Dr. M. Nawaz Khan*
Manipur’s rich heritage of traditional and cultural practices gave birth to various art forms while the cinematic art too had brought accolades for the state as many of the Manipuri films won prestigious national as well as international awards. Manipuri cinema arrived late in the global film movement where Bollywood had already made long strides. However, its rich cultural heritage helped its journey form black and white to colour, from 16 mm and 35 mm format, the non-feature short and documentary films to feature films and achieve recognition at national and international levels. The advent of video/ digital films in the last four decades proved to be a boon for Manipuri cinema. With an advantage over celluloid, the digital films are here to stay for years to come until a better and more efficient format of cinema emerges. The journey of Manipuri cinema from celluloid to video is also unique in itself as Manipur is probably the first state in India that gave recognition to the digital films, thereby opening new avenues for film makers in such a small market.
Manipur, being a state co-inhabited by various ethnic communities, has a rich heritage of traditions and cultures. The various cultural practices gave birth to various art forms including performing arts like dance, music, drama etc. which have brought laurels for the state. Cinematic art is a new addition to the already culturally-rich Manipur. The new art form being versatile with components of dialogues, music and drama could enthrall audiences and win their hearts. This art form also brought accolades for the state as many of the films won prestigious national as well as international awards. However, with a small population of 25 lakh, that too of various ethnic groups, there is not much of a choice for the filmmakers in Manipur.
Beginning with 35 mm black and white celluloid films, Manipuri cinema has travelled in the world of cinema to the advent of video/digital films in the last four decades. Considering the prevailing socio-economic circumstances in the state, the emergence of digital technology is said to be a significant landmark. With an advantage over celluloid, the digital films are here to stay for years to come until a better and more efficient format of cinema emerges.
Manipuri cinema arrived late in the global film movement where Bollywood had already made long strides. The rich cultural heritage of Manipur helped this journey, bringing recognition at national and international levels. The journey of Manipuri cinema from celluloid to video is also unique in itself as Manipur is probably the first state in India that gave recognition to the digital films, thereby opening new avenues for film makers in such a small market.
Manipuri Digital Films
No cinema hall in Manipur screens celluloid films as all are utilized as video halls. Due to this, celluloid film producers cannot screen their films. It spoils the prospect of celluloid films. How Manipuri celluloid films can survive without cinema halls? Until a decade back cinema halls in Manipur used to screen Bollywood and Hollywood movies. Cinema halls were doing good business. They used to change movies every Friday. But thanks to the poor economy of the state and the small film market, making of celluloid films was not cost effective. As such Manipuri films were seldom made and the Manipuri film industry was on the brink of extinction.
Armed groups in Manipur imposed a ban on Hindi films in the year 2001. It alleged that Bollywood films are obscene and portray feudal values typical of India’s Hindi heartland. It blamed Hindi films for corrupting the Manipuri culture. Since the ban on Hindi films was adhered to strictly, enterprising filmmakers in Manipur took to making low-budget films in digital format. They have produced about 70 movies so far.
The ban on Hindi films created a void in the entertainment realm of the people and it hit the cinema halls in the state. Moreover, due to financial problems the Manipuri film industry could not produce enough celluloid movies to meet the demand. This proved to be a curse for the halls which were running profitable businesses earlier. As a result many cinema halls were closed down and some including Asha and Victory cinema halls were turned into schools, commercial offices and shopping complexes.
Nevertheless, the ban proved to be a boon for Manipuri cinema which has been experimenting with the digital format. In the beginning digital music albums appeared and it was a huge success. By spending much less amount of money compared to making of celluloid films, film makers tried to produce digital feature films on an experimental basis. Thus emerged a new format of film in Manipur, the digital film. The transformation from the analog to the digital format encouraged the producers, directors, cinematographers and writers to take risks and experiment with new forms of storytelling and visual language. Kangla Film’s Lanmei became the first digital format Manipuri feature film screened in Imphal. It was released at Pratap Talkies, Imphal on 24th May 2002. The second film was Treasure Island Films’ Lallasi Pal.
The advent of digital technology has made production of films in digital format comparatively cheaper and affordable, making Manipuri films industry sustainable. With the emergence of the digital medium the cost of movie making is no longer prohibitive for small time film makers in the state. Considering the small movie market in Manipur, many film makers stopped making films in celluloid and switched over to making digital films. This helped revive the dying cinema halls in the state. Subsequently, they replaced their celluloid projectors with digital projectors.
By going digital the Manipuri cinema has now become a sustainable industry, employing lots of people. The cost of making digital films is also affordable, ranging from Rs 2 to 5 lakhs for a film. Digital films are churned out in large numbers every year and they are immensely popular in the state.
Even the shooting locale went foreign to South-east Asian places like Bangkok and Singapore. The first digital films which were shot in a foreign country were Ahingba Phura directed by Birendra Salam and Paari Manipuri directed by N. K. Thouba. These films were shot in Singapore. The cast include Gung, Dinesh, Nawaz, Cheng, Devita etc. Then some films followed suit and were shot in Bankok, Phuket etc.
Making a digital movie is technically easier, faster and cheaper compared to the making of a celluloid film. Not only has it become another tool for giving shape to artistic instincts, but it has also generated tremendous employment opportunities, direct and indirect. This has enabled the people to explore their hitherto inadequately explored creative urge. Besides, the digital platform provides Manipuri cinema room for experiments with various genres, including animation and sci-fiction. With the objective of promoting the digital film industry, the Film Forum Manipur, an organization which has been working with dedication for the development of digital cinema in Manipur, organized the first Film Festival in 2007. The actors and actresses command as much as Rs. 40 to 50 thousand per film. The digital film industry benefits directors, cameramen, film crew, digital editing studios, sound recorders, the growing chain of digital disk rental stores, and, of course, the employees of cinema houses.
