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The movie moguls of manipur
Every year the Manipuri industry makes 40-50 digital feature films on shoestring budgets. And manages to pick up a handful of prestigious national and global awards.
A Japanese model Yu Asada is making her film debut this October in, of all things, a Manipuri film. She plays a Japanese woman who dreams that her uncle has survived the Battle of Imphal in 1944 and lives on in India. Directed by Mohen Naorem, My Japanese Uncle traces Asada's (the heroine is named Asada too) journey to Manipur and her search for her uncle.
Manipuri movie lovers are, of course, excited by the ambitious venture but they are not staggered by the idea. They have become used to their little film industry throwing up regular surprises. Just last month, Phijigee Mani directed by Oinam Gautam won the best regional film award and Leishangthem Tonthoingambi, who played the character of Yaiphabee in the film, picked up the best supporting actress trophy.
If you want to know how a small state of 27 lakh people is sending out great films that are scooping up awards in India and abroad, the answer is - militancy. There has been a 'ban' here on Hindi films since 2000. When it came into effect, it brought the shutters down on 60 cinema halls. Most of them were turned into shopping arcades;one became a school.
This is when Manipuri filmmakers stepped in to fill the void. They made digital video films and screened them in theatres through 35mm projectors. "These films got certification as digital video films and the Censor Board gave permission to screen them in the cinemas, " says Hussina Salam, a former Censor Board member from Guwahati.
The first Manipuri feature film Matamgi Manipur was made in 1972 - the year Manipur attained statehood. Despite a small market and little financial resources, the state film industry has been growing. Today, Manipuri films are made in both celluloid and digital video format, though the latter is cheaper to produce and thus more common.
"Around 40 to 50 Manipuri video digital films are produced annually now. Earlier, the figure was higher because there was panic production to prevent the closure of cinema halls, " says Chand Heisnam, president of the All-Manipur Video Film Producers and Makers' Association (AMVFPMA).
Chand agrees that the ban on Hindi films by militant organisations has helped the Manipuri film industry grow. "It was a blessing in disguise. Since Manipuri films are virtually the only alternative entertainment for people in the insurgency-hit state, the ban on Hindi films and songs has given a big boost to Manipuri films, " he says.
The films are low cost - the average budget for a film is Rs 8-10 lakh. If the film is shot outside Manipur or abroad, the budget could go beyond Rs 30 lakh. The growing film industry has now revived the state's cinema halls though even now there are no evening shows for security reasons. "Movies are now doing good business again. This has given jobs and livelihood opportunities to all film-related sectors, " says Chand, who is also a producer.
The size of the Manipuri film market is small and confined to the state, which has a population of about 27 lakh. Of late, filmmakers have tried screening the films in Manipuri-inhabited areas of Assam, Tripura and Bangladesh. The state government has also requested the Union information and broadcasting ministry to extend a special package to help Manipuri cinema.
Eminent Manipuri filmmaker Aribam Syam Sharma says better films will emerge if there is the required infrastructure in the state. "Manipur should have a prominent film studio and a film institute, " says Sharma, 75, a winner of many national and international film awards.
"The difficulties of finding the required sets and backgrounds would ease if we had a good film studio or a film city in our state. This would also reduce film budgets, " says Sharma, a recipient of the Dr V Shantaram lifetime achievement award.
Despite the hurdles, Manipuri films are qualitatively good, says Gyaneswar Lisham, a popular film scriptwriter and lyricist. Matamgi Manipur bagged the National Film Award in 1973. Since then, many Manipuri feature films have got national film awards and some were selected for Indian Panorama at the International Film Festival of India.
Sharma's Imagi Ningthem (My son, my precious) was the first Indian film that received the prestigious Grand Prix at the Nantes International Film Festival in 1982. Another feature film by Sharma, Ishanou (The Chosen One), was India's official selection for the Cannes Film Festival in 1991. Interestingly, his Olangthagee Wangbadasoo (1979) broke Sholay's record in Manipur, running for 30 weeks at Friends Talkies in the heart of Imphal.
Numerous non-feature films made in Manipur have also won awards in international film festivals in the past few years. Borun Thokchom's Silent Poet was adjudged the best debut film by a director in the non-feature films category in the 2011 National Awards. The short film is based on Irom Shamila.
A prominent young Manipuri filmmaker, Haobam Paban Kumar, was the first to make a film on the controversial AFSPA and his short film, AFSPA-1958, was adjudged the best 'non-feature film' in the 2008 National Awards. His film, Mr India, won the award for best non-feature film on social issues in the 57th National Film Awards 2009. Paban's other films, Kangla and A Cry In The Dark, also won many International Awards including the Fipresci prize at the Mumbai International Film Festival (Miff) 2006.
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