'Ma.Ama': Film Review | Mumbai 2018

'Ma.Ama'
A curious but unemotional voyage inside an old man’s mind.

An elderly man contemplates death and hopes to be reunited with his long-dead wife in a very personal first film set in India’s Meghalaya state.

After Rima Das’ Village Rockstars (which was set in neighboring Assam) swept last year’s awards at the Mumbai Film Festival, it’s the turn of another northeast mountain film to focus attention on a little-known Indian region. In place of the hopes and dreams of the charming youngsters in Das’ film, debuting filmmaker Dominic Sangma’s Ma.Ama centers around a spry old gentleman who feels the time has come to settle his earthly affairs as he peers into a distressingly unknown future. It was the only Indian film selected for the Mumbai Film Festival’s international competition.

Sangma rummages through his family history to create a convincingly realistic, present-day portrait of his aged father, who is a pious Catholic. The pervasiveness of Christianity in the northeast state of Meghalaya will come as a surprise to many Westerners and could offer a bridge into the narrative, poised between fiction and documentary. However, the leisurely pace and two-hour running time will make this Indo-Chinese co-production a hard sell outside festival venues.

Playing himself, like the rest of the cast, Philip Sangma comes across as a self-centered patriarch but an admirably straight-arrow fellow, still sure-footed at 85 on the rugged mountain terrain and jungles surrounding his simple rural home. In the opening dream sequence, which is one of the film’s highlights, he sits on a bald mountain watching dozens of the village dead as they silently surround him. What anguishes him is that he can’t recognize the face of his first wife, Anna, who died some 25 years earlier and whom he still loves.

A doubt assails him: Is it possible that the dead change their appearance like the living? He journeys all the way to the city on a neighbor’s motorbike and visits his niece, a middle-aged nun in a Catholic convent, to ask this question. She directs him to a priest who quotes the Bible, but Philip returns home unsatisfied with no sure answer. Next, he consults a young girl who has visions, but with the same result.

Tormented by the idea that he may not meet Anna again, he obsessively cleans her grave. When his son asks him why he remarried so soon after her death, his practical answer is he needed someone to raise his small children. Off and on, we glimpse the seething resentment of his second wife, whom he treats as a housekeeper without the slightest show of love or affection. In a key scene at the stream where she is washing clothes the hard way, he sits on a rock with his grandkids while she energetically beats their clothes clean. He casually removes his underwear and tosses it to her with the order, “Wash these, too.” Yet this woman remains a shadow in the film, with a scant line of dialogue in which she bitterly tells him her plans after he dies.

Too often important opportunities like these to deepen the cast of characters is overlooked, undercutting what little drama there is in the story. This is clearly an extremely personal film for the director, and its hidden agenda is finding out what really happened to his mother. Perhaps this is why in the last third of the film, its richest vein, the filmmaker himself appears onscreen and relentlessly pushes the old man to face the past and tell him the facts he has avoided for all these years.

An electrifying last-ditch confrontation between Philip and an old rival, who is sitting in a jail cell waiting to be tried for murder, redeems some of the shilly-shallying that has gone before. For the record, though it’s never explained in the film, Ma.Ama comes from a Garo word meaning "to moan," but split in two it combines “mother” and “longing.”

Notable is Anon Cheran Momin and Gabriel Ga’re Momin's score, which ranges from otherworldly pan pipes to schoolgirls singing church hymns, subtly contrasting the region's two distant cultures.

Production company: Anna FIlms
Cast: Philip Sangma, Brilliant Marak, Hailin Sangma
Director, screenwriter: Dominic Sangma
Producers: Xu Jianshang, Dominic Sangma
Co-producer: Tojo Xavier
Director of photography: Acharya Venu
Editor: Hira Das
Music: Anon Cheran Momin, Gabriel Ga’re Momin
Venue: MAMI Mumbai Film Festival (International Competition)
123 mins.