Director: Dominic Megam Sangma
Writer: Dominic Megam Sangma
Cast: Torikhu A. Sangma, Handam R. Marak, Celestine K. Sangma
Early on in Rapture, a cherubic little boy runs with desperate haste away from two other boys, who yell at him, promising to teach him a “real lesson”. The first boy is Kasan (Torikhu A. Sangma) and the two chasing him are his friends who have been punished in class because of a prank they played on Kasan. The two boys catch up with Kasan and pin him down to the ground. Kasan whimpers that he hadn’t ratted his friends out to the teacher, but maybe his mother had said something. One of the boys threatens Kasan, “If you ever complain again, I’ll punch your face.” They demand Kasan apologise to them, which Kasan does without hesitation, his words softened and muffled by virtue of his cleft lip and being face down in dirt. “Do you mind that we do this to you?” one of the boys asks. Kasan says no. They let him go and in sharp contrast to how they were holding him down, the two boys tenderly straighten Kasan up, dusting the dirt off his clothes. “Are we still friends?” one of the boys asks Kasan, his tone gentle and empty of threats. “Yes, we are,” Kasan replies. The three of them amble homewards and one of Kasan’s friends repeats his threat, “If you complain again, I’ll punch your face”. This time, his voice has none of the anger and menace it had before. It’s playful as the scene of bullying shifts into one showing camaraderie, underlining the constrictions and support that one gets from belonging to a community.
Later in the film, Kasan will witness how differently people react when the one they’re bullying is considered an outsider, and it will reduce the boy to a terrified mess.
Set in a village in the Garo hills, Rapture is the portrait of a community that’s collapsing under the weight of its fears. The forested cloister that is home to Kasan and his family looks idyllic but is beset with predators, both imagined and real. There are bullies who are also friends; there’s the pastor who urges the community to come together primarily to extort donations for his “Apocalyptic Relief Fund”; and there’s the fear of outsiders, who are rumoured to be sneaking into these areas and kidnapping children and young men.
The village’s remoteness offers no protection from cruelty and anxiety. At a time when ethnic violence has savaged Manipur and internment is a reality for those deemed outsiders in Assam because they didn’t have the paperwork to back up their citizenship claims, the village in Rapture feels like a diorama depicting the issues plaguing the outside world. Even those who seem innocent lean into violence in Rapture, often without any obvious provocation. Is there any connection between the way Kasan is bullied and his casually pressing a knife against a pet cat’s neck? Does it matter that the one place that feels like a refuge to Kasan is the workshop of a coffin maker? What does it do to a boy to know that he is, unwittingly or otherwise, complicit in acts of spectacular cruelty?
Kasan feels very much like the village’s conscience in this film that moves at an unhurried pace, all the while tightening a coil of tension around its slice-of-life story. The little boy flits in and out of Rapture, which keeps its eye on a number of people, including Kasan’s father (Hangdam R. Marak), who is a respected community member and leads the village’s night patrol; the pastor (played by real-life cleric Celestine K. Sangma) who is frustrated by the way his congregation would rather appease forest nymphs rather than repose their faith in the church that he represents; and the recently-widowed Kimkime (Balsrame A. Sangma), who finds herself in a position both powerful and vulnerable now that she’s single and available. Faced with the fear of outsiders and mysterious disappearances, the villagers become more and more wound up. Adding to their anxieties is the pastor who says a great calamity is prophesied, but which may be avoided by making a donation on top of the one-tenth of earnings that the village gives the church. It should come as no surprise that the pastor turns out to be singularly vice-ridden, but he’s not the only villain. Victims and villains are everywhere in the village as rumours and misinformation fester.
Slow, measured and rich with symbolism, the elegance that Sangma showed in his thoughtful debut Ma•Ama (2018) — starring his father, who passed away in 2022 and to whom Rapture is dedicated — has evolved into greater grace and maturity in this second film. Ma•Ama slipped between documentation and storytelling, creating a film that felt authentic and rooted, while also playing up the lyricism of fiction. The same is true of Rapture, which draws on real issues, is attentive to realism and set in the same region as Ma•Ama. The stylistic flourishes we get from Rapture’s technical aspects, like cinematography and sound design, are richer this time round. Particularly noteworthy is how Sangma explores complex ideas without resorting to didactic sequences or blunt messaging.
Rapture — which refers in Christianity to an event that will end everything before resurrecting true believers — begins with a mesmerising scene in which the villagers rifle through the night-dark forest, looking for cicadas. (This variety of cicada is also known as the “World Cup insect” because they come out once in four years.) Armed with lanterns and torches, which from a distance look like fireflies, the villagers look for the cicadas in the undergrowth and on the barks of trees. Each person gleams like a small orb, surrounded by shadow and night. The imagery of light in darkness recurs in Rapture, which opens with a quote attributed to American jazz legend Thelonius Monk — “Either it’s night, or we don’t need light” — which suggests darkness is the default condition of the universe. Light breaks through the darkness repeatedly in Rapture, often in startlingly beautiful sequences that show cinematographer Tojo Xavier’s keen understanding of shadow and contrast.
Yet it’s difficult to tell whether the light really is a relief, or if it’s just an illusion that leads the people in Rapture deeper into darkness. The sight of a procession carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary through the forest has all the shimmer of a miracle waiting to happen, but the statue is just a prop to convince the congregation to bow to a selfish pastor’s will. Lanterns and fireflies seem to guide Kasan home when he’s scared and lost, but the real dangers are still lurking around him and becoming cruel seems to be the only way to survive.
The idea of the outsider is one that Rapture looks at from different angles. When a young man disappears, his family turns to their indigenous pagan beliefs, showing how Christianity is still on the cusp of acceptance, despite prevailing in the region for centuries. The police officer, regardless of his ethnic similarities with villagers, is an outsider since he comes from the city and his uniform makes him an agent of the state that is almost like a foreign entity. When his jeep trundles into the village thana, schoolboys chirrup, “Police car! Let’s catch it!” as though the police is an exotic butterfly. At the end of Rapture, the police vehicle and the idea of being caught takes on a more sinister aspect. The only place where the outsider seems to be relatively safe is not in the village, but in the forest. At one point in Rapture, Kasan and his uncle encounter a family of non-locals. They’re quite obviously Muslim. Kasan is immediately unnerved to see someone who is so obviously different in the forest that he considers home ground. He takes a step back. But in the forest, away from the tensions and politics of human settlement, it’s possible for these two sets of people to see each other and go in peace. When the paths of these two communities cross in the village, the outcome is very different. Without saying so in as many words, Rapture raises questions about whether the outsider deserves to be vilified when those who belong seem to revel in terrorising their own.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that Rapture, rooted in a remote part of Meghalaya, has been made possible because of Indian and Chinese producers, support from a Swiss agency and a grant from the an Arab institute — which is as poetically fitting as it gets for a film that pivots on the anxiety about outsiders destroying local culture and people.