A Professor’s Homesick Film

Bimol Akoijam’s take on diaspora, brain drain and the intractable problems facing Manipur

Angomcha Bimol Akoijam, an Associate Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, wears many hats. He is a regular commentary junkie in TV and press, a film critic, a writer, a frequent speaker in national seminars and workshops circuit, a rights crusader and is also one of the most articulate living Manipuris on Earth. So when I came to know that the professor is making a movie, I was excited. This man may have yet another trick up his sleeves and it may well turn out to be a genre-defining phenomenon. I must watch his maiden movie Karigee Kiruni Nungshiradee, I decided.

That opportunity came on 4thJanuary, 2014 at JN Dance Academy, where the movie was premiered before a select crowd of Bimol’s friends from the press, academia and film industry. After the film came to an end and the credits rolled, I walked out from the hall with mixed feelings.

The film can be reviewed in two ways: one from the perspective of the ideas that drive the film and another from a purely technical and aesthetic angle, i.e. lights, camera and action!

Let’s begin with the ideas first as they are Bimol Akoijam’s forte. In 82 minutes of showtime, Bimol tries to show the stark contrast between life in a metro city and that in Manipur. Delhi is shown as a mecca of freedom. There is freedom in being able to go out anywhere at any time, even during night, to wine and dine at the many restaurants that remain open till late hours. There is no fear of bomb blasts or the ubiquitous and menacing presence of security forces. The killings and violence that mars our happiness in Manipur does not rear its ugly head in Delhi. People in Delhi sleep peacefully and the morning newspaper doesn’t give them the jitters and ruin their breakfast. They breathe free. Even the different communities who would be at each other’s throats in Manipur live as friends sharing warm camaraderie when they stay together in Delhi. Something about Delhi changes the Manipuris at a fundamental level. They start to mingle, laugh together, and empathize with one another— leaving behind baggage of social constructs such as class, caste and ethnicity that sears the Manipur society back home. They begin to speak a common language of love and dress alike as would be befitting in a metro. But behind this seeming comfort, is something nipping at their conscience? Does the unfairness of the disparity between Delhi and Manipur agonize them?

Bimol has the protagonists of the film harp on lack of development in the State. In the conversations that take place constantly throughout the film, the characters bemoan the lack of basic amenities like electricity, running water and good roads in Manipur. The film emphasizes the fact that Delhi bustles with activity in night. As if to underscore that point, the entire film is shot during night—under the fluorescent lightings of restaurants, glow of street lamps and the bulbs in the living room. There is this one midnight scene in JNU jungles where couples walk through the bushes without any fear—perhaps to highlight the contradiction that, in Manipur shops close down before sunset and roads wear a deserted look soon after. The film also brought into its narrative the subject of brain drain, of many bright young Manipuri men and women compelled to take odd jobs outside the State due to lack of employment avenues. One particular scene is notable: an educated English speaking girl hailing from Churachandpur is shown serving customers in a restaurant in Delhi, one of the many such smart Manipuris working in the hospitality industry. The protagonist in the film blames official corruption as the root cause of such flight of talent from the State to the mainland India and abroad. The film ends with a subtle hint that the problems facing Manipur can be solved if her prodigal sons and daughters return to Manipur to save her and reclaim the reins instead of leaving the State to her irresponsible off springs who have plundered, looted and made a mess of everything. “Fight or flight, it’s a matter of choice” reads the text on the last scene of the film that dissolves ominously into the image of the Kangla Gate accompanied by an eerie music.

The essence of Bimol Akoijam’s Karigee Kiruni Nungshiradee can be distilled into one line: Diaspora can save Manipur. It’s a bold statement and a credible one at that. Only that, it’s not entirely true.

The fact is, the Manipuri diaspora lives in a bubble. The adopted places where the Manipuris work and live are not their own and may not be the paradises they seem. If Delhi is the pretty stepmother and then Imphal is the poor biological mother with her tattered clothes. But behind that veneer of sophistication, the pretty stepmother has chinks and dirty secrets, and she has the knack to hide them. She is the cynosure of all eyes and adulation. Her cunning blinds our diaspora.

It is true that there is a lively nightlife in Delhi. The good part of it is that ATM booths, petrol pumps, restaurants, etc remain open all night. Then there are the morally repugnant hotspots like bars, discotheques and sleazy underbelly of human trafficking. Do we want them all implanted here in Paona Bazar? Not at all.

The director devoted some precious frames to focus on the issue of brain drain. To prove that exodus of Manipuris to other States is bad for the native place, Bimol Akoijam, through his actors, laments the waste of Manipur’s human capital to serve the interests of an alien place. On one hand, many young boys and girls from Manipur work as waiters, receptionists, salespeople, employees in spa saloons, etc. in pitiable working condition in the lower end of the spectrum of job profiles. On the brighter side, there are many Manipuris who hold highly paid, respectable jobs in government and private sector, notably service and technology industry. A perfect example is Bimol Akoijam. This latter category of Manipuri diaspora is increasing exponentially in number and reach and they enhance the brand of Manipur in a manner similar to Hollywood movies creating soft power for the country of its origin.

People like Bimol are our exports to the world, and ironically they are mistaken as victims of brain drain. It isn’t.

