Towards the end of Crossing Bridges, Tashi, the protagonist of the film, is seen standing with his feet submerged in the village river, at peace with his surroundings. It’s a crucial moment in the film; it marks the internal change in the lead character who finally feels a connection with his roots — a remote village in the West Kament district of Arunachal Pradesh (AP) —accentuated by the shot of his feet feeling the clear, cool mountain stream. That pair of feet belongs to the film’s director, Sange Dorji Thongdok, who stepped in when the actor wasn’t able to deliver a specific movement of the feet he wanted.
“I wanted him to feel the water in the same way that he was feeling the place,” says Sange. The protagonist from Crossing Bridges — set in his village and is the first film from the state — is modelled on Sange, who rediscovered his roots after he found himself jobless. The son of a bureaucrat in Itanagar, Sange didn’t know what career to pursue after graduation. He ran a garment business for a while but lost interest, and refused to give in to his well-connected parents’ wishes of taking up a government job.”
“In those five years, all I knew was I didn’t want to do a nine-to-five job,” says Sange, who was in Mumbai for the release of his film last Friday through PVR Director’s Rare. His long stays in his native village, which he would otherwise only visit during his school summer vacations, changed his life. “I always felt I don’t know my culture and people well enough,” he recounts. During these stays, Sange mingled with the Sherdukpen folk — the tribe he belongs to. He felt a connect with them that he had never experienced before. Armed with a VHS camera owned by his father, he started recording songs and stories of the village, editing them on his computer at home.
“I started liking it and decided to make small documentaries and videos about the culture, mostly for archiving,” he says. It set the ball rolling for Sange’s filmmaking ambitions, who later applied to the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute (SRFTI) without informing his parents. Having grown up on “normal Hindi commercial films”, he hadn’t heard of Satyajit Ray and had no exposure to world cinema, but the film institute broadend his horizons.
Crossing Bridges, which won at this year’s National Film Awards, is a product of a passionate collaboration between Sange and his batchmates from SRFTI, who were not only involved with the technical departments of the film but also doubled as actors. Sange’s choice of subject was perfect because it also gave him the chance to make the film he wanted to within budget constraints. “You always want your first film to be deeply personal,” says the 35-year-old director, “I wanted Tashi’s journey to be a means of showcasing my tribe, a way of life others may have never heard of.”
It is these myths and quirks of tribal lifestyle that the filmmaker smartly weaves into the narrative, which makes the Sherdukpen language film special. For example, there is a recurring element about a mountain rock in the village, called Buddha Rock, that accidentally becomes the only spot which provides uninterrupted mobile network. Or the folklore about the strange disappearances of young men from the village who return after a year claiming they were lured by beautiful women into a secret kingdom inside the deep, dark forest where all they are fed are bowls full of worms. “These are all based on true stories,” assures Sange.
This simplicity and innocence of the people coupled with the peaceful environs of the picturesque village drew Sange to his roots. He now spends most of his time there. This change reflects in his protagonist too. Forced to return home after losing his job, Tashi gradually warms up to his life away from the urban anxiety of cities, also making the film a comment on distress migration.
Sange now plans to take his film to the villages of AP with a projector and a screen. “There is not a single movie theatre in Arunachal, no cinema infrastructure. The Northeastern people feel more connected to South Korean pop-culture than Indian,” he says, adding, “I hope to start a dialogue from the Northeast with this film. Even if one per cent of the audience returns home and attempts to find out more about my tribe, I’ll be happy.”