Being a movie buff in Imphal
Manipur’s ban on Hindi films has helped local film-makers. But their biggest hurdle remains the state’s cultural gatekeepers
Oinam Doren, the Imphal-based independent film-maker, was in college when the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, released in Manipur in the 1990s. The film was an instant hit—girls wanted the kind of sunglasses Kajol, the film’s heroine, wore, while boys emulated Khan’s mannerisms. Doren remembers bunking college to watch the film in Asha, which, along with Jina, its twin theatre, was among the dozen-odd cinema theatres in Imphal back then.
All of them would screen Hindi films, says Doren, whose Songs Of Mashangva, based on the Manipuri singer-songwriter-guitarist Rewben Mashangva, won the National Award for the Best Anthropological/Ethnographic Film in 2010. He is currently stitching up his documentary on Manipuri theatre doyen Heisnam Kanhailal.
Rangeela, starring Aamir Khan and Urmila Matondkar, released in 1995—and with it came the craze for the “Rangeela boots” worn by the heroine. Every school-going girl, including Doren’s sister, wanted them. “Everybody knew Hindi from Bollywood films. Language was never the problem,” recounts Doren, as he works on his laptop at his friend’s studio in Imphal. “The cultural impact of Hindi films was immense. It was possibly a reason for the ban.”
He is referring to the ban imposed on Hindi films by the powerful political wing of the outlawed Manipuri insurgent outfit, People’s Liberation Army (PLA), in September 2000. The PLA considered Hindi films a cultural invasion and part of the “Indianization” process of the Manipuri people. The Revolutionary Peoples Front (RPF), the overground political wing of the banned group, enforced the ban order. Thousands of video cassettes were destroyed on the streets and cinema halls were ordered to stop screening Hindi films.
No concessions were made even when Mary Kom, a biopic based on the life of boxing star and Manipur resident MC Mary Kom, was released in the rest of the country last year. Manipur, which saw its first full-length film release in 1972, still does not screen Hindi films.
In these 15 years, an ever-increasing crop of local Manipuri films has filled the void. Less than 10 Manipuri films were produced annually before the Hindi film ban came into force; the state now produces an average of 70 films. In 2014, 80 Manipuri films were released, according to the Film Forum Manipur, the apex body of the state’s film industry. With budgets generally ranging from Rs.10-15 lakh, many films make money.
Quality, however, remains patchy and the number of theatres has come down. There were more than 100 before the ban in Manipur. Currently, there are 64, and they only screen Manipuri films, says L. Surjakanta, chairman of the Film Forum.
“Commercial Manipuri cinema benefited the most from the ban. It also helped that the boom in low-cost digital film-making happened around then, making it easier to produce films locally,” says Pradip Phanjoubam, editor of the Imphal Free Press. “Of course, Manipuri films lack the gloss and high production values of big-budget Hindi films. But Manipuri films resonate well with topics audiences can relate to. It has created its own niche. Equally true, the audience here does not have a choice.”
If cultural infiltration was one of the primary reasons for the ban on Hindi films, it has now been replaced by what many consider to be cultural conservatism.
Every year, the Film Forum Manipur, formed in 2005 as the apex body of 14 organizations of artistes and technicians, updates a list of dos and don’ts that film-makers and producers in Manipur have to adhere to strictly. A Manipuri film has to be certified by the Film Forum, the gatekeeper and custodian of Manipuri culture and ethos, before it is reviewed by the Central Board of Film Certification.
The forum’s chairman is clear. “Contemporary Manipuri cinema is mostly about making copies of south Indian or Hindi films. We cannot compete at the national or international level if our films are Punjabi or Korean films in disguise,” says Surjakanta. “Manipur has a rich culture and tradition and that has to come through in our films.”
The Film Forum has rigid guidelines on language, costume, action, realistic portrayal and use of props, among other things. Non-compliance could mean that the films do not get clearance and are, therefore, barred from commercial screening.
Since 2012, for example, the guidelines demand that an additional Manipuri traditional costume be worn for every foreign attire sported by actors in a film. “If you wear jeans thrice on screen, you have to wear Manipuri dresses four times. We also ask for realistic portrayal of song sequences rather than the fantastical sequences we see in Hindi cinema involving dancers and multiple locations,” Surjakanta says.
Doren still looks incredulous when he recalls a Manipuri film where the body of a male character was blurred. He only found out after he had watched it that the man, playing the role of a politician, was wearing kurta and pyjama in the mainstream Indian style—a proscribed act. Since it was too late to reshoot, the film-maker agreed to the Film Forum’s proposal to blur the body. “Thus, throughout the length of the film, we saw this blurry mass moving around,” he laughs.
Many whisper that the Film Forum’s cultural agenda reflects that of the state’s many underground outfits. Surjakanta, hesitantly, offers an admission: “We have included some of their suggestions, including the use of proper Meitei language instead of any pidgin language, as well as how the right kind of costume should be worn when a character offers Surya Namaskar, sits down for a meal, attends a social occasion or a funeral.” But we had to turn down their proposals on storyline since we felt a script writer should not face restrictions, he adds.
Hemmed in, as the chairman says, by 32 big and small insurgent outfits in Manipur, Surjakanta reflects the fear on the streets when he refuses to comment on the Hindi film ban. For while the walls in Imphal are plastered with happy, dolled-up faces of actors looking out of Manipuri film posters, the reality of blasts, killings, curfews, armoured vehicles and prolonged strikes is a spectral presence on the streets, heavily manned by security forces.
The Manipuri film industry’s two leading ladies, Bala Hijam and Tonthoi Leishangthem—both of whom previously have had to forgo offers from the Hindi film industry following censure by insurgent outfits—refuse to comment as well. They did not respond to phone calls, emails and text messages.
Manipuri cinema’s biggest icon, the much feted film-maker Aribam Syam Sharma, too remains tightlipped on the contentious issue even as he mentions the 15 National Film Awards that his films have received.
Syam Sharma’s films have been the showpiece of the state’s film industry, winning it global acclaim. Imagi Ningthem (1982) bagged the Grand Prix at Festival des 3 Continents in Nantes, France, and 1991’s Ishanou was the official selection in the Un Certain Regard category at Festival de Cannes.
Syam Sharma was exposed to world cinema as a student of philosophy at the Rabindranath Tagore-founded Visva Bharati university in Santiniketan, West Bengal. In a Doordarshan documentary, he counts Ritwik Ghatak’s Ajantrik as a film that showed him the potential of cinema as an art form. “As a small state, attempts to make films in Manipuri are important because it reflects our way of living and thinking. For us Manipuris, there is no better way to express ourselves,” he says.
According to the Manipur Times and other publications, the state government has now earmarked 250 acres near Imphal to set up an institute on the lines of Kolkata’s Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute.
Notwithstanding Syam Sharma’s achievements, and despite the fact that there is a reserved category for Manipuri cinema at the National Awards (Best Regional Film Award in Manipuri language), the local industry has not won the award since 2012. That year, Syam Sharma’s Leipaklei won; director Oinam Gautam’s Phijigee Mani had won the previous year. “It says something about the state of our films when we can’t even send nominations for a reserved category since none of the films are considered to be good enough,” says Doren.
A senior film-maker, who did not want to be named, says the ban on Hindi films has hurt them. “Because of their long history, Hindi films are like a big book divided into chapters from where Manipuri film-makers could have learnt a lot. None of the cinema halls screen anything other than Manipuri films and there are no cinema institutes here,” says the film-maker, who is part of the Cine Directors’ Guild Manipur.
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