In case you forget, the home of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is also one of the most corrupt in the world. If corruption exists in Manipur, its quantum in Delhi is mind-boggling. You only need to read the newspapers to gauge the extent of corruption and scams originating in Delhi. People chase peanuts in Manipur; in Delhi, they go nuts after the entire currency chest. This is not to trivialize or condone corruption in Manipur. It is relevant in the context that Delhi doesn’t fare better on this benchmark either.

The oft-repeated subject of conversation in the film is the situation of turmoil and armed conflict in Manipur. Let’s see how far that is true. By his own account, Bimol said he was toying with the idea of making this film since many years back and when he finally decided to go ahead, it took him three years to complete it. In those intervening years, things have changed dramatically in Manipur. The culture of violence has tapered; armed groups have come to the negotiating table and signed suspension of operations pacts; kidnappings for ransoms have declined; bureaucrats stop getting daily threats to their lives and public participation in the Republic Day and Independence Day celebrations has seen a revival. Security Forces have received human rights training and become more sensitive. Irom Sharmila seems to be at a receiving end and divides her attention between the public campaign for repealing AFSPA and her private love life as is evident from her pronouncements in the national media.

If you ask me what then the bane of the Manipuri society is at this juncture, it is the increasing crimes against women and not the run-of-the-mill bomb blasts. Bombs and bullets are so yesterday and a nuisance but they no longer occupy the top place in the zeitgeist of our most serious concerns. In a sense, the myopic obsession of the State with CI ops has diverted focus and resources away from solving crimes against women to their logical conclusions. Even in this regard, Delhi fares no better. Delhi is the rape capital of India. When Bimol’s film shows women strolling in the jungles of JNU in the night, it amuses me because that seems so disingenuous. Beyond the campus of JNU lies the most dangerous place for women to live and work in India. The Delhi gang rape of 16thDecember, 2012 is still fresh in our minds. I rest my case.

Of course, Manipur still lives in a dark age when it comes to electricity for its villages and towns. Its power grid remains cut off from the national distribution system. However, things are brightening up. Prepaid electricity is being made available in Imphal and it is being rolled out into ever more number of territories. Recent announcements from the Power Department suggests that power situation will improve significantly by the end of this year as more power grids are being added to the power distribution system and state’s own capacity is being augmented.

In another positive sign, many banks, both public sector and private, are opening their branches to cater to the public and the beneficiaries of central sponsored schemes, mostly rural and impoverished masses. Three years ago, perhaps at the time when Bimol started shooting, there were just a couple of ATM booths at MG Avenue and people had to stand in a long queue for a chance to use it. Now ATMs are not a novelty anymore and they are at every turn of the corner in Imphal area.

If you think about it, the relative advantages of living in a metro city are offset by the health hazards caused by environmental pollution. We breathe air in Manipur, they breathe smog in Delhi. Secondly, you will never be able to really blend in. Racial profiling and discrimination is a grim reality in Delhi you have to live with. The sense of alienation is palpable and that can kill your soul and spirit, bit by bit, everyday.

From the technical and aesthetic consideration (lights, camera, action), Bimol Akoijam’s film leaves a lot desired. The editing seems choppy. The background music seems arbitrary and clumsily imposed on the scenes without rhyme and reason. The pace of the movie is too slow to be riveting, particularly the opening scene that drags on and on pointlessly to show Ashang taking a shower and changing clothes (which may be forgiven had it been a horror movie or the person in the bathroom was Sunny Leone). The plot is simplistic and fails to build up tension or a climax. There are no twists, turns, bends or u-turns in the storyline. It’s just two besotted lovebirds making small talk to each other (though in a dream). It is a story that doesn’t run—much less carry the film firmly on its shoulders.

To Bimol’s credit, the film breaks some taboos and brings in a whiff of fresh ideas. The lead male is played by a Tangkhul boy (Ashang) whose love interest is a Meitei girl (Thoibi). The film starts with a longish dialogue in Tangkhul language, catching you off guard. There are brilliant flashes of humor in the film and I think Bimol shows promise to become more successful directing comedies and satires, which is a hard genre to master. The language used in the film seems natural and unaffected. But the most uplifting part of the movie is the melodious song by Guru Rewben Mashangva and Premlata and it is a treat to the viewers. The actors are fresh faces which lend themselves amenable to any role the director could imagine, and they did justice to their characters of people-next-door living in Delhi as friends and lovers.

This is an intellectual film made by an intellectual for the intellectuals. The common man in the street may find it confusing and even boring. Not a surprise since this is a work of art by a professor who is more adept with pen than with camera. It is a wonderful first attempt that tantalizes rather than satiate. It’s a teaser of more to come from Bimol.

However commendable as it is, I suggest serious filmmakers to turn their gaze away from the depressing theme of violence and cynicism that is done to death by many producers earlier who have even bagged awards at the international film festivals. Why not look beyond and focus on sunny developmental issues, Look East Policy, new opportunities for youths in the new world order, sports, culture etc.

And before I wind up, here’s a simple question for Mr. Akoijam: Will you fight in Manipur or take flight to Delhi?

*The opinion is written by Ranjan Yumnam.

(Courtesy: The Sangai Express)

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