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Manipur’s Cinematic Journey

MORE than 40 feature and non-feature films packaged the first-of-a-kind Manipuri Film Festival entitled “Nongpokthong – The Eastern Gate” held in Delhi last month. Screened at various colleges like Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Millia Islamia, the presence of Manipuri filmmakers, directors, including the renowned Aribam Syam Sharma, writers and actors added sparkle to the occasion.

The show kicked off with a feature film rightly titled Matamgi Manipur, meaning Present Day Manipur, which was made in 1972, the year Manipur attained statehood. Directed by Debkumar Bose, the script was written by Arambam Somorendra. A family drama depicting the transition of a society faced with contemporary realities, it reveals the conflict of self and identity in the onslaught of the modern state. Somorendra was a student leader of several social movements back then.

Then came the internationally acclaimed Imagi Ningthem (My Son, My Precious) which was made in 1981, directed by Aribam Syam Sharma and written by Binodini Devi, who died recently and was the first woman recipient of the Padma Shri in literature and arts in 1976. A “women-centric” film, Imagi Ningthem was based on the life of a rural woman, an educated working woman and a housewife, each with a “common, similar sense of feeling and understanding”. All three women go through different levels and forms of struggle in their everyday life. Imagi Ningthem won the Grand Prix at the Nante Festival in 1982 – the first Indian film to have won such an award.

Films and filmmaking were not uncommon even before 1947. The last of the Manipuri princes, Maharajkumar Priyobrata, who later became the first chief minister, made about 50 films with his own camera during the 1930s. Most of these were “recordings” of social and cultural events. According to noted film critic, RK Bidur, these camera recordings by Priyobrata were “films of actuality”.

Along with the “digital revolution” came several contemporary Manipuri feature and documentary films. From the 1990s, Manipuri films were oriented towards romance and entertainment and were highly commercial and melodramatic. While documentary films did quite well — AFSPA 1958 by Haobam Paban won an international and a national award — other documentaries also made it to national recognition, such as Mr. India and Sanakeithel.

Unlike films in the 1970s, digitized works of the 1990s did not make much of an impact. Not only did these move away from “contemporary realities”, they were at times in stark contradiction. One found a woman in “Western costume” in a rural setting, or running around trees in a high-class family drama. Most of these films depicted violence, though not of the state vs. non-state conflict or communal conflicts that Manipur continually faces. The only progress made can be said to be of “color”.

The recent release, Mami Sami, meaning Blur, is a bold contemporary film that depicts Manipuri society as well the state’s cinematic journey. Directed and written by Lancha Ningthouja, a promising young filmmaker is an out-of-the-blue relief from the cinema Manipuris watch in these current times. It is yet another heartrending “women-centric” story of ordinary people sandwiched by “conflicts” of varying kinds and layers. The film depicts how Manipuris, either rural or urban, are intertwined and caught in a web of conflict. It contextualizes and brings into perspective Manipur’s contemporary situation.

From the black-and-white Matamgi Manipur to the contemporary digital Mami Sami, Manipuri films have come a long way. Films of the 1970s, like Matamgi Manipur and later Imagi Ningthem recognized the role of women and their contribution in the family and society at large, but they either did not portray any antagonism, or did not focus on individual characters. In the last century, Manipuri films saw an “antagonistic” evolution with the focus on individual characters. Many of the films in the 1990s films had “state-centric” themes woven around stories of police officers, bureaucrats and businessmen, yet these characters did not deal with an “armed militant group or insurgencies”.

Strangely, a story based on the infamous Nupi Lan (the women’s war in 1938 against the British) has not hit the silver screen. Imakeithel, an exception, has been reproduced as Sanakeithel. A closer view reveals that 1970s Manipuri feature films actually made strong statements: about how women are still confine to the role of “mother” or “hold the family together”, how she “sacrifices and suffers”. The evolution towards a more Westernized outlook of them playing second fiddle to the “male hero” is portrayed in the films of the 1990s.

Of late, it seems difficult to draw a line between reel and real life of Manipuri women. As depicted in the story of Tayal in Mami Sami, contemporary Manipuri women’s lives and their stories clearly appear to blur.

*The article is written by Ninglun Hanghal

*The writer is a freelance contributor to the Statesman, India

(Courtesy: The Statesman, India)

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