This review from 2009 is reproduced on the eve of Manipuri film industry entering its Golden Jubilee year. This was the decade the Manipuri film industry took a digital turn, expanding not only the number of filmmakers doing serious work, breaking into what was once the stratospheric domain only few could enter or afford, but also opening up new and immense technological possibilities. The arrival of the digital age thus was an enabler for many previously unknown, talented and potential award winning directors, though it also came with many drawbacks. We will be doing a retrospect of progress of the industry, especially of the transitional years from celluloid to digital medium.
The Second Millennium Mongoloids’ new feature film “Nobap” is a welcome change in Manipur digital film trends. It tells a pretty straightforward story without the excessive, superfluous and sometimes even redundant embellishments – a genre of the masala Bollywood variety which has come to glut and dominate the fledgling industry (or enterprise if you like) in the state. Not that the latter genre is bad, after all this genre is popular and to go against this current without any qualification would be a show of patent, snobbish, and even feigned distaste for what is popular in order to presume a sense of superiority. Yet, it must be admitted the essential melodrama associated with this genre is far too often at the cost of missing out, consciously or otherwise, on telling of the inner complexities of life which all serious narratives must articulate with conviction. The universally acknowledged fact is, glitter and gloss are distracting, and has the undesirable quality of twisting and transporting real life situations to the realm of never-never fantasy.
Why even melodrama? In the classical Western artistic appreciation, even baroque is frowned upon. Any exaggeration of action, even if it does attract attention to the subject, is believed to distract attention from the pure beauty of form and the aesthetics of harmony between parts.
“Nobap” is interesting from this perspective. It is yet another