Jump-cuts from the Margins: In search of political cinema in Manipur and some addendums

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    By Joshy Joseph

    Instead of a prologue:

    The hunter and his bow are done
    The chasing arrow almost there
    I run knowing
    The certain futility of why I run
    Encircling the night lantern
    Are many, shadows
    Starving for a feast
    Awaiting the arrow’s piercing
    Greedy for my taste, salivating

    Here, there is no sanctuary
    Not one tree for his shielding
    You would not shelter me
    Open the door of your rock
    Allow my scream in at least

    (On a road near Thiruvananthapuram railway station, he was found unconscious. The penury, the societal amnesia and alcohol-all consumed him.  At 61, trailblazing A. Ayyapan became a poem in the scaffolding of history. This last poem, quoted above, was found in the pocket of his shirt and was later translated by Madhavankutty Pillai)
    But why? And why Manipur
    See, we used to get a lot of films from Manipur made by reputed filmmakers. But all these films were showing the exotica of the nine hills and one valley, continuously, that same story about the orchids or about the dance forms. So there was this general feel that nobody can enjoy this idyll…and the reason being the underground and insurgent groups…but the reality is neither hyper real nor surreal. It is simply a nuanced reality.

    So, when Lokendra Arambam’s Soldiers in Sarong exploded in the scene it was one of the first political documentary about north-east which I felt debated the nuance. It revolves around Irom Sharmila’s fast (especially the first three years) and talks about the politics of the legitimate violence of the State. He never tried to obtain a censorship certificate and it was shown in intimate circles. He knew that it would not be passed.

    Then later, Haobam Pawan Kumar’s film happened, which is not a film by a single filmmaker. Pawan, when he was studying in SRFTI (Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute), kept on tracking the developments against AFSPA. …So, it was a collection of the footages of all the news -reel cameramen from Manipur which Pawan put into a film. The name of the film is AFSPA 1958. So that is a major visual exposition of the political violence by State and non-State actors, seen by this part of India. That film was also not submitted for censoring. The film was not censored for the Mumbai international Film Festival… and won an important award at the MIFF.

    Later….
    …..when Films Division was showing MIFF award winning films in Kolkata, this film was also there. But it could not been shown because the authorities in Nandan insisted that the film can only be shown if there is a censor certificate for the same. Later, the film was censored with certain cuts. The film did not lose its impact although there were certain cuts. It did not take away the politics of the film. Now this film was submitted for the national awards next year because although the film was made some ten years back… may be seven years back, it was censored only two years ago and it won the highest award in India, the national award from the President of India.

    The dichotomy, the dilemma and the dissent….
    Ironically, that is the same year when the armed forces gallantry award list included a number of personnel posted in Manipur for the Assam Rifles. A rigorous training in army also includes the fact that there is learning about how to shoot.  But you really don’t get a laboratory to shoot down people unless there are flashpoint (not that any shooting is justified) and until you are posted either in Jammu & Kashmir or in the north-east where you are authorized by the State to shoot and kill on doubt or suspicion.

    What this Armed Forces Special Powers Act does is that it actually knocks out the judiciary. A person in uniform, not necessarily an officer, but an ordinary jawan or an army personnel can shoot anybody down if he suspects that other person as a militant. So, you are authorized to kill on suspicion. With AFSPA, it’s not the track record, not the past that matters; but it is the future which is foreseen by the army man who is shooting you down.

    The so called encounter killing means that someone is shot dead and beside the body you find a 9mm pistol… this story continues for so many years by now, as if the so called militant is taking over the might of the military, on a daily basis, with a 9mm pistol!

    So, this film by Pawan was awarded the topmost prize on the same year in which an army officer from Kerala (who took a deputation to Assam Riffles), won the highest gallantry award. And the highest number of gallantry awards was from the state of Manipur that year. So my point is that a filmmaker who recorded all those State killings… is awarded by the President of India who also awards the perpetrators of killing at the same time.

    The AFSPA film was awarded,  but the act was never repealed, AFSPA continues… this film is now being shown in various festivals.

    I am torn by this dilemma. By the commodification of dissent. For example, Manorama was raped and killed. I am only talking about one person because this was a very controversial case known to rest of India. First, the army denied that the rape took place and said it was encounter killing and later, the forensic report in Kolkata proved that she was raped and killed. Rape is a civil crime. Forget about AFSPA, even if it happens in any other place, we know the taboo, the social crisis and trauma the victim has to undergo even if she has to approach a civil court. Now, here she is, bound by an act, where a civil crime is disallowed to be tried in civil court. She has to go to a military court.

