Five years after his accomplished debut feature Ma.Ama, Dominic Megam Sangma is back with a beguiling new movie. Rapture, which has been premiered at the Locarno Film Festival, examines the collision between gullibility and tolerance in a village in Meghalaya’s Garo Hills.

Rapture begins with a cicada hunt at night. The beautifully filmed sequence, which uses a single lengthy take, sets the stage for the film’s distinctive visual grammar.

One of the villagers goes missing and then another. The village is gripped by panic. Might this be the work of “outsiders”? Is a kidnapping gang on the prowl?

A pastor declaims about the end of times (“Gone are the days of the forefathers!”) and prepares the villagers to face doomsday. Vigilante squads take their positions. Tempers rise, tensions spill over. Xenophobia crashes over the place.

Without stating it, Rapture crystallises the existential concerns in the North-East about the proposed National Register of Citizens as well as fears about migration from across the border. Beyond its immediacy, the film is a timeless portrayal of age-old fissures between indigenous beliefs and institutionalised religion, faith and scepticism, understanding and intolerance.

Rapture (2023). Courtesy Anna Films.

Sangma initially intended to follow up Ma.Ama, which starred his father in the lead role as a man looking for meaning in the twilight of his life, with a film exploring occult practices. “I wanted to make a trilogy about the village, my family and black magic, but the story for Rapture was in my heart and I wanted to let go of it,” the 37-year-old filmmaker said. Rapture too draws from his own experiences as a child, hearing stories of bogeymen scouring the landscape for victims.

The pastor in the film is played by Celestine K Sangma, a real-life cleric. Like in Ma.Ama, director Dominic Sangma has worked with mostly non-professional actors, many of whom heard echoes of their own religious beliefs in the screenplay.

“The apocalypse, the concept of rapture, of being in Hell and darkness, are all very prevalent here,” Sangma said. Among the characters is a woman who befriends the pastor, the coffin maker Sobel, the boy Kasan – who has a cleft lip – and his father, who is among the few doubters.

The 127-minute film is marked by events that unfold, rather than being spelt out. “It was really difficult to write – I felt that the film needed to be four hours long,” Sangma recalled. “It was difficult to bring all these characters together. I was also interested in glitches in human perception. How do you perceive when so much is going on? That is why I used deep focus and lots of layers in setting up the shots.”

Torikhu A Sangma in Rapture (2023). Courtesy Anna Films.

Among Sangma’s concerns was to challenge the simplistic ways in which viewers are invited to empathise with characters. At a basic level, this approach creates binaries – here is the hero and there is the villain. Rapture’s observational approach evokes curiosity for all its characters, whether is the pastor who is provoking the populace or the instigator whipping up frenzy.

“There are set rules for creating empathy, and I feel – and maybe I am wrong – that these devices somehow blur our perceptions,” said Sangma, who also conducts filmmaking workshops and lectures at the Film and Television Institute in Itanagar. “I wanted to show how human perception is fragile in a moment like this, when so many things that happening randomly and parallel to one other. Kasan, the pastor, Kasan’s father, all of them change over a period of time.”

Among the interesting ways in which Rapture plays with empathy is through the manner in which its characters communicate, Sangma pointed out.

“The pastor is rhetorical and speaks like a godman,” he said. “There is Amak, who stammers. Sobel doesn’t speak at all. Kasan’s father knows what is going on but his voice doesn’t have strength. There were these details I was trying to put into the screenplay.”

Rapture (2023).

The unravelling of reason emerges through long takes. Ma.Ama too was characterised by this stylistic device, which is beautiful to look at but challenging to pull off.

“I am in love with long takes,” Sangma said. “They capture time the way it is, rather than giving you information. In films, we are bombarded with information all the time, whether we want it or not. Why don’t we explore time itself?”

In an attention-deficit age where the eye is peeled to the cellphone and the mind is on several tracks at the same time, humankind has forgotten the value of stillness and repose, Sangma pointed out.

“We don’t have the respite to even feel the passing of time. We’re not observing things that are in front of us, we are unable to grasp them. In Rapture, Sobel is the only person who sits in one room. With all the chaos around him, he isn’t saying or doing anything and yet he knows exactly what’s going on. As filmmakers, we need to take a pause.”

Rapture has been shot by Tojo Xavier, Sangma’s batchmate at the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute. “Tojo introduced me to lots of films and books, and he also shot all my films at film school,” Sangma said.

Xavier made things “so easy” for Sangma that he wanted to challenge himself when embarking on Ma.Ama by working with a new cinematographer.

“All the things would be ready for me, but when it came to making Ma.Ama, I wanted to know whether I had any talent within me to do the film by myself.” Among Xavier’s feats is a bird’s eye view shot of the village – a moment of rapture tinged with the knowledge that nothing will never quite be the same again.

Dominic Megam Sangma.

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In ‘Ma.Ama’, an old man chases a dream about his long-dead wife and a son looks for his mother