This April 9, Manipuri cinema will complete four decades of its existence. Something that does not seem too great an achievement when one takes into account the fact that Indian cinema is all set to celebrate its centenary next year. But then, Manipur, the tiny North-Eastern state known to the outside world mainly for its numerous insurgent groups, the indefatigable Irom Sharmila who has been fasting for 11 continuous years for the repeal of the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958, and its talented sportspersons including Olympic medal hopeful boxer M C Mary Kom, also is the state where celluloid died way back in 1998. Yes, Manipur is the only film industry in India that has gone fully digital, and it is the thanks to a PIL filed by Manipuri filmmakers in Gauhati High Court a couple of years ago that the National Film Awards allowed entry of digital-format films. Manipuri cinema was taken to great heights when the venerated Aribam Syam Sharma’s “Ishanou” was screened in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival in 1991, the only film till date from the entire North-East to be screened in any official section of the festival. But thanks to a militant dictate banning screening of Hindi films, the theatres in the Imphal valley gradually closed down, choking all screening opportunities for Manipuri films. Instead of mourning the death of celluloid, the industrious Manipuris quickly shifted to digital filmmaking, and despite still having limitations of screening opportunities, have made it a vibrant film industry that walked off with several awards at the recently-announced National Awards in both feature and non-feature categories. Haobam Paban Kumar, whose documentary “AFSPA, 1958” had won several top international and national awards, shares with Utpal Borpujari his views on the industry:
Do you think in at an age when cinema is going increasingly digital, Manipur has shown the path to the rest of Indian regional cinema to how to work within limited budgets to tell rooted stories effectively in both artistic and financial terms?
Yes indeed. One cannot imagine the kind of budget filmmakers work here with. The normal budget of a popular film with 4-5 song sequences is around Rs 4-5 lakh. No wonder, today we have 60-70 releases a year. If Cinema is all about telling stories then Manipur has definitely shown the way
for the rest of India.
How do you see the evolution of Manipuri cinema in the last 40 years in terms of its content and commerce?
Today Manipuri cinema is doing extremely well in terms of commerce as chances of loss is very low. But content wise I will definitely put the so-called celluloid era as the golden days of Manipuri cinema. Though 60-70 films are made in Manipur today there is hardly 10 films since 2002 (when the digital films started) that has a strong universal content or talks about contemporary Manipur. The earlier Manipuri cinema has done extremely well in national and international festivals mainly because of their content. Unfortunately the films that are made in Manipur today are often boy meet girl stories. But if you look at documentary and short filmmaking there has been a drastic change in the last ten years since the coming of digital. Today Manipuri documentaries have a strong presence national and
What do you think is the way ahead for Manipuri cinema and cinemas of North-East India in general?
For us, the people in North East India with limited audience and also for all independent filmmakers – digital or e-cinema is the only future. So let’s make the most out of it.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of Manipuri cinema in the current context?
Though we have taken the right path by going digital we also have been largely catering to the needs of popular cinema only.
How does Manipuri cinema survive with its limited budget and audiences?
Fortunately we do not have a proper distribution system. So anybody with money can make a film and release it theatrically. That means any independent filmmaker can make their kind of films and release it theatrically. Though there is a limited audience we have our own rules to look into piracy and do DVD distribution.
As Manipur celebrates 40 years of its cinema, what do you have to say to the outside world.
The credit for inclusion of digital feature films in the Indian Panorama and National Awards goes to the Manipur film industry, benefitting filmmakers from all across India. I believe small film industries like ours can grow by such mutual cooperation and collaborations. There should be a platform to enable people from other parts of the country to watch cinemas from such small film industries.
(An abridged version of this was published in the Sunday Times of India, http://www.timesofindia.com, 25-03-2012)