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‘Our films tell our stories’

Filmmaker Dominic Sangma talks about his journey from Meghalaya to Cannes 2019, his critically acclaimed debut feature Ma.Ama, his beliefs, aspirations and more

How did your journey into filmmaking begin?

I come from a family of storytellers. My great-grandfather was an oral storyteller. It adds up to who you are as a person, when you are growing up. So, people might say that could be a reason.

It’s not because I saw some film and it moved me deeply that one day I decide to be a filmmaker. In 11th or 12th standard, when I was studying science in Shillong, I never knew filmmaking can be studied. I had no idea that there were film schools. But then I saw an ad in a newspaper of SRFTI (Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute, Kolkata) and FTII, Pune. Then I was like, ‘Wow, filmmaking can be studied too.’ So, I applied in both. And got into SRFTI.

Everybody in India grows up watching Bollywood and is influenced by these films. Thus, in the beginning even I thought one day I will go to Mumbai and make films. But at the film institute, things changed completely. It transformed me completely as a human being — as an artist and a filmmaker.

I watched altogether different kind of films. Those were the films I never expected to see — which remained with me, inspired me. Then my dream of going to Bollywood just disappeared.  I wanted to come back after I finish studying. So, after SRFTI, I was working in NFDC (in Kolkata) for two years. Then I quit my job and came back to Meghalaya to make my first feature film Ma.Ama.

Your debut feature Ma.Ama is quite unconventional – it has non-actors, is set in real background and also, it’s a personal story you have captured on screen. Tell us a little about the name and whole shooting process?

The need to make this film was to put out something that was heavy on my heart. I wanted to see things clearly – about which I was having doubt in life. This was something that was in my heart for a very long time. Before that I was writing another script — that was also a personal story — about my mother. But then it was seeming to be an expensive film and was not getting a budget to shoot that film.

One day I was unable to sleep, because it was really frustrating: I had left my job and had no idea what to do. The whole idea of Ma.Ama just came to me and  I started writing it down at 1 am. I was still writing at 8.30-9 in the morning. It is about an old man who chases a dream about his long dead wife and a son who looks for his mother. The word means “moan” and if one breaks it into two parts — it is Ma (mother) and Ama (longing).

Then I worked on the script for a month. I reached out to people to start shooting. So, I started thinking: What if I concentrate on the things I have right now. It’s like making a film without money. How do I maximise the resources I have — like people. I asked my sisters to make meals for the crew during shooting. I called up my friends to come on board: One of my juniors did the camerawork. Then I contacted my Chinese producer — whom I met in 2014 when I was making my diploma film. And from that time, we decided that whenever we make films, we will be part of each other’s work. Some people just came in without any expectation of money or anything. Also, the villagers came together to help me out whenever I was in need of it. Thus, this is a film which I did not make alone. This is the kind of love I have received from people.

Since it’s a sensitive topic and something your whole family was involved in, how challenging was it emotionally?

Sometimes telling a personal story is very difficult. I had to go through a process where I had to deal with it first. So as a filmmaker, it was like a healing process for me. It kind of made me accept life as it is, to embrace things as they are rather than brooding about it or feeling sad about what has happened in the past.

It was emotionally challenging because it involved a memory my family did not want to talk about or revisit — like something that we were intentionally or unintentionally avoiding because it brings heartache to the people who are involved in it.

At the same time, as an artist or filmmaker, it was also like a test for me to see whether I will be able to do this kind of film or to see whether I am cut out to make a film or to be a director. Because had I failed in Ma.ama, it had been a disaster for me. It might have been something from which I would not have recovered, as I put everything on stake while making it.

Finally, it became like a healing process. After making this film, the conversation between me, my stepmother and my father became lighter because there is nothing to hide.  It’s on the screen now. It’s like sometimes when you say things, it disappears. So it was necessary.

I don’t make films just for the sake of telling stories. It should be something that makes me disturbed about life or about things I am not being able to get over or which are not letting me sleep. I want to make a film which I want to share with the audience — it’s not them coming and watching the films, it’s me looking for a way to find my audience.

Tell us a little about your experience at Cannes.

There’s a section called La Fabrique Cinema in Cannes – conducted by Institut Francais. What they do is select 10 projects from around the world and help us get producers or funding. The project I am working on — Rapture — was selected under this section. They’ll discuss how to go about it and how to take it forward. It was one of the best things that happened to me. In a way, it gives you hope that there are people out there to help you in making the film you believe in.

I can’t express the whole experience in words! I have been to Cannes before without my film but with your projects going there, it’s huge! It’s like if you are a football player and you are asked what it means to be a part of the World Cup. But at the end of the day, you cannot be overwhelmed by this kind of thing. What we need to take away from these experiences is to make a good film that is important — that will stay with people forever. The event will pass, but the films we watch stay and become a part of our lives.

Good cinema consists of films that can be watched again and again, discovering new things every time. So, one should be truthful to the experiences of life he/she wants to share, not to surprise or thrill the audience but to show life as it is. So that viewers can connect at a spiritual level and it will remain with them forever.

What is the present scenario of North-eastern film industry?

I think it’s going great. Many people here are making good films. If you watch Rima Das’ Village Rockstars — you’ll understand how the film is rooted deeply to this place. There’s no fakeness in it, no external view or perspective. Same with Ma.Ama – it is very rooted.

This is also because we are not well-represented in Indian cinema. Few directors in North-East realised the kind of films we should be putting out — the need to speak and show who we are as persons. And thus, this sudden upsurge of North-eastern cinema in India and outside came about. I think it is very good time for us. What we have to nurture is the importance of being who we are and what we really want to say, rather than wanting popularity.

Tell us about your new project.

I am working on my second feature Rapture. It is about a 10-year old boy who suffers from night blindness and his fear of the dark. It will be a mystery and mixture of other things.