Amidst all the stories of depressive gloom that mark Manipur of today, there are indeed some bright spots. Traditionally, sport has been one of these areas and performing arts another. Of late however, there is an offshoot of the latter which is showing extreme promise – cinema. Thanks to the advent of the digital medium the cost of movie making is no longer prohibitive for small players such as those in the state. It is even more cause of celebration that this medium is fast growing in Churachandpur, Ukhrul and other outlying districts and not concentrated in the capital Imphal as such enterprises have tended in the past. This media, it is imaginable, would have given vent to a hitherto inadequately explored creative urge within the society. As of today, any given time, some of the best known stars in the Manipuri cinema are on contract for doing as several films indicating this is becoming a viable profession with respectable income. Practically every week there is a new Manipur film available at the local digital cinema rental stores, much to the joy of an increasing number of fans. The fan profile also cuts across age (we would not however say ethnic groups), the most obvious reason being, these are family dramas acted out in the local language and within the local cultural milieu, hence comprehensible to the young and old, lettered and unlettered alike. Once upon a not so distant past, when Manipuri film, especially the commercial genre, was in its infancy, the joke was, actors and actresses had to pay to be given a role in those extremely rare productions, averaging one in every two or three years. Today, the grapevines have it that some of the top actors and actresses command as much as Rs. 1 lakh per film. Many of these films are also able to go to exotic shoot locations, mostly within the country so far, but sometimes even as far out as some of the popular travel destinations of the present times in South East Asia, including Bangkok and Singapore.
Digitial film world indeed is one of Manipur’s rare sunshine areas today. Not only has it become another tool for giving shape to artistic instincts, but it has also generated tremendous respectable employment, direct and indirect. Apart from the actors and actresses, many of whom have acquired near iconic status, known, recognized and respected more than even politicians, there are hordes of other players filling up a wide range of activities that make up what is in the process of becoming an industry in its own right. They include directors, cameramen, film crew, digital editing studios, sound recorders, an expanding chain of digital disk rental stores, and of course, the employees of cinema houses. As much as this world is another tool for artistic expression, it is also becoming a gamut of self-sustaining economic activities. It is also encouraging that the art’s veterans, who have acquired awesome reputations on celluloid medium they once worked in, are now amenable to leave their nostalgia behind and join the new age digital party. This is the future, and as the saying goes, there is no way the future can be avoided. It has happened in still photography, and all the most famous film camera photographers of yesteryear have switched, and at the rate the digital technology is continually revolutionising, there is no way cinema too would not follow suit completely sooner than later.
There is no question that such a change of mind would enrich Manipuri cinema further. However it must be said that there are dangers of stagnation and falling into stereotypes. As for instance, at this moment, Manipuri film is tending to become the poor man’s carbon copy of Bollywood brand pulp-fictions, with all its ornate and silly dances in the rain, running around trees, unrealistic costume parades and improbably melodramatic plots. The entry of the industry’s veterans could, and indeed would, give it more depth, just as it happened in the proscenium theatre. In the beginning, Manipuri theatre too was about acting out episodes from Mahabharata and Ramayana in uncomplicated and linear narrations. In time the narrative styles as well as the themes grew more sophisticated, exploring not just the phenomena but also the psychology behind them, till it grew into a distinctive tradition, making dramaturges like Rustom Baraucha dedicate a whole book on the theatre of Kanheilal, predicting Manipur is the most fertile ground on which an alternative theatre can grow. But the theatre to this day remains confined to a niche audience, and never really could dream of becoming an industry. Manipur digital cinema, with its far greater reach, versatility and promise of economic independence, if given this new depth, can touch new heights.