Manipuri Cinema is four-decade old. Starting with the first Manipuri feature film, Matamgi Manipur (April 9, 1972) to Phijigee Mani (2011) which won the best regional film award, the legacy of Manipuri cinema has had its struggling past with commitment to the modern era of challenges and development. From the pre-war period to the modern era, Manipuri cinema has seen many ups and down, but the dedication of the cine artistes and the rich cultural heritage of Manipur created a golden chapter in the history of Indian regional cinema.
Manipuri feature film Phijigee Mani (2011), directed by Oinam Gautam bagged the Best Regional Film Award (Manipuri language) at the 59th National Film awards for the year 2011. Producer Takhelchangbam Ongbi Medha Sharmi and Director Oinam Gautam received the Rajat Kamal and a cash prize of Rs. 100,000 each.
Leishangthem Tonthoingambi who played the character of Yaiphabee in Phijigee Mani was also selected for the prestigious Best Supporting Actress Award and got the Rajat Kamal and cash prize of Rs 50, 000. Earlier, Master Leikhendra received the Best Child Artiste Award at the National Film Awards 1982 for his role in Imagi Ningthem. Kiranmala received Special Mention at the 38th National Film Awards 1990 for her role as Maibi in Ishanou.
The 111- minute film Phijigee Mani, made under the banner of Radha Govind Films, tells the story of a young girl Yaiphabee, who sets out on a journey to bring some changes and happiness in her family. On the way, she is disturbed by the past memories of her home and her family. The film delivers a strong and beautiful message about the mother-son relationship in the backdrop of present day Manipur. The film was also selected for the Indian Panorama section of the Indian International Film Festival 2011 held in Goa.
Makhonmani Mongsaba’s Chatledo Eidi was the last Manipuri film to have received the Best Regional Film award in Manipuri at the 48th National Film Awards 2000. So far 10 Manipuri feature films, namely Debkumar Bose’s Matamgi Manipur, Aribam Syam Sharma’s Saaphabee, Olangthagee Wangmadasoo, Imagi Ningthem, Ishanou and Sanabi, M.A.Singh’s Sanakeithel, K. Ibohal Sharma’s Sambal Wangma, Oken Amakcham’s Mayophygee Macha and Makhonmani Mongsaba’s Chatledo Eidi have bagged the Rajat Kamal for the Best Regional Film at the National Film Awards instituted by the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
Borun Thokchom’s Silent Poet was also selected as the Best Debut Film of a Director in the Non- Feature films category at the 59th National Films Awards.
Manipuri audience witnessed silent Indian movies in the 1920s through touring cinema. Rudimentary and makeshift film show houses were established in Manipur before the World War II. Kasturichand Jain and Ramkumar were pioneer film exhibiters who ran show houses in Manipur in the pre war period. Kasturi’s show house Manipur Talkies and Ramkumar show house in Imphal had regular film shows. Towards the end of the war, better organised cinema halls came up. MNB Talkies, Victory Cinema and Friends Talkies in Imphal were prominent among them.
Manipuri cinema started when Maharaja Kumar Priyabrata, younger brother of Manipur King Boddhachandra made nonfiction films in 1936. Enchanted by the Charlie Chaplin films he had regularly seen at Raipur where he received school education in 1920s, M.K.Priyabrata purchased an 8 mm Bell & Howell movie camera and filmed important events of Manipur. Hiyang Tannaba (Royal boat race) at Konung Thangapat (Palace moat), Ceremonial reception of the Governor of Assam at Royal Palace by the King Churachand and Architectural beauties of Royal Palace complex were among the memorable pieces of his documentary films.
