“Is our traditional Kro Chekor festival also in the textbook?” — it’s a simple question by a Sherdukpen child from Arunachal Pradesh. The teacher Tashi, who has just returned to his native village, replies in the negative. “The outside world doesn’t know much about us,” he offers as an explanation. “But why not?” asks the child. There is no good answer.
The above might be a scene from Sange Dorjee Thongdok’s 2014 National Award-winning film, Crossing Bridges, but in 2018, the question remains as relevant — as his new film, River Song, is set to premiere at the 15th International Indian Film Festival (IIFF) in Stuttgart, Germany,
River Song is Thongdok’s second film in Sherdukpen — a dialect spoken bythe 4,000 odd people of the eponymous Sherdukpen tribe who inhabit the three villages of Rupa, Shergaon and Jigaon in West Arunachal Pradesh’s Kameng district. “The Sherdukpen tribe has no written script. Just based on the fact that roughly 4000 people speak it, the language is endangered,” says Thongdok, who hails from Shergaon, a village he describes as “simple” and “isolated.” “Till ten years ago, we didn’t have any telephone lines, nor electricity, nor proper roads. But in the past seven years things have begun to improve,” he says, “We have mobile network but it’s erratic. We have electricity, but that too, is erratic.”
His first directorial venture Crossing Bridges, which he started writing while he was a student at the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute at Kolkata, created history in many ways: it was the first ever feature film to be made in Sherdukpen, and went on to win the National Award that year. The entire cast was sourced from the village itself, which also served as the shoot location.
“While Crossing Bridges is sort of my story — and maps how a young man returns to his hometown after years — River Song also has similar human elements and is about a friendship between a Sherdukpen-speaking boy and a Hindi-speaking girl,” says Thongdok.
Set in a fictional town in Arunachal Pradesh, the movie follows their unique relationship, transcending the boundaries of language and class. “A dam is being constructed in the village, and the residents all fear that they will lose their homes by the resultant flooding. The boy is a loner who owns a petrol pump. The girl is the wife of one of the visiting engineers for the construction,. And they become friends” says Thongdok about the film, adding that dam construction along the Himalayan region is a very real threat for many communities living in the area. “My films consciously tell stories which the world outside has little knowledge about,” he says.
River Song has been produced by Mumbai-based production house Jar Pictures. “While my first film had a complete Sherdukpen cast, this one has a couple of actors from Mumbai, including the female lead,” says Thongdok, adding that he chooses his actors based on how similar they are to his characters. “For a farmer’s role, I would actually choose an actual farmer. For my last film, the protagonist was someone who had returned to his native home after long. The person I cast was actually someone who had come back to Shergaon after a long stint in the the city.”
“I made my last one with a Canon 5D. It’s fairly easy to make a film these days — as long as you have a good story. Promotion, however, is a different ballgame,” says Thongdok, “Where do you show it, how do you show it, how do you distribute it?”
According to Thongdok, most youngsters don’t speak in their native Sherdukpen dialect. “And that’s one of the primary reasons I choose to make films in Sherdukpen,” he says, adding that the Northeast has enough stories but not enough filmmakers. “Maybe my films will remind young people about their roots.” The hope is to preserve — both the language and stories within it.