Manipuri films on the national scene

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The National Film Awards instituted from 1954 onwards is considered as the most prominent and prestigious film award ceremony in India though various other film awards are handed out in the course of a year by private bodies and by state governments. For the national awards, a national panel appointed by the government comprising of film makers and other officials selects the winning entry with the President of India presenting the awards. Over the years, some awards have earlier come under scrutiny and accusations over nepotism. Yet, there is no doubt that the National Film Awards, is still regarded as the most distinguished and respected in film circles. The announcement of the awards every year is followed with great media interest and commentary. Increasingly, there is a now a shift in what were once called ‘regional films’ getting edged out by Hindi films though there are layers to this phenomenon. In an earlier era, Hindi films also called Bollywood films were considered to be potboilers and the stuff of cheesy masala content. The ‘regional films’ were what was considered more mature though even within Hindi films, there were ‘art films’ that moved away from the Hindi film stereotypes of song, dance and drama.

In the scheme of the National Film awards, films from Manipur made its entry into the world of films with Matamgi Manipur in 1972 and was awarded the National film award for best Manipuri film the same year. The film had an actor who was to turn director and incidentally, the most feted film director of the state till date — Aribam Syam Sharma. Making his directorial debut with Lamja Parshuram in 1974, a huge commercial success in Manipur, Eigya Syam as he is popularly called and known by, went on to make critics stand up and discover the tiny state of Manipur with ‘Imagi Ningthem’ receiving the Golden Montgolfiere in the Nantes film festival in 1982. Later, his ‘Ishaanou’ (1990) was screened in the Under Certain Regard section at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival. Another critically acclaimed film director of the state and who was technically trained in the craft of film-making and whose works got feted on the national level was MA Singh who unfortunately did not get to see great commercial success back home.

Interestingly, most of the early Manipur films were works of collaborations of entrepreneurs from the state who had no background or training of film making but who were determined that Manipur should also be a part of the global cinema movement. These entrepreneurs raised money and collaborated with technicians and artistes from outside the state to raise the foundation of the Manipur film industry. The huge costs involved in making 70 mm films, the lack of technical infrastructure and the limitations of society and culture meant that the output of films were kept to a bare minimum till 2000 when the ban on Hindi films in the state led to the emergence of digital films. The medium of local cable channels as a platform for showcasing local names and their artistic talent also meant new faces coming to the fore in the film industry which now churns out more than 50 films every year.

But the core question now is whether the increase in film output has brought about more qualitative films that leaves audiences spellbound with its narrative, characterizations and aesthetics as the earlier films did. The Manipur film industry even has an in house censorship mechanism that lays down stringent guidelines on what can be shown on screen, what language can be used, what costumes can be worn and how scenes should play out on screen which means that before Manipuri films are sent to the Central Censor Board, they go through a fine tooth comb that looks out for ‘cultural’ sensitivity. Tellingly enough, when the 61st National Film Awards for 2013 was announced, there was no Manipuri film in the honor list even with a ‘quota’ system in place. This, even as those in the film making line should be attempting to stake claim to the National film awards not in the language category but in the main category given the quantum leap in film making concept, resources and the markets available for films with universal themes.

Leader Writer: Chitra Ahanthem

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