Folktales and Early Manipuri Cinema

Dr. Ganesh Sethi*
Kamaljit Chirom**


Folktales have for generations been passed on from generation to generation orally. They not only entertain the young minds but also transfer wisdom. In most cases, folktales are a source of moral lessons. The folktale tradition is very rich in Manipur. Some folktales of all types are found in Manipur and they are very popular among people of all age groups. Till very recently, elders telling folktales to young children was a common practice. Folktales in different versions are also found among communities speaking different languages in Manipur. There are instances of the same folktale being recounted in many of the languages spoken in Manipur but with slight variations in each version.

Folktales in films

Folktales and other forms of folklore have been adapted in many films around the world. From the time people started to tell tales, folktales have existed in the oral form and later on came out in printed books, and now have taken the form of films since the inception of cinema roughly a century ago. The film has a unique fluidity of its own because of which it is a very suitable medium to tell stories – the film is a great story-telling medium. Folktales that have been told orally for centuries all over the world are now being told through films, both animated and live-action.

The Disney Studio has been a champion in adapting fairy tales to films (Graaf 2013: 2), especially animated films, starting with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first full-length animated feature film made in 1937. It then followed with many popular fairy tales like Cinderella (1950), Sleeping Beauty (1959), and Beauty and the Beast (1991).

Recently, with the invention of new special effects techniques in filmmaking, it has been possible to make these films in live-action. Films like Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), Red Riding Hood (2011), Jack the Giant Slayer (2013), Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013), and Maleficent(2014) have made fairy tale more popular in films.

Folktales in Manipuri cinema

The first Manipuri feature film was made in 1972. For the next two decades, films continued to be made at an average of about one a year. Two Manipuri feature films from the first decade of Manipuri cinema are taken up here. These films are Ngak-e-koNangse(S. N. Chand, 1974) and OlangthageeWangmadasoo(AribamSyam Sharma, 1978). These two films can be called ‘popular commercial cinema’ based on show motifs and story pattern to the Manipuri folktale Lai Khutshangbi.

To study these films, a reference has to be made to the categorization made by Jawaharlal Handoo on how folklore is found in Indian popular cinema. Handoo (1998:11) gives four broad categories in which Indian popular cinema seem to operate on folklore:

(i)     Full Myth Films: in which traditional myths or folktales or their national or regional versions are incorporated without changing the basic plot structure.

(ii)    Half Myth Films: in which the myth or the traditional narrative is imposed on a non-traditional plot-structure or vice-versa. This trend, besides films, is very strong in modern Indian literature and contemporary painting. This form is also more appealing both to the city and the village people as it very appropriately establishes the relevance of the mythic metaphor in modern Indian society.

(iii)   Mythic Theme Films: represent such films that borrow one or many mythic motifs and use them according to the needs of the plot-structure, which otherwise is completely non-mythic and modern. This form sometimes resembles the Half Myth form. However, the difference between the two is that in the former the mythic theme hangers-on like a shadow from the beginning to the end, whereas in the latter form the theme or motifs occur occasionally in inverted forms. For example, a modern plot-structure of a Mythic Theme film may use Mahabharata’s theme of Gandhari’s forced blindness as an example of a “devoted wife” to direct the modern plot-structure towards its forceful idealized conclusion.

(iv)   Fairy Tale Pattern Films are those popular films that exhibit a deep structure pattern comparable to fairy tales. For example, the heroin films, just like the fairy tale, have to pass numerous tests before being able to trace his heroine, liquidate the villain, win the heroine and marry her. The donor’s and villain’s actions, just like the fairy tale, are crucial in such films. The logic of the fairy tale pattern: from disequilibrium to equilibrium is an essential feature of such films.

This categorization of how folklore operates in films forms a good basis for studying folktales in the context of Manipuri cinema because Handoohad talked about popular Indian cinema and the two films that are being taken up in this study also very well fall in the category of popular Indian cinema. The two films are studied individually and their features are compared to the categorization given by Handoo.

Lai Khutshangbi

LaiKhutshangbi is a very popular folktale in Manipur and is told with minor variations by different people. However, the major storyline remains the same in all the versions. The version from the folktale collection “Folktales of Manipur” is reproduced here in a shorter form.

