People

Bridge of Hearts

Meenakshi Kumar 10 Jul 2014

As a young kid Sange Dorje Thongdok could never have imagined that he would one day acquaint the world with his tiny remote village in the northeastern most part of India. With Crossing Bridges, his debut film shot in Shergaon in Arunachal Pradesh and made in the local dialect Sherdukpen, Thongdok has, literally, crossed bridges. The film received the Rajat Kamal award for direction at the 61st National Film Award 2013, making it the first film from the state to receive a National Award. He tells NE Travel and Life how he landed in a film school and why he chose to make the award-winning film.

Congratulations for winning the prestigious Rajat Kamal award for direction. What does this win mean for you?

Getting recognition for your work is always wonderful. This award is extra special for me because this is the first film from my state, Arunachal Pradesh, to receive the National Award. It is the first film to be made in my tribal dialect of Sherdukpen and my first feature film. The story was also close to my heart. Moreover, everyone who worked on the film were friends and relatives, and many were facing the camera for the first time. We shot in my village, Shergaon, which is in west Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh. So, it was like friends and family getting together to make a film we believed in. Because of all this, the award is special for me.

This is the first film made in Sherdukpen language. Why did you choose to make a film in this language?

The dialect is spoken by my tribe, the Sherdukpen, who reside on the western region of Arunachal Pradesh. We are a small tribe of around 5,000 people who follow Buddhism. Luckily, the youngsters speak our language, and I’m glad to see that in recent years there has been a steady realisation amongst the youth of our people to try and preserve our culture as far as possible. In fact, this was one of the reasons I chose to shoot the film in my own dialect. When one makes a film, whatever you shoot gets stored forever. Making films in my dialect about our way of life helps preserve some of it, in whatever small way possible.

How did the story of Crossing Bridges come about? Is there a real-life parallel to the story and the protagonist Tashi?

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. When you write something, whatever it may be, a part of you inevitably goes into it. The disconnect the protagonist Tashi feels when he returns 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.

You are the first person from Arunachal Pradesh who has studied at the Satyajit Ray Film & Television Institute and is now an award-winning director. What drove you to become a film director?

Yes, I am the first person from my state to pass out of a film school. After my graduation from Hindu College in Delhi University, I drifted around quite a bit not knowing exactly what to do with my life. Although I was sure it wasn’t going to be a 9-5 job. During that period, I used to go back to my village to record our tribe’s songs and stories on camera and tape. As I began putting together small films, I realised this was something I loved doing. So, I applied at the film institute in Kolkata and it all started from there.

Were you exposed to films in your village? Did you get to see Bollywood films? How did your interest in movies grow?

Well, I never stayed in my village when I grew up. The films that I loved watching were old Hindi films of the Sixties and Seventies. In fact, I still love watching them. My interest in film, more specifically in world cinema, actually grew in film school where I was suddenly exposed to this huge collection of films of every genre and age from every corner of the world. I totally got hooked.

Like you and Tashi, do a lot of people move out of Arunachal Pradesh? And then when they return, is there a disconnect?

Yes, a lot of young people do go out of the state mainly for further studies and also for jobs as both are woefully lacking back home. A lot of them stay back for long periods of time outside and get used to the lifestyle they lead there. So, naturally there is a bit of a disconnect when they return. Many do not want to return.

Crossing Bridges talks about the lack of knowledge that people outside the Northeast have about this region. Was it a conscious decision to convey this thought? How have you dealt with the skewed perception that rest of India has of the Northeast?

I have had my share of experiences, good, bad, and a lot of times, quiet amusing, because of the disconnect and lack of knowledge that the rest of India has about the Northeast region. But I wouldn’t put the blame squarely on them as there has always been a dearth of literature on the Northeast. We get to study about different regions of India as we grow up through our textbooks but there’s almost nothing that’s being taught in schools about the Northeast. It’s time we got better representation and acknowledgement outside, and one of the best ways to do that is for us to tell our stories to the outside world through different mediums. My main purpose behind making this film was precisely that - to show a bit of our way of life to the outside audience so they get to know us better. Build bridges between us, as it were, in some small way through my film. And I was so glad to see that everywhere the audience was so encouraging and genuinely interested to know more about the region.

What was the experience like shooting the film? What was your budget and how did you manage to market and fund the film?

Making this film was like a big get-together with friends and family. It was a wonderful experience but also quiet tough. We needed snowfall in the film so we shot in the month of December and January. It was bitterly cold with temperatures going below zero once the sun set, my crew was not used to the cold. Our equipment needed extra care. There were no roads to a lot of locations so we had to trek through mountains and cross rivers on foot. And since the crew was small, we carried all the equipment by ourselves. We made this film on a budget of Rs 35 lakh approximately, most of it was funded by my father. I also borrowed from relatives and friends. My director of production, Pooja Gupte, has a small marketing firm called EASEL, so we marketed the film through her company. It started with the film getting selected at the Work-in -progress section at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) and from there we were able to take off.

When was the first time you stepped out of your village to some other part of India? What was the experience like?

I have been studying at different schools at various places from a young age and so there was nothing dramatic as would have been if I’d suddenly left home and ventured out. My experience was a gradual one.

Now that you have been away from your village for years, where is home now?

This is a question I frankly have no answer to. Right now, I’m basically a nomad going wherever work takes me.

Are people ready to accept new and different voices from the Northeast?

Not only ready but also quiet eager. There’s a dearth of good cinema going out from the Northeast. What I noticed in my interactions with the audiences all over India is that people really want to see cinema from our region as it’s a new experience for them seeing a part of their country they know little about.

What kind of films do you see yourself making in the coming years? What is the next project that you are working on? Please tell us something about it. 

I would want to keep making films from the Northeast region as much as I can as I feel there are a lot of stories we have that need to be told. And if we don’t tell our own stories, then who will? I see enough subjects from our region to keep making films on for the rest of my life. So, my next project is also based on my state. It’s an issue-based film on a subject I feel that needs to be discussed and talked about, and hopefully my film helps in that direction.

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