In the beginning of the Indian cinema, exhibitors were the main patrons in making films. Likewise, exhibitors in Manipur made contribution to the Manipuri film movement. Ayekpam Biramangal, Proprietor of Victory Cinema had a dream to produce Manipuri film targeting the Manipuri audience. He along with eleven other shareholders set up the Shri Shri Govindajee Film Company in 1947 to make the popular play Mainu Pemcha into film. Later on, they switched over to making the first venture in Hindi as they were pessimistic about a viable market for Manipuri films. Imphal, the capital of Manipur then had only three cinema halls. Thambalngoubi played the role of Mainu Pemcha and Biman Chatterjee, a Bengali the role of Borajaoba, the main male character of the story. Laishram Netrajit, Kangabam Gojendra, Khwairakpam Momon were among Manipuri artistes of the film. The maiden venture met with rough weather from all sides despite spending around Rupees one and half lakhs, and crashed midway. Selected pieces about nine reels of the fourteen reels completed were released uncensored and un-edited in a few cinama halls in Imphal. The tempo naturally died down to low ebb for many years before a fresh enthusiasm was born long afterwards.
Meanwhile, Kongbrailatpam Ibohal Sharma, a professional photographer made silent Manipuri feature and non-feature films during 1960-70. With his 16 mm Bolex camera, K. Ibohal Sharma made feature films- Ningthem Macha Ahum (1960), Eechel (1961) and Mongpham(1962) and non-feature films- Cultural Heritage (1964), Imphal Diary Part I and II (1965-68). He handled the camera and processed, edited and printed the films in his indigenous laboratory. With the help of tape recorders fitted with the dialogue and music of the films concerned, K. Ibohal Sharm toured in and outside Manipur to exhibit his silent films as talkie films.
The simultaneous release of Matamgi Manipur at three theatres namely- Usha Cinema and Friends Talkies in Imphal and Azad Talkies in Kakching on April 9, 1972 marked the beginning of an epoch in the history of Manipuri cinema awakening the Manipuri film goers into the reality of a Manipuri feature film for the first time. It was a black and white feature, which might be an outdated one, where the colour films dominated the Indian cinema. To make the film, the equipments and technicians were engaged from Manipur. Even the film director, Debkumar Bose, a Bengali was engaged from Calcutta. Except a few two-three outdoor locations in Manipur, all the shots were taken in a Calcutta studio. Salute should be accorded to the bold producer Karam Monomohan, an exhibitor and distributor, who never looked back in pioneering the film making without visualing any loss or gain onto the film.
N. Chand (Sapam Nodia Chand), in a true sense, was the father of Manipuri cinema. He quitted the attractive government job and sold his properties with a firm determination of making the first Manipuri film. He established his film company- Sajatia Pictures in 1970 and picked up Brojendragi Luhongba, a short story penned by the great poet and novelist Dr. Kamal Singh, to make it film. He himself wrote the screenplay and scored the music apart from the great venture of being director and producer of the film. He was the play back singer. He also took the role of the protagonist- Brojendra of the film.
Pior to the shooting of Matamgi Manipur, the shooting of Brojendragi Luhongba started in the early parts of the year 1971. Due to his acute financial constraint, the film took a long time and could not be the first Manipuri feature film. After clearance from the censor on December 30, 1972; Brojendragi Luhongba was released on January 26, 1973 at Usha Cinema in Imphal.
In the releasing function of the film where the Manipur Chief Minister Md. Alimuddin was the chief guest, the first Manipuri film director S. N. Chand stated, “It is not a successful business, it we treat the filmmaking in Manipur as business. However, being a devotee of arts and artistic skills, and with a thought that the rich Manipuri culture could be shown in the world through this medium, I have taken the whole responsibility of making this film sacrificing of all I have possessed.” With a few shots in Calcutta, the film was set in the backdrop of unique historical places, enchanting landscape of plain and hill areas, beautiful tribal dance and typical traditional performing arts- Pena and Bashok of Manipur. It was a true Manipuri film made by the first son of the soil.
