Dominic Megam Sangma’s enchanting Ma.Ama opens with a dream sequence before settling into a cinematic reality that is equal parts autobiography and observational documentary. Ninety-year-old Philip Sangma is the only man among several women on a hill. Philip is searching for his dead wife, Anna, among the crowd. As he explains later to his family, and the rest of the 123-minute film follows Philip’s quest for answers about his past, reconciliation with his memory of Anna, and the inevitability of death.

Philip’s beloved wife died years ago, allegedly after a black magic ritual. Philip cannot get Anna out of his mind in the twilight of his life. His journey makes him face an uncomfortable truth about Anna as well as deal with his relationship with his second wife, who tartly reminds him that she has always been second best.

The story of Ma.Ama is a universal one, but also carries immense personal meaning for its performers. The Garo-language film is set in the director’s village on the border between Meghalaya and Assam. Philip Sangma is named after and played by the filmmaker’s father, and leads a cast of non-professionals who have never faced a camera before. While the film is decidedly fiction, it slides into the documentary mode ever so often in the observational sequences that capture Philip’s habits and activities with tremendous verisimilitude.

Ma.Ama has a Chinese co-producer, and is the only Indian title to be selected for the international competition section at the Mumbai Film Festival (October 25-November 1). Its accomplished 31-year-old writer and director is a Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute graduate who has previously made short films. One of these, Rong’Kuchak (Echoes) features Philip Sangma in a small role – an acting exercise that appears to have prepared him for a movie that features him in nearly every frame.

Rong’Kuchak (2015).

The film’s title is hard to translate. Ma.Ama literally means “moan”, but when the word is split into two, it acquires a meaning closer to the theme: ma means mother and ama, longing. The longing in the film is twofold: both Philip and his son are searching for meaning after Anna’s death in different ways. Dominic Sangma was two-and-a-half years old when his mother died, and the movie became a way to resurrect her. At one point in Ma.Ama, the director enters the narrative, filming everyday behaviour and rituals connected with the family’s Christian faith.

“I was writing a different film before, but it was impossible at the time,” Sangma said in an interview from Shillong, where he lives when he isn’t teaching direction and script writing at the Film and Television Institute in Itanagar. “That film too was about my mom and about my memories of her. One day I was lying in bed, unable to sleep. I thought, what if I make a film on the present rather than going back into memories? Then I started thinking about my dad. He would often take black-and-white photos of my mom and get them coloured. One day, he spoke to me of his dream. That dream was the beginning of the process.”

Ma.Ama (2018).

The film that Sangma eventually came up with is a leisurely narrative, comprising long takes and minutely observed sequences that allow Philip Sangma’s personality and his intercations with other characters to play out in full view. “I was guided by the situations and events that were happening in front of us,” Sangma said. “The previous script was emotional, but I thought that this time, I would just let things happen. As I tried to allow myself to grasp the reality, everything started to be revealed to me.”

Some of the incidents were unscripted, such as a religious procession through the village. In such moments, Sangma and cinematographer Acharya Venu simply shot what was in front of them. Other moments were recreated for the film to echo the way in which they unfolded in the real world. In one sequence in Ma.Ama, Philip finishes bathing and casually chucks his briefs at his second wife to be washed – another unscripted moment that was reshot for the film.

“I know my father well, and I know what sort of a man he is,” Sangma said. “The part about him throwing his underwear just happened, and I made him do it again in another take. In many other places, I was trying to achieve something very real, like there is no director or cameraman. For instance, the sequence where dad cleans mom’s grave – this is what he does.”

Philip Sangma’s reaction to the finished film reveals Ma.Ama’s ability to erase the line between documentary fiction: he told his son, I am looking at myself in a mirror.

The low-budget film was shot in two schedules over 14 days. Acharya Venu, whose camera captures the gentle rhythms and natural beauty of the landscape, stayed with the Sangma clan for some days before embarking on the shoot. Just like the actors (many of them Sangma’s family members who are playing themselves) improvised their dialogue, Venu didn’t have a script to work with. “In the beginning he was nervous, but after a few days, he got things beyond what I was expecting,” Sangma said.

Ma.Ama (2018). Courtesy Anna Films.

As father and son chase their memories of a long-dead family member, another minor character stakes her claim to the story. Through the film, Dominic Sangma says he was able to make his peace with his stepmother, who appears to be labouring under the shadow of Anna’s memory.

“This film is almost a way of telling my stepmother, I accept you,” Sangma said. “I felt that there was something wrong with the film, and I realised that I wasn’t including her because I wasn’t able to accept her. She was like an accessory in my dad’s life. I spoke to her and gained her trust to make her a part of the film.”

Sangma’s journey to find out more about his mother hasn’t ended. He intends a follow-up on what he calls the “misunderstanding” arising from the occult practice that allegedly killed her. “I have not achieved complete redemption yet, I still want to find out more about the black magic episode,” he said.

Dominic Megam Sangma.