April 9 this year will be an important landmark for Manipuri cinema. This is the day this art form would be entering its 50th years of existence since first full-length Manipuri feature film, Matamgi Manipur, was released in 1972. Much water has flowed down the many rivers of Manipur ever since, and today the artform is again facing a unique challenge, demanding for it to reinvent itself yet again. This battle cannot be left to those directly involved in the industry alone, for no art can flourish without patronage of an enlightened audience, it is therefore important for efforts to be made to create the right atmosphere for the emergence of a discerning and critical audience.
One of the major hurdles before this is the slow but certain withering away of cinema theatres in the state, triggered by the banning of Hindi films at the start of the 2000s by an underground group with the stated intent of saving Manipur’s indigenous cultures from overly excessive influence from a more dominant culture that Hindi represented. However, Manipur’s market for films being small, this resulted in a shrinking of this market below sustainability, and in the course of the decades ever since, most cinema houses have had to shut, depriving what is described as “box office” revenue for those in films, and this obviously was a harsh blow for the state’s fledgling film industry.
One is reminded here of a phenomenon in the natural world that environmentalist have come to term as “Trophic Cascades”, an ecological regeneration chain that begins at the top of the food chain. It says, contrary to popular belief, predators have a vital function in keeping an ecosystem healthy, and this was demonstrated dramatically at the Yellowstone National Park in the USA. Wolves in this park had once been eliminated but although the population of its preys, in particular deers multiplied, the ecosystem rather than improve deteriorated further. A few decades back, wolves were reintroduced in the park, and the changes this brought about was stunning. Deers retreated higher into the hills where escape from the wolves was easier, and in turn grasses and shrubs in the plains got greener, soil retained water better, rivers and stream became more perennial, trees got greener and the fruits they began bearing brought back birds, the birds in turn helped seed dispersal and a whole chain of consequences began unfolding ultimately restoring the natural health of the park. It needs to be considered whether there is a lesson in this for Manipur’s film industry.
Cinema houses disappearing has had consequences other than the slow death of “box offices”. It has also changed the profile of cinema audience. This especially so after the advent of the digital age and the arrival of the smartphone. Today a great many cinema lovers watch their movies on digital devices such as smartphones, tablets, computer and TV screens etc. This is obviously convenient but not without drawbacks, the foremost of which is the level of audience engagement. Unlike going for a movie in a cinema theatre, it is impossible for the audience to suspend disbelief and enter the fictional world that any particular film explores. Hence, a person watching a 3D films like Life of Pi, Gravity or Avatar in a movie theatre, can for the one and half or so duration of the movie, immerse himself or herself totally into the ecosystem of the drama these films create and hence not just see but feel the actions and emotions. On a smartphone this is seldom possible. The phone may begin ringing, somebody may request for a small errand etc. In all likelihood the person may end up putting the drama on pause mode to continue watching another time. This lack of audience engagement would quite expectedly water down the critical faculty of the audience, and this in turn would affect the quality of cinema produced, for indeed, as said earlier, any good art involves a serious dialectics between audience and artist. Cinema after all is a form of communication. No good art can be created out of nothing, and it is on the other hand a creative and unique response to a given social circumstance.
There is yet another mind block that Manipuri cinema has to overcome. There are still some people nostalgic about the celluloid era and think return to it can improve the quality of cinema in the state. Nothing can be more false than this and therefore the quicker we abandon such thoughts, the better it would be for Manipuri cinema. Nobody can avoid the future. Let us have no doubt whatsoever at this point that digital is the future. Other than its exponentially greater technological capabilities, it has also made film making accessible to anybody with a passion for it. True the explosion in the number of filmmakers outside of the elite circle that once monopolized this art and trade during the celluloid days can and probably has brought down the standard of films generally, but ultimately a cream would emerge from among them and that is what we should be interested in. Let us also not forget that the wider the base from which to draw this cream, the more cream there would be.
It is true that even on the world canvas, for a long time there was almost a futile resistance to the transition to digital in filmmaking and photography, but now there seems to be a general acknowledgment, even amongst die-hard purists who claim superiority of the celluloid medium, that the digital age is here to stay and the old must give way to the new. In the parallel still image making tradition, pioneer photo film makers, Kodak and Fuji have stopped making photo films and famous camera shops, like Dixon in the UK or Adorama and B&W in the USA have long stopped stocking film cameras. With all research and development money going into digital cameras, the digital technology is growing astoundingly, so much so that today we have digital camera sensors that literally see in the dark, and take not just still pictures but high definition, HD, movies, that rival, if not exceed the quality of video produced by standard conventional video cameras.
Manipur film industry must prepare and accept this digital revolution fully. Fortunately, it has some nice infrastructure already in place at the Palace Compound which is today virtually acquiring the aura of an institutional area for the arts. Around the historic Hapta Kangjeibung, one of the three polo-grounds of antiquity on which the modern game of polo began taking shape for the first time in history, have sprung up a number of important institutions of arts and culture, such as the Bheigyachandra Open Air Theatre, more popularly known by its acronym, BOAT; the Iboyaima Shumang Lila Shanglen; The government Arts and Culture complex; a state Convention Hall; and most relevantly the Manipur State Film Development Society, MSFDS, etc. In many ways, the MSFDS building is a fitting symbol for the arrival of the new age film making. It is, by Manipur standards grand, and must become the foundry where new ideas pertaining both to the art and craft of film making are shaped and disseminated to filmmakers in the state. As Manipur cinema enters its golden jubilee year then, let this be a time for honest and intense introspection, retrospection, and discovery of a way forward. Manipuri cinema must come alive in its new avatar vibrant and creative, not just telling ghettoized stories of misery of life in Manipur, but of the vagaries and challenges of life in general as well. In the idealistic contention that cinema is for cinema’s sake, let the revenue model of the film industry not be neglected either so that it can claim an independent and viable life of its own, and not be burdened by the indignity of having to always depend on the begging bowl for statutory charity.
(A version of this article was first published in New Indian Express as the author’s regular column in the newspaper)