Meenakshi Shedde: Trial by film

Nov 11, 2018, 09:23 IST | Meenakshi Shedde

That a small, homemade, debut feature from Meghalaya scored over the offerings of Bollywood, Kollywood and Tollywood, makes this David-and-Goliath story even more masaledar

Meenakshi Shedde: Trial by film
Illustration/Ravi Jadhav

Meenakshi SheddeUnfinished business in the love department is the central theme of Dominic Megam Sangma’s Ma’Ama (Moan, in Garo, from Meghalaya). It is extraordinary that the only Indian film in the International Competition of the Mumbai Film Festival, that concluded last week, was Ma’Ama from the Northeast, whose film industries are little fireflies, compared to the juggernauts of the Hindi, Tamil and Telugu film industries.

The film opens with a superb sequence, in which Philip, Dominic’s own 85-year-old father, is on a bald, windy mountain, surrounded by a score of silent, sullen women. It is his nightmare: his wife died 25 years ago, and he wants to tell her that he loves her — something he didn’t bother to do in all their lifetime together. But he is troubled, because he is unable to recognise his wife anymore. That apart, Dominic himself has no real memories of his mother, who died when he was about two: all his memories are secondhand, inherited from his family. The film is a quest to find out who she really was. All these combine to make an intriguing film, with eloquent silences that are rare in Indian cinema.

That a small, homemade, debut feature from Meghalaya scored over the offerings of Bollywood, Kollywood and Tollywood, makes this David-and-Goliath story even more masaledar. What’s more, it is an Indo-Chinese film, co-produced by Xu Jianshang and Sangma. His crew were mostly friends from the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute, Kolkata, where he studied. As if that weren’t enough, Rima Das’s Bulbul Can Sing, from Assam, bagged the Golden Gateway at the festival, while her Village Rockstars is India’s entry to the Oscars.

In fact, Sangma belongs to the new generation of international filmmakers from the Northeast, whose films have been at the Berlin, Toronto, Busan or Mumbai Film Festivals, including Das, Bhaskar Hazarika (Assamese), Haobam Paban Kumar (Manipuri) and Sange Dorjee Thongdok (Sherdukpen dialect of Arunachal Pradesh).

In Ma’Ama, it is hard to tell where documentary ends and fiction begins; the film is substantially autobiographical. Dominic’s family members — his father, siblings, stepmother, even the villagers — play themselves. Despite the calm and occasionally, even painfully slow goings-on, the director’s need to seek closure seems to drive the film. In fact, it is a trial by film. He finally gets his father to acknowledge that he was hardly there for his mother, leaving her to raise the family. In the end, Philip even meets his wife’s lover, now in jail for murder. Dominic’s mother apparently died of ‘black magic.’ We also meet Dominic’s stepmother, who stoically says she is fed up of feeding Philip and cleaning his shit; she can’t wait to go back to her own village after he dies. Dominic needs to hold his father accountable, but it is not so much revenge, as an exhausted acceptance and letting go of the past.

It is also fascinating to see this film in the context of other Indo-Chinese themed/co-produced films so far, mostly balderdash: Warner’s Chandni Chowk to China, or Jackie Chan’s The Myth or Kung Fu Yoga (Hong Kong). In The Myth, Chan and Mallika Sherawat are stuck on a conveyor belt with ‘rat glue,’ with Sherawat’s clothes coming off one by one. Given these antecedents, Sangma’s film, for all its flaws, is a pensive one, that will remain with me for a long time.

Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at meenakshishedde@gmail.com

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