    People, places and placards…
    My identity card allows me to go into places which is otherwise not easily accessible. And when I access the difficult terrain of Manipur, I am convinced about this draconian act going beyond an act and becoming a culture. Even if you repeal AFSPA, the act has become a culture… for example, only the para-military forces are coming under the purview of AFSPA. But when, two years back, the boy who was dragged into a medical shop and shot down by the Manipuri commandoes… the Manipuri commandoes are not coming under the purview of AFSPA, but AFSPA has become a culture. Even if you are going to repeal AFSPA, the cycle of violence is not going to end so fast. Because it has filtered down to the minds of police of Manipur.

    So, even after the two committees recommendations (the Jeevan Reddy Committee and the Veerappa Moily Committee) to repeal AFSPA, nothing has been done, not even the process of compiling a white paper involving the rank and file in Manipur.

    Look at the delicious irony. Manipur is a dry State… so we have to go to the Army PRO, the Assam Riffles PRO to get our stock of liquor (as and when needed while we are at Imphal).

    Catharsis, confrontative, contextual…
    I happened to be in Manipur shooting a film for Films Division on these Rickshawallahs who hide their face with a piece of cloth and the glasses, when the Malom incident broke out (November, 1999). The rickshawallahs, felt a sense of unease as the society looked down on the their profession as a result the act of hiding the faces. I was making a film on the subject. It was then the Malom incident broke out. A bomb explosion that was planted by the underground while a military truck was passing. The military truck was damaged, some personnel were hurt.

    And then the usual story of the heavily armed personnel coming back and then letting loose a volley of bullets on all those people who were waiting for the bus and some who were in a nearby market.  Irom Sharmila started her fasting from that day. Because, in a land where you have no right to life, there is no meaning in living. If suspicion is enough to shoot you then the state does not respect your right to life.

    I was shooting the rickshawallahs with a 35mm camera for Films Division and I knew that I cannot bring in these things in a very direct manner. I asked my unit members to bring some Diwali cracker-bombs from Kolkata. My idea was to plant these crackers(as a part of shot).. and I asked the mothers and children to play…of course to study their reaction when they hear the explosion.

    We planted the bomb, the camera rolled, explosion happened. There was a confusion for a moment and then they burst into laughter. They said “…no gimmicks please, we Manipuri women know what is a bomb blast and what is a cracker-bomb.”

    Politics, polemics and the camera looking inward…
    So the film Making the Face (for PSBT on a Manipuri transgender make-up artist, Tom Sharma) we included a still of Sharmila in hunger strike and also one still by Suvendu Chatterjee on the wall graffiti of UNLF. And also towards the end of the film there was a interview of the Naga folk singer, Reuben Mashangwa… and he said that the sex starved commandoes did not even spare these transgender people. The transgender people in Imphal are known as Nightingales as they come out at night. At times when these commandoes do not have condoms, they used plastic bags as a protection.

    Now, Ruben also was having a plastic bag with him in which we had brought our liqour. He put his middle finger inside the bag and gesticulated to the camera. I kept about six seconds of that shot in the film and although there were other objections from PSBT, this was not objected to.

    The censor officer said: “… you have made a beautiful film but that one shot spoils the entire beauty of it… it was almost like a slap on my face.” So, I said that’s precisely the point, if you don’t allow me at least those 6 seconds of ugliness, I won’t be doing justice to the reality of Manipur. Then he said that you will have problems with Doordarshan for the telecast. But I reiterated that we were not going to cut it. Subsequently, it  was passed and broadcat as it is.

    Not that we have to be tactical all the time. In the film While Gods took to Dancing which we did on Sharmila the tone was direct. See, if you are really cornered and suffocated by the system and the artist in you is alert… you explore the other means and ways of expression and still somehow reflect the truth.

    Look at these Iranian films which are a craze of the film festivals… I have followed them very closely and also, I happened to be associated with an Iranian film shooting unit in the capacity of a liaison officer from Government of India some seventeen years back, where I found that even to be a producer of film, you have to be some sort of a licensed businessman.

    Like an industrialist gets a license, in the same manner you can be a producer if the Ministry of Culture approves and you fulfill all the stipulations. Only, then can you be a producer. Now, before the coming of the digital age, you had to get the film raw-stock through the Ministry of Culture(for which you had to submit the script).

