BVFF 2023 | ‘Sangi-Gai’ movie review: A superb, arresting Arunachali fantasy drama

Minor flaws aside, Nyago Ete’s ‘Sangi-Gai’ is a unique, enthralling fantasy drama that leaves you wishing to spend more time in its world

Published - December 19, 2023 02:44 pm IST

A still from ‘Sangi-Gai’

A still from ‘Sangi-Gai’ | Photo Credit: @thespacedotmedia/Instagram

The first 15 minutes or so of this Nyishi-language fantasy drama is an enthralling piece of cinema unlike anything I have seen in recent times; it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to call it an Arunachali Apocalypse Now-meets-Churuli. The year is 1905 and we see a team of Chinese soldiers infiltrate the tribal lands of Arunachal to retrieve a mysterious Tibetan chest, only to get brutally hunted by tribesmen from the village of Sangi-gai. However, one lone soldier escapes, inadvertently opens the box, and upon touching a golden orb inside it, gets pulled into a portal.

Cut to nine years later, a tribesman from the village, Tamar (Tarh Tama), comes across the box while searching for his brother in the woods and gets pulled into the portal. He wakes up in a mysterious world, one in which kids holding a rectangular black device mock his appearance, rectangular boxes with wheels move you around, people buy food with coloured paper, women dance together in the streets and so on. The year is 2023. The morose tone of the beginning of the film only ensures that the scenes spun around this situation don’t come at the comedic expense of either Tamar or modern humans. In fact, watching him thank a river for feeding him with fish only leaves you miffed at the general lack of gratitude for nature in modern society.

A still from ‘Sangi-Gai’

A still from ‘Sangi-Gai’ | Photo Credit: @thespacedotmedia/Instagram

Sangi-Gai (Nyishi)
Director: Nyago Ete
Cast: Tarh Tama, Tai Tugung, Kendy Zirdo, Chomina Beyong
Runtime: 133 minutes
Storyline: When a tribesman from the village of Sangi-Gai comes across a mysterious chest containing a golden orb, a portal appears and he gets expatriated to a strange new world

Tamar gets rescued by Tugung (Tai Tugung), a culture-saviour Hindi professor, who ironically happens to be the only one in the vicinity who can speak Tamar’s Nyishi dialect. With no missing person report filed, even the police refuse to take any action, and Tugung is forced to reconnect with his ex-girlfriend, a social worker named Riter (Kendy Zirdo, who was seen in the Malayalam film Cheena Trophy this year). She, meanwhile, is fighting her own fight, against illegal constructions that have caused landslides but at the mention of Tamar’s village — Sangi-gai — Riter drops everything and helps Tugung find a way to send Tamar back home.

Another filmmaker would have given in to the temptation of taking you back to the adrenaline-filled Sangi-gai of the early 1900s, through flashbacks at least, but director Nyago Ete refuses to do so. You inadvertently begin to wait with Tamar to return to his home, only to realise that the story is not about what Sangi-gai was, but what happened to it, what the world has come to, what the magical box represents, and the larger politics behind all this. In fact, there’s wonderful restraint in how Ete uses the sci-fi/fantasy tropes (there’s a hint of supernatural elements as well) and special effects.

A still from ‘Sangi-Gai’

A still from ‘Sangi-Gai’ | Photo Credit: @thespacedotmedia/Instagram

Through Riter’s subplot, the writing tries to draw a parallel to mankind’s greed and the erosion of the environment and tribal settlements, but it takes too much time away from the story of Tamar. And Riter’s rekindled romance with Tugung, though subdued, just doesn’t fit into the proceedings. But all that never really pulls you away from the world that Ete has created. Thanks to the splendid production design, costumes (Junnu Pingam) and music (Kekho Thiamkho), the film only makes you wish to spend more time in this world.

When I stepped out after watching Sangi-Gai, I wished I wasn’t ignorant about Ete’s debut feature film, the Arunachali film scene and the Nyishi language. One can only wish the market players with the potential to take this film to a bigger audience understand that our ignorance shouldn’t be mistaken as their obscurity. The production value of this film, above all, is evidence of that. Sangi-Gai, minor flaws aside, is unlike any film you see in your routine viewings.

The writer was in Jyoti Chitrabon Film Studio, Guwahati, Assam, at the invitation of the Brahmaputra Valley Film Festival

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