Things might get lost in translation, but it is a risk every native language filmmaker takes, and Dominic Megam Sangma’s 123-minute Garo film, Ma.Ama, is no exception. For example, the title itself translates to “moan” in English — “but that’s only literal — if you look at the word in two parts, it means ‘longing’ (ama) for ‘mother’ (ma),” says the 31-year-old Shillong-based filmmaker. And it’s this not-so-literal meaning of the title that the film really reflects.
Ma.Ama — the only Indian feature selected in the International Competition category at the Mumbai Film Festival (MAMI 2018) — is a deeply personal true story of how Sangma lost his mother because to a black magic ritual when he was only two-and-a-half. The years that followed, as Sangma grew up among his siblings in the remote Nongthymmai Garo village on the Assam-Meghalaya border, he saw his father, Philip Sangma, miss and long for his wife every day.
“I have no personal memories about my mother, all my memories are inherited from my siblings,” says Sangma adding that the film was actually a quest to find out who his mother really was and “something he had to do.”
“Now that I have done it, I feel I can go ahead and make films about other topics,” he says.
While shooting began in 2016, research started in 2013. “At the time, I was studying in Kolkata. Whenever I would visit, I’d talk to my father about my mother. At the outset, these were things I just wanted to know,” says Sangma.
Later, as the idea of the film began to take shape in his head, he found that his father would find it difficult to open up. “These were painful memories and intimate conversations,” says Sangma, adding, “My father did remarry — but he always missed my mother.”
However, when work for the film actually began, the whole village rallied to support Sangma in his endeavour as he cast his entire family (his siblings, his step-mother, his 85-year-old father, and himself) and several villagers in the film. “If you are telling a personal story, you have to tell it honestly — I thought casting the people the film was based on was as honest as it could get,” says Sangma, who would often roam around his village with a camera. “It’s perhaps that’s why the villagers were never camera-shy — they were practically reliving their life in front of the camera,” he says.
Born in Nongthymmai, Sangma later went on to study in Guwahati, Shillong and finally found his calling as a filmmaking student at the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute in Kolkata. While Ma.Ama is his first full-length feature, the filmmaker has made two other short films: Rong’kuchak (2013), Karyukai Inc. (2011) both in Garo, a Sino-Tibetan language spoken by about 889,000 people living primarily in Meghalaya and pockets of Assam, Tripura and even Bangladesh. Rong’kuchak was screened at a festival Beijing as well in 2014. “That’s where I met Xu Jianshang, who came on board to produce Ma.Ama,” says Sangma.
With Ma.Ama getting national recognition (apart from being screened at the Mumbai Film Festival this week, it is travelling to the Dharamshala International Film Festival next), Sangma is arguably the only Garo filmmaker who has managed to bring the little-known tribal language into mainstream consciousness. For him, however, it is only natural to do so. “It is my language, my people’s langauge — I can’t make my people speak in Hindi, can I?” asks Sangma, over the phone from Mumbai, where he is attending the film festival.
While three screenings are already through — with many people coming up to Sangma and telling him “how moved they were” — the young filmmaker’s most telling review came from his very first audience: his father. “He told me, ‘Watching this is like watching a reflection — I feel like I am looking back at my own life’,” recalls Sangma.