about. In our country there is little space for independent non-commercial cinema so film festivals become our only option to screen it to the audience. Today in India, film festivals are probably the only means to screen independent films which is a sad situation in a country that has one of the largest number of cinema halls in the world. In this kind of a scenario, initiatives like PVR Director’s Rare come as a boon for independent filmmakers,” he says.
Sange says that the biggest difficult for filmmakers for the northeast is to find distributors. “Good films have been made by filmmakers from the northeast on issues that concern the region. But the problem here is of distribution. Distributors are simply not interested in films that will not have their cash bells ringing. One good example is the filmmaker Jahnua Barua who’s been making films since the last 32 odd years and has won 11 national awards and numerous international awards for his films. Yet I can only recall a couple of his films releasing commercially in India,” he says.
The director is now focussing on more stories from his state for his future projects. “My idea has always been to showcase my state and the northeast region to the outside world in order to bridge the gap between people. There are enough stories from this region to keep making films for the rest of my life,” he concludes.
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