Critics had once predicted Manipuri feature film, Mami Sami, written and directed by Lancha Ningthouja, to carve out a niche for itself and be a landmark in the progress of the young but remarkably healthy Manipuri digital cinema. Not without reasons, for arguably for the first time, here was a serious attempt by a director to depart from the superfluous but hypnotic cinematic tradition of silly dances in the rain, running around trees and meaningless costume parades, etc, in blind mimicry of cinema of the commercial Bollywood variety, without compromising on entertainment value.
Demonstrated in the process is that serious cinematic story telling of issues deeper than the skin can be entertaining, and we are sure, successful at the box office too, motion picture’s international standard for cash register success.
At three full hours, the film is by no means short, but the intensity of its theme combined with some superlative acting by a galaxy of local film stars (Sadananda Hamom, Binata Laishram, Venus Philem, RK Kaiku, Ningthoujam Reena, Devita Urikkhingbam, Mayengbam Akshyakumar, Swamikumar, Homeshori and Dhanbir Leishangthem) held the fort without much difficulty till the very end. Also evident throughout was the director’s strict and trite control, never allowing the stars to stray away too far from his directorial vision.
The result is a thematic unity and narrative discipline rare in Manipuri digital cinema before this one.
Despite this, it is still a very long film and some more liberty with the directorial scissors could have sharpened the focus of its central theme, as well as chisel out its narrative structure to further perfection.
Very briefly, the story traces the life and struggle of Tayal (Binata Laishram), a simple, landless, village girl, who lives in penury with her mother in a floating hutment on the scenic Loktak, having lost her father while she was still a toddler.
She grows up as any other poor village girl in the Moirang environ would, attending Khullang Eishei gurukul, and as a subsidiary pursuit, learning the letters in the village lower primary school (apparently a girls exclusive school). A child of nature, she is happy in her naughty way, until Wangthoi (Sadananda Hamom), a young school teacher from Imphal, walks into her life and opens her eyes to another world in what is a universally popular ballad theme, immortalized in many cultures, told in so many languages, including in the enchanting jazz number “Poor Butterfly” sung originally by Sarah Vaughan and then reshaped in many different renderings, including by the great jazz alto saxophonist, Buddy Tate.
It was a love destined to end in separation, although beautiful while it lasted. Wangthoi returns to Imphal to become the editor of a newspaper and heartbroken Tayal retires into loneliness and misery until ultimately she is given into marriage by her mother to a local boy, Tombi (Venus Philem), a simple, hard working, honest, lovable fisherman, who indeed Tayal gets to respect and love as time rolled on.
But the idyllic life on the Loktak lake always had an undercurrent of hostile tension. The uncertainties and insecurities of an ongoing insurgency form an omnipresent backdrop and this is brought to a terrifying crescendo by a factional strife in a militant organization, the fallouts of which rudely intrude into the young fisher couple’s lives when members of a faction seek shelter in their hutment for a night. They get deeper and deeper enmesh into the violent face off, until one evening in the midst of a thunderstorm, fighting breaks out outside their home and they flee in a canoe. Tombi gets hit by a bullet and falls into the lake. Tayal fishes her unconscious husband out of the water, drags him to the shore and rushes to a nearby village, but when she returns with help, Tombi’s body had disappeared, presumably washed away by the water and drowned.
Tayal becomes insane and is brought to Imphal for treatment, and this is where she is rescued by Wangthoi and brought to his house to allow her to recover. Old memories return to soften hearts, but so do Tayal’s persistent nightmares. On one stormy night, similar to the one on Tombi’s death, she gets hysterical and rushes away from Wangthoi’s house to a bridge, ostensibly to end her life. Wangthoi comes after her and when he discovers what she was intending to do, slaps her to shock her out of her fitful delirium. She recovers and lives to marry her first love.
The story could have very well concluded at this point. All the messages the film wanted to convey, were already convincingly accomplished by then and there was no longer the need for the director to persist on saying it more explicitly, in what then became a case of stating the obvious. This insults the intelligence of discerning and serious audience.
The story however was allowed to drag on, and upon the summon by a faction of the same feuding militant group, Tayal leaves for Moirang alone, as her husband Wangthoi was busy for the day. He however promises to pick her up from Moirang after work.
At a location on the Loktak lake, Tayal comes to the militant hideout, and to her utter disbelief, finds her first husband Tombi, who she had imagined was killed on that stormy night. Tombi who is now a cadre of the militant faction, however he is magnanimous and does not blame her. She faints, recovers and runs away in bewildered despair. Wangthoi who had just arrived to take her back home, finds her in this state. He pursues his hysterical wife and comforts her with the words that it was nobody’s fault, but that of the time they lived in.
The sequences that followed the slapping on the bridge, threatened to relapse this well made film into the familiar melodrama of the fantastic, improbable and even ludicrous. All this just to spell out the core message that it was a situational tragedy – as if the audience had to be spoon fed. Come on, nobody, except the hopelessly retarded, needs to be told sugar is sweet. Moreover, a little bit of the sense of incompleteness of form is an aesthetic tool to evoke heighten interest, which is why a circle or a square is considered less interesting aesthetically than an oval or a rectangle. You don’t have a square television set do you.
No, Mami Sami did not shake off melodrama altogether. Maybe it cannot. It may also be the case that Manipuri cinema goers want the narratives to be long and winding and woven liberally with fantasy. First, because it is a way of escaping from the dreary and oppressive life that has become theirs today, but equally, they have little other worthwhile entertainment. So, just as Victorian novels were intimidatingly long (ever read Charles Dickens or William Makepeace Thackeray), Manipuri digital cinema may be called upon to last three hours and more by the demands of the market.
The story otherwise is arresting. It tells of not just the fortunes of individuals, but of their helplessness against the overwhelming, far too often mindless circumstance of violence that has become their destiny. But it was also positive, for the fighting individuals, whatever the odds against them, were never quitters.