Lai Khutshangbi was a demon who had very long hands. She used to put her long hands into houses and catch people to eat them. One family was consisting of a little baby by the name of Leirik (also called Sachi in many of the versions). The mother and the father are usually called Leirik-ma and Leirik-pa (or Sachi-ma and Sachi-pa). One night Lai Khutshangbi came to Leirik’s house and incidentally the father was not at home. The clever mother said the father was home and Lai Khutshangbi ran away in fear. This happened few more times until the father came back. When he was back, the mother lied to Lai Khutshangbi by telling her that the father was out. She put in her hand through a hole in the wall to lift the baby. The father took a sword and cut off the hand. Lai Khutshangbi ran away with her hand bleeding never to come back.

The meaning of this folktale can be studied at many levels. At one level it can be seen as a straightforward tale showing how an evil demon is defeated by a clever woman and a brave man thus saving their family from a horrifying fate. In this context, this folktale is a representation of the old social lifestyle of Manipur. However, this folktale is such a one that it can be interpreted in other ways as well.

M. Mani Meitei has done a psycho-analysis of this folktale (Meitei, 2000) in an attempt to bring out the latent meaning in this popular folktale. latent meaning this folktale is, as Meitei says, what “the culture has kept hiding behind the apparent surface meaning.” (Meitei 2000: 73) Meitei says that “meaning in the cultural myths and tales is seldom explicit and always less easily understood.” (Meitei 2000: 68) One meaning that Meitei brings out is that the tale plays the significant function of giving the message of morality in sexual matters. “It is a circumlocution hinting at the moral depravation of a person who is ostensibly involved in or accused of stealing things or going beyond the prescribed limit in sexual matters.” (Meitei 2000: 71) The demon represents a person who tries to cross the limits of sexual boundaries by trying to take advantage of a woman in the absence of her husband. Thus this tale enforces the moral codes of society. Meitei analyses the tale a little further and tries to bring out the latent meaning by going from the outer layers to the inner layers. According to him, the attack of the demon is the daydream of the woman which she has in the absence of her husband. Since her husband is not with her, she has repressed sexual desires which she releases through her daydream and fantasy.

Now we will try to find out how the tale of Lai Khutshangbiis was incorporated and shown in two Manipuri feature films Ngak-e-koNangse and OlangthageeWangmadasoo. The motifs of this folktale are found in these two films is very strikingly similar forms. First, the film Ngak-e-koNangse will be discussed here for the only reason that this film was produced before the other.


It is the story of a family involving the father, mother, a son (Binoy), a daughter (Anita), and a daughter-in-law (Shanti). The film is about how the mother treats her daughter and daughter-in-law in differential ways and eventually pays for her folly. Although the whole plot of the film is not similar to that of Lai Khutshangbi, a part of the film resembles the tale to a great degree. There is a villainous character in the film called Kora. In one part of the film, he breaks into the house of Binoy at night and comes into the room of Anita, the younger sister of Binoy, while she is taking a bath. He stands near the door of the bathroom and peeps through the grained glass of the door. As he is about to enter, Anita sees him and shrieks loudly out of fear. Kora runs away finding that the men and other members of the family are coming. This is similar to when Lai Khutshangbi learns from Sachima that her husband is at home. The demon has to flee in fear of the man of the house. Here Kora flees when the men, along with the other members of the house, come into the room. We do not know what Kora wanted, but we can infer that his intentions were sinister, as first of all, we have seen him do other terrible things to women at the beginning of the film. The second point of comparison between Lai Khutshangbi and Kora in this film is that Lai Khutshangbi usually finds a hole which is a breach in the wall of the house she is attacking to stick her hand into the house; similarly, Kora gains entry into the house through the open window.  The woman of the family is saved from any kind of harm this time.

Kora comes back again, this time when none of the male members of the family are at home. The father and the son are both out of town on business. Kora comes and this time he comes into the room of Shanti, Binoy’s wife. Kora wants to take Shanti and sleep with her. When she refuses, he tries to force himself on her. Although Kora tries very hard, he doesn’t get his desire. This is similar to Lai Khutshangbi’s tale where the witch doesn’t get to do what she wants even after she sticks her hand into the house after being told that the husband is not at home. But unlike in the tale, Kora in the film doesn’t get punished in one way or the other immediately. He gets his due punishment later in the story of the film.