Manipuri cinema though it was born late, sprang up like a brilliant upstart achieving flying colours overnight. It was the result of the active film society movement in Manipur in those days, which inspired the idea of good cinema to Manipuri film makers and artistes. Moreover, Manipur had its own abundant cultural and artistic potential. The Film Society Manipur, the first Society of Manipur was established in 1966. It organized both Indian and foreign film festivals in Manipur and conducted film discussions regularly. It would not be exaggeration to say that the first Manipuri feature film Matamgi Manipur which bagged the Rajat Kamal in the National Film Awards 1973 in its first entry, was the good outcome of the film society movement. In 1979, another film society- Imphal Cine Club was set up and it played an active role in the promotion of good films through regular screening of good films and holding film festivals, seminars and appreciation courses.
After Matamgi Manipur, the films namely Saaphabee (1976), Olangthagee Wangmadasoo (1980) and Imagi Ningthem (1981) all directed by Aribam Syam Sharma, continued to win national film awards, occupying prominent place in the Indian cinema. Till the release of Imagi Ningthem, Manipur produced only eight feature films. It showed that half of the total production could be of deserving films at the national level.
The year 1982, Manipuri cinema’s completion of 10 years was a remarkable year that the Manipur cinema could get a unique place in the international arena. In November 1982, Imagi Ningthem (My Son, My Precious), the lone entry from Indian bagged the Grand Prix in the competition section of the 4th Film Festival of Three Continents, Nantes in France. Thus, Imagi Ningthem became the first Indian film to receive the top prize in the Nantes International Festival.
Perhaps Imagi Ningthem was the most acclaimed Manipur film so far made. The film weaved a sensitive tale of a boy who, following his unmarried mother’s death in childbirth, was brought by his grandfather. The boy’s father was traced by a lady school teacher and found to be married with her sister; but her sister was only happy to adopt the boy as her own. The film participated in the international film festivals held in New York, Denver, Locarno, Toronto, Montreal and Hong Kong; and introduced Manipuri cinema of the tiny State of Manipur to the vast world. Master Leikhendra, the child artiste of the film bagged the Best Child Artiste award in the National Film Festival.
In 1991, Aribam Syam Sharma’s Ishanou (The Chosen One) represented the India in the Uncertain Regard of the Cannes International Film Festival, France. The film was about Tampha, the young wife having a small child, who was possessed by the divinity of the mysterious Maibi phenomenon, experiencing a series of violent fits of vision and trance and ran away from home in a frantic nocturnal quest of her Maibi Guru for initiation into the sect of the chosen. The family broke away. Behind the colourful spectacle of the traditional Manipuri life, into which Tampha almost lost herself to the mysterious, there lurked the pain of a mother who could no longer nurture her child growing into stranger.
Ishanou bagged the Rajat Kamal for the Best Regional Film and the Special Mention for the main actress Anoubam Kiranmala in the 38th National Film Festival in 1991. The film was screened in the Indian Panorama section of the 22nd International Film Festival of India 1991. The film participated in the International Film Festivals at London, Seattle, Singapore, Toronto, Vancouver, Fribourg, Hawaii and Nantes.
Out of the total 60 films produced so far during the 40 years life span of Manipuri cinema, seven films namely Aribam Syam Sharma’s Imagi Ningthem, Ishanou, Sanabi (1995); M. A. Singh’s Sanakeithel (1984), Oken Amakcham’s Khonthang (1992), K. Ibohal Sharma’s Sambal Wangma (1993) and Makhonmani Mongsaba’s Yenning Amadi Likla (2007) got entry in the Indian Panorama of the International Film Festival of India. Eleven films-Debkumar Bose’s Matamgi Manipur (1972), Aribam Syam Sharma’s Saaphabee, Olangthagee Wangmadasoo, Imagi Ningthem, Ishanou, Sanabi; M.A.Singh’s Sanakeithel, K. Ibohal Sharma’s Sambal Wangma, Oken Amakcham’s Mayophygee Macha (1994), Makhonmani Mongsaba’s Chatledo Eidi(2000) and Oinam Gautam’s Phijigee Mani (2011) bagged Rajat Kamal for the Best Regional Film in the National Film Festival.
Those were the days when only one or two Manipuri films were produced. Since 1997, the momentum was gained and four or five films were produced in a year. More professional artistes and technicians came out and big producers joined the bandwagon of Manipuri film industry. The year 2001 witnessed highest number of nine Manipuri films released.
Manipur had 58 cinema halls and could collect more than one crore rupees in a year as entertainment tax from cinema. Cinema halls were market place for the film producers and fed variety of Hindi, English and Manipuri movies to the cine-goers. Hindi films were very popular in Manipur and the main surviving factor of the cinema halls.
It is really shocking that Manipuri cinema has now been on the wane. Despite long standing demand for a State Film Policy for the last 20 years, the dream for a State Film Polity never comes into reality. In Manipur, the subject of film has been dealt by the Art and Culture Department since 1982 against the existing norm of the country that film being handled by the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting in the centre and the Information & Public Relations Department in the States. This has made dislocation in the matters of film in Manipur, despite serious effort of the Government of India for development of cinema in the country.
The ban imposed on screening of Hindi films in Manipur by underground outfits in the last part of 1999 had a fierce blow to the film industry in Manipur. The very few Manipuri films could not meet the consumer demand. As the cinema halls could not create the viable market place, the habit of cine goers had also changed. It was not also feasible for making Manipur films at the juncture as the cost factor of the film was higher than the expected profit. All the 58 cinema halls showing mainly Hindi films were closed down one after another. Many exhibitors started pulling down even the concrete structure of cinema halls to switch over to other business of their choice. No one came out to rescue the Manipuri cinema that had brought the laurel of the Manipuri community in the world. Manipur Government was not strong enough like that of Assam. Oken Amakcham’s Cheina which got the censor certificate on December 30, 2002 and was released on January 18, 2003 at Usha Cinema in Imphal became the last Manipuri film shown in the cinema hall.
All the the film makers, artistes and technicians were helpless. Some film makers started making Manipuri video films and with the help of LCD projectors, a few cinema halls started screening those video films. Though, the Exhibition Act of the State did not permit for exhibiting video films in the cinema halls, all the cinema halls are now screening Manipuri video films after disposing the 35 mm cinema projectors. There is no any single hall exhibiting celluloid films in Manipur.
After Cheina, a young enthusiastic woman named R.K.Geetaanjali determined to survive the Manipuri film and made Ayucki Singarei with the director- Rajen Khuman and obtained its censor certificate on January 8, 2005 with the hope that it could be screened in the cinema halls in Manipur. Unfortunately, she could not find any cinema halls in Imphal for releasing the films since all the cinema halls were engaged in video films. Neither the Manipur Film Development Corporation Ltd. (MFDC) nor the Art and Culture Department could come out to help the poor lady producer.
The same fate went to the six lady film producers namely, Umarani, Saroja, Santibala, Ibemhal, Sunitibala and Victoria, who jointly produced Yenning Amadi Likla in 2007. The film directed by renowned filmmaker Makhonmani Mongsaba got selection in the Indian Panorama of the International Film Festival of India 2007 and was shown in the festival held in November 2007 at Goa. The film that brought the laurel for the State of Manipur did not find its place in Manipur. The cinema halls in Manipur dishonored to screen it in celluloid format. Only when it was converted into video format, the cinema halls accepted the film and it was released to the audience who had eagerly waited to see the acclaimed film.
New technology and costly devices created multiple problem in the development of cinema, particularly in the regional cinema. Cinema is taking a different shape and format. Government of India took a serious note in this regard and allowed feature films made in video format in the 58th National Film Festival. This has brought a new hope to the regional film makers who made low budget good films. Hope when (2022) Manipuri cinema will celebrate its golden jubilee, the things will be better and will fulfill the need and the aspirations of our future cinema lovers and audience.