    The question is not about what access you have or how high voltage the footage is. But, the moment you take this footage for granted as your film, it becomes another reportage.  Because the reality is so hard-hitting you are no more challenged and hence you tend to ignore the larger picture. So, a typical problem in Manipur is an explosion of footage without really laying out a cinematic palette.

    The crux, the dialetic and the umbrage…
    Aribam Syam Sharma’s old films reflected the real Manipur. But when it comes to the documentaries, they were all commissioned by some government agency or the other and does not reflect any socio-political realities.

    All the films of Guwahati Doordarshan are commissioned because they don’t have an in-house set-up. So all the filmmakers in north-east earn their bread & butter from these commissioned programmes. As a result the safety net is taken for granted.

    When Manipur started burning after the Manorama incident, people started asking these filmmakers as to why don’t you return this award to the Government of India…the silence of most of the filmmakers were deafening

    I went to Manipur for the first time some twelve years back. Then the bamboo was flowering in Manipur after some forty-five years. Earlier, I read in paper about this bamboo getting flowers in north-east after forty-five years and with every cycle of bamboo flowering there was scarcity of food, famine and plague.

    The road journey in itself was very interesting, because we traversed through Bengal, Bihar, Assam and on the sixth day we reached Manipur. From there it took us two days to reach Kunghphung  village where bamboo was flowering on the river bank of Barak… the  village where we had to reach.

    My unit members were scared when they heard from the locals..the law and order situation in the village. The production coordinator was a Naga person from Imphal. He said we cannot straight away go to this village because we have to pass through some Kuki villages. If we passed through the Kuki villages we would reach faster, in a day. But then he would be killed because there was a series Naga – Kuki clash, happening at that time.

    I remember the name of a person called John(who I stumbled upon in the State Guest House in Kohima). He asked me: What is your mission? I told him we are making an environmental film about the bamboo flowering story. So he said that it is not an environmental film, this is political cinema. I insisted that it is an environmental film.

    He said ‘Do you know how Mizo National Front came in to power in Mizoram?’ John elucidated: when the bamboo flowered some fifty years back, overnight the crops were destroyed by the rats. Because the rat population increases. The grain within the bamboo flower, rather the fruit is eaten by the rats and their fertility shoots up. The number of nipples increase. So the number of litter in a single birth goes up to fourteen or fifteen and over just a month and the rat population explodes. It destroys all the standing crops and all the crops in the go-downs. So in Mizoram when this thin bamboo… Thingtam, blooms, there was no food to eat.

    Laldenga came into the social scene to collect rice and feed people. Basically, MNF, which, over the years became the most dreaded underground organisation in the north-east, came into being when the bamboo flowering happened. This is the lesson which I got there in the Nagaland guest house over a glass of rice beer! I discovered an absolutely different India.

    Epilogue, epicenter and an attempted end to this conversation with myself:
    Political cinema, is not what you set out to make. But what comes to you as political reality unfolds and demands to creep into your narrative. Look at Mohsin Makhmalbaf and the vox-pop structure of The Cyclist. The overt political undercurrent in the deceptively simple narratives of Jafar Panahi –Abbas Kirostami-Majid Majijdi.

    Or my friend Razzak’s unblinking still camera capturing Kamala Das. They, all look for beauty, subversion and the politics of the subject. How? Because Razzak grapples with his loneliness and transfers that to the lens whether he is shooting a still or doing camera for my film. Does he need sympathy for his loneliness? No, a political understanding to document him and yes, being brutal about his loneliness and yet celebrate the humaneness of his creations. Maybe a film as an ode to his stills…do I have a cinematic vocabulary to do that…

    One of my forthcoming films set in Manipur…has three co-ordinates, eighty year old Tomba who goes for a morning walk with his swan Anaguaba, a photographer Ratan Luwangcha who told me the story and the celebration of simple aesthetics in a complex times. Or is the quest of simple aesthetics in multi-layered frame itself a complex exercise.

    FCP or Premier can edit…what can it edit…maybe some NG shots and then piece a reality or a hyper reality. It is the mind’s eye that edits our vision of politics or the lack of it.

    My friend Rupachandra, from ISTV in Imphal, told me once, that he gave a one line advice to anyone who went to Manipur and contacted him.

    It was:  that while being in search of a story, please don’t become a story!

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