Shabby and old, a blue state transport bus pulls up on the mountainous road. No marker announces it as a scheduled bus stop, yet several people get off and walk down a dirt road. Among them is Tashi, a Mumbai-based web designer who was forced to return home, courtesy a pink slip.
Through Crossing Bridges (2013), the first film to be made by a native of Arunachal Pradesh, the audience joins Tashi, the protagonist, as he rediscovers his roots, and in the process, introduces us to his people.
A film with many firsts, Crossing Bridges, is scheduled to be screened at the Habitat Film Festival and is the first feature film in Shertukpen, a dialect of the tribal community by the same name in Arunachal. Says Sange Dorjee Thongdok, the director of the film, “The detachment that Tashi shows towards his own village and people in the beginning of the film is something which I can instantly connect to, being from a generation that has increasingly left their homes in search of better prospects. The film is a way for me to understand my people, and a bridge between the outside world and the Northeast.”
Nestled in the West Kameng district of Arunachal, Shertukpen is spoken by about 4,000-5,000 Buddhists spread over three villages. Scraps and bits of the director’s personal experiences come together with local Himalayan myths and customs in this well-knit narrative. Butter tea, a local favourite and an acquired taste, plays a role too. After a sip of the salty tea his mother had welcomed him with, Tashi throws it away, having grown accustomed to Mumbai’s sweet, cutting chai.
It’s through the little things and the subtle references that the director has captured the essence of his people’s customs and beliefs. Like the reference to forest spirits, which appear like flickering flames and lure men away. There’s a time when his protagonist is teaching the village children, reading out about Holi from a regular textbook.
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A student asks him if Kro-Chekor, the festival of the Sherdukpens, was also in the book, and when he answers no, she asks him why not. “The outside world doesn’t know much about us,” he says. “Why not?,” she questions. There’s no answer to that, and Tashi goes back to talking about Holi. “Owing to our proximity to China, the geographical coordinates, and the government policies, the Northeast still remains unknown; we need to work on that,” says the director, a graduate of the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute, Kolkata.
Incidentally, the crew of the low-budget independent film comprises mainly of Dorjee Thongdok’s batch mates. And his actors are all native Shertukpens. “There are no theatres or multiplexes in Arunachal, we don’t have a film industry here. For entertainment, we watch DVDs of Hindi and Korean movies,” he says.
What worries the 33-year-old is that as more people leave town in search of greener pastures, their stories are dying out. “We don’t have a written dialect. Stories have to be told over and over again for them to live. Increasingly the elders have no one to tell the stories to,” he says. As he works on more scripts on the Northeast, Dorjee Thongdok hopes to release this film on DVD, besides being in talks with a major multiplex chain to release it in major cities.
Crossing Bridges will be screened at India Habitat Centre on May 16, 6.30 pm onwards. Contact 43663333