Olangthagee Wangmadasoo

Olangthagee Wangmadasoo(1978) is a film about a boy named Bijoy and a girl named Thadoi, how they fall in love, are separated, and eventually reunited. There is a sub-plot in the film. During the time Bijoy and Thadoi are separated, Bijoy helps a destitute and helpless woman by giving her shelter and support. The woman’s name is not given. She is a woman who was forcefully married to a goon. One day when Bijoy is not at home, the husband comes and finds the woman. He tries to take her away against her will. Bijoy comes in time and saves her from the goon. The goon runs away without putting up a fight. Although the goon is the husband, he is the villain here because he forcefully married the woman and she ran away from him when he was in jail for some crime he committed. Symbolically, Bijoy becomes her protector and so he has to save her. So, the similarity here with the tale of Lai Khutshangbi is obvious as the villain comes attacks the woman and finding that there is a man in the house to look after the woman, he flees like the demon in the tale.

The next time the goon attacks the woman, he uses a technique. He brings two other men to help him divert the attention of Bijoy. These two men attack Bijoy with knives and lead him astray, while the goon abducts the woman in the absence of Bijoy. However, Bijoy can defeat the two men and he comes running after the woman. He fights the goon and he can save the woman again. The goon is inflicted with a fatal wound and runs away from the scene. This scene completes the cycle of Lai Khutshangbi in the film. Like in the tale, the villain’s attack on the woman in the absence (here in the film the absence is a creation of the villain) of a male protector is thwarted and the villain is punished. The demon in the tale runs away with blood dripping from her severed hands; similarly, the villain in the film runs away with a knife wound on his body with blood dripping from it. The woman is saved from being harmed and the villain is defeated.

The similarities of the folktale of Lai Khutshangbi with the sub-plots in these two films are unmistakable. A comparison of these two plot structures shows that they come in the third category of Handoo’s classification, i.e., Mythic Theme Film. The two films are based on modern plots and on the whole, are totally different from the folktale. However, both the films use the same motifs and themes as in the folktale in sections of the films as sub-plots. The films, in a way, borrow the motifs of Lai Khutshangbiin the overall plot-structure of the films to bring out an aspect of the contemporary society in which the story is set. The repressed feelings and desires of society – a society that is changing with the coming of modernity – is shown using the motifs of the folktale. There is a clash of modernity and tradition in these films and the consequences of this conflict are the main theme of these films. The sub-plots discussed above help in the process of building up this theme.


The way folklore and folktales are told and disseminated is changing as new ways of telling stories are coming up. The film is becoming a very popular medium in which folktales, that were told orally from generation to generation, is now being adapted. The audiences are accepting it with all the variations and the uniqueness that are attributed to the medium.

The coming of new media and modern forms of communication are helping the way stories are told in a new format. “Industrialization and the development of technological media do not necessarily imply the end of a given folk culture.” (Selberg 1999:239) Cinema is a form of mass communication that is a joint product of technology and art. Cinema survives as much on technology as on art. The technology involved in cinema is no more not just about capturing photos in quick succession and projecting them on a screen. It is incorporating in itself the new media technologies brought about by digital information technology as well as other related developments and inventions. Folklore found a new medium of expressing itself in cinema. It is evident from the popularity of the many films adapted from folktales and mythologies that have come up over the years.

Analyzing the two Manipuri films, Ngak-e-koNangse and OlangthageeWangmadasoo have shown how the very popular Manipuri folktale Lai Khutshangbi has been adopted and adapted in these two films in telling a modern story that is based on modern sensibilities and conventions of a society that is undergoing unprecedented change at the beginning of the second half of the last century (also a period just after India got independence in 1947). The themes and motifs of the folktale are seamlessly incorporated into the bigger narrative structure.


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  • Mukherjee, Tutun. (1999). Desire as the Subtext in Folktales. In Jawaharlal Handoo and Anna-LeenaSiikala (ed.), Folklore and Discourse (167-175). Mysore: Zooni Publications.
  • Datta, Birendranath. (1998). Changing Functions of Traditional Narrative: The Case of North East India. In Jawaharlal Handoo (ed.), Folklore in Modern India (77-86). Mysore: Central Institute of Indian Languages.
*  Assistant Professor, Department of Mass Communication, 
   Manipur University, Canchipur, Imphal.
** Assistant Professor, 
   Department of Journalism & Mass Communication, 
   North Eastern Hill University, Shillong.

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