“This is the story of the place I come from” : Director, Sange Dorjee Tongdok
National Award winning film Crossing Bridges by director, Sange Dorjee Tongdok an alumnus of Satyajit Ray Film Institute is the first feature film to come from his state Arunachal Pradesh.
The film tells a story of a place untouched by modernisation and of a young man rediscovering his roots. This film lets you cross bridges literally to discover the untapped picturesque locations of his hometown in Arunachal Pradesh and meet beautiful Buddhist community living there. Here’s the director Sange Dorjee Tongdok’s interview talking about his film.
Please tell us about your journey into films.
I belong to a small village of Jigaon in the western part of Arunachal Pradesh although I was born in the picturesque town of Ziro. Most of my childhood was spent in different boarding schools around the country. I graduated from Hindu college, Delhi University with honours in Sociology but at that point in time I really wasn’t sure what to do with my life. One thing I was certain of, that I didn’t want to end up in a 9 to 5 job. But I did want to do something for my community and so took off time from studies after college and started recording songs and stories of my tribe. I had been fiddling with video cameras which my dad bought since childhood and I found out as I recorded my tribes stories that I enjoyed shooting with the camera and editing the footage, essentially telling a story. It occurred to me that 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.
What is the film about?
Crossing Bridges is about a man who loses his job in Mumbai and is forced to come back to his remote village in Arunachal Pradesh. He thus slowly begins experiencing the life and culture of his people. I wanted to showcase my community to the outside world which has little knowledge about my people so I put in bits and pieces of our dance and our myth and legends into the film. The protagonist here acts as a vehicle to draw the audience into the community as he comes home and the audience gets to experience the life of his community through his eyes. I therefore went with a simple narrative of a man coming back home to find his roots. That way I had an open canvas to showcase my people and a little of our way of life to the outside world.
It’s the first feature film in Shertukpen, the dialect spoken by our community in the West Kament district of Arunachal Pradesh. The film was in NFDC Work in Progress lab as well.
How did you come up with this story and what went into the making of this film? Does this story have biographical elements from your life or people you know?
I actually started writing this story back in film school. I used to sit in my room alone in the evenings reflecting on my life and I started putting things on paper and a story gradually developed. We shot a major portion of the film in my village of Shergaon, and a few places around it in West Kameng district in Arunachal Pradesh. We needed to have snowfall so we shot in the month of December and January. It was bitterly cold and a lot of the crew struggled with the weather and the terrain. I made my crew climb mountains and cross freezing rivers to reach the shoot locations, but being such professionals they never complained.
In fact 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. It sounded just right for the story of the film and about what the film meant to me.
When you write something, whatever it may be, a part of you inevitably goes into it. The disconnect the protagonist Tashi feels when he comes back to his village is something I always felt when I went back too. So there are similarities on the experiences, but not necessarily on the incidents.
Rediscovering your roots – in the world where we live in today, where we move for better careers and prospects from our home towns is a topic most of us can relate to… What made you pick this up as your story?
There is a scene in the film where a small child asks the protagonist why the outside world doesn’t know about them. This question lies at the core of why I wanted to make my first film amongst my own people. It was a small attempt to introduce the outside world to my people and our way of life. Also the journey the protagonist goes through in the film is something that I had to go through too and therefore the experience was something that I could tell the audience truthfully.
Where are these actors from? Are there real people also in the film?
Shooting the film in my own mother tongue meant I couldn’t take any professional actors. I hired my friends and relatives to be actors in the film. Everyone in the film was from my own village, except Anshu Jamsenpa the lead actress who’s a world record holding mountaineer having climbed Mt. Everest thrice. They were all facing the camera for the first time. I hired elders of the village to act as aunts and uncle and gave them lines which they usually talk in their everyday lives. So that made them comfortable in front of the camera.
How did you train them for the camera?
I held a few workshop sessions with everyone before the shoot. But I saw that the lines I’d given to them were coming out in an unnatural manner. So I ended up giving them the situation and what they needed to express and told them to say it like they would in real life. So the lines in the film are actually the words of the actors themselves. This greatly helped in putting them at ease in front of the camera, as they felt they were speaking their own words in their own dialect.
What is life really like in the place you shot at?
It’s a small village nestled in a valley in the lower Himalayas. We are a small tribe of around four thousand Buddhist spread out across two villages and a town and the people are agriculturist. At most times you’d find people at their farms busy in their crops like potatoes, maize and recent cash crops like Tomatoes, Kiwi and Apple. Young people often go to the river for fishing. Although Buddhism is the major religion, people have also retained many of the ancient Tribal culture, giving rise to a way of living that’s a mix of Tribal belief system and Buddhist religion.
The imagery of the film is so beautiful. Please talk about the camera work and the location in detail. What look and feel did you have in mind when you had written the story?
I had an old Canon 5 D Mark 2 with me and since we didn’t have much of a budget we decided to shoot with that. My DOP Pooja Gupte and I did a lot of test in Mumbai with different settings and saw the footage on the big screen along with shots I’d taken in the village. The location in my village looked great on screen and we decided to go ahead with the camera. The main location was my village itself and I had already decided on the places to shoot long back during visits to my village as I used to trek around the place and take pictures. But I had decided not to concentrate too much on the scenery in my film as I thought it might overwhelm the story. It was a conscious decision between us to exclude the scenery of the place as much as possible in our shots.
What was the most challenging sequence in the film?
The last scene in the film needed snow and the location was a valley high up the mountains which was very inaccessible. My vehicle nearly went off the mountains skidding off the snow and all the vehicle eventually got stuck, except for the gypsy the protagonist uses in the film. So ten of the core crew members squashed into the vehicle and the hero of our film became the real life hero as he drove us forty miles through dangerous snow track skidding and sliding to the location, were we quickly took the shots and got back as it was getting dark and the fog had obscured everything around us.
Your family had come to your film’s screening at MAMI last year. What did they think of your film and all the adulation it received there?
My father along with my elder brother had come for the screening at MAMI. They were more enthusiastic about the film then I was. Especially as this was the first film from my state at the Festival. I’m glad they could see the film being premiered at such a prestigious festival as they had really worked hard for the film to get to that stage. The film has now been picked up by Insomnia World Sales.
What are you doing next?
I hope to keep making good cinema on subjects that are relevant to the northeast region as there are a lot of stories here that need to be told. I’m currently working on one such project and looking for funds for the same.
The film releases under PVR Director’s Rare on August 29. The film will release in five cities: Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Pune and Kolkata.
– By Priyanka Jain