Quality of Manipuri films
It is said that films reflect the society. Manipuri films have long been dominated by melodramas with family-centered story lines and romance. The plots are often fanciful with life-changing experiences of ordinary persons. Manipur digital cinema, with its far greater reach, versatility and promise of economic independence, if given this new depth, can touch new heights.
It is true that the method of film production starting right from shooting to projection in cinema houses in Manipur is entirely in video format – that too in digital video format. Previously it was analog video. But what is important is not the format but the quality of the movies churned out by the Manipuri film industry.
Hollywood movies are associated with overblown budget, larger than life image of actors, sex, slick camera works, huge box office returns, and sometimes huge loss. Japanese movies are associated with long takes, slow and deliberate acting, poetic themes etc. Bollywood movies are associated with mindless themes, song and dance fiesta. But Manipuri cinema seems to be just a mindless plagiarism of Hindi movies. There is for the present no such thing as unique identity of Manipuri films. There is such a dearth of creativity among Manipuri film makers that they are copying everything, starting right from the storyline to the music, to even costumes, to what not.
However, there are chances of compromise on the quality as today many cheap films are produced in a very short period. Besides, many Manipuri films are copied from Bollywood flicks with all their silly ingredients of songs, dances, running around trees etc. Manipuri films on science fiction, suspense and mystery thrillers have been rarely produced. A few Manipuri films in the past have the pride of winning awards in international competitions. So, it is expected to live up to the mark in the future too, or else it would not be able to prove worthy of this revolution. It is evident that the present standard of the films is not good enough to compete in the global arena. Korean films and TV serials became immensely popular among Asian viewers including Manipuris. Hollywood and Bollywood movies had arrived in Manipur even before Manipur could think of making films. People gleefully consumed these movies. But today Korean movies have taken over. There are many dramas that realistically depict love and personal relationship, but not many that deal with romantic love, as in the Korean melodramas. Family relations are another time-honored theme to which viewers of all age groups can relate.
Nevertheless, Manipuri films are now venturing into new territories, while moving away from real-life experiences of the ordinary world to fantasy adventures that unfold in mythical or supernatural realms. Some of the digital films are Basantagi Nongalamdai, Meera Memcha, Tellanga Mamei, Chang-shi-chang, Lonna Lonna, Mitrang Keithel, Kalpana, Thajabagi Wangmada, Athengabada Pharakpa Thabal, and Lakhipurgi Lakhipriyar,TellengaMamei, Change-shi-Chang and Lalasi Pal. Sakthibi Tampha Kaorage, LonnaLonna Eidee Chatle Athengbada Pharakpa Thabal, Laibaki Chandan Tellenga Mamei.
The talent of the actors, which remains largely unexploited, is another potential strength that Manipuri cinema has: Raju, Sadananda, Olen Gokul, Kaiku. Maya, Manda Binata, Seema, Kalpana, Devita, Sonia, Kamala. The locally produced digital films have been great hits in Manipur with most cinema halls running to packed audiences. Ban was imposed by the underground outfits on digital films, on grounds of alleged plagiarism in music, lyrics or the plot. Notable directors are Surjakanta, Homen, Romi, Amar Raj, Diya, Birendra Salam, Tej Kishore, Moirangthem Inao etc.
Imphal has been the nerve centre of filmmaking in Manipur. Though inhabited by various linguistic communities, films in Manipur are mainly made by valley-based Meiteis in Manipuri language. Some members of the Meitei Pangal community also take part while tribal have little participation. Though other tribes in Manipur also have a rich cultural heritage and their folklore is replete with beautiful tales of romance and heroism which will provide the materials for those desirous to make films/videos on the tribes concerned, there is a dearth of feature and non-feature films/videos in tribal dialects.
On an average at least 50 films are made very year in Manipur. That excludes films in other ethnic languages-Mizo, Kuki etc. That is quite a number for a small state. At one time, there were about 12 single screen theatres in Imphal. After the ban on Hindi films by the insurgent groups, their number was reduced to four. So the producers have to wait for months to screen their films. The Films Division, Mumbai, in collaboration with the Manipur Film Development Corporation (MFDC), organized the 2nd Manipur International Documentary, Short and Animation Film Festival at Imphal in August 2010. Altogether, 27 films including six Manipuri films produced by the Manipuri directors were screened.
MFDC is the nodal agency for the development of Manipuri cinema. It organizes film festivals at regular intervals and provides incentives to the film/video makers through awards in various categories. It organized the 7th Manipuri Film Festival in September 2010 at the premises of the MFDC in Palace Compound, Imphal. For the first time video films were allowed to take part in the film festival. Only one celluloid feature film Yenning Amadi Likla and 13 video feature films were chosen out of a total entry of 77 feature films including the video versions. The selected films included Khangdreda Nongdamba, Tayai, Poukhum, Novab, Bomb Blast, Naoshum, Kaboklei, Ingao Ngouna, Basanta gi Nonganlamdaida, Mami Sami, Chumthang Makhong, Hayengna Kanna-ga Pagani and Ningthem.
The eight-day film festival was significant in the sense that it accorded recognition to the digital films. And digital film-makers of the state, under the aegis of Film Forum Manipur, could achieve their mission of including video films in the national film festivals. With its rich cultural and artistic talents, Manipur can produce more quality films to reform the society at this critical juncture of social turmoil. The Cine Artistes & Technicians Association, Manipur (CATA) urged the state government to announce a film policy as Assam had announced the Assam State Film Policy in 1994. The West Bengal and Karnataka governments extend subsidies to feature and art films. The states of Haryana, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Orissa, Punjab and West Bengal have already developed film cities. Manipuri films might achieve much more in spite of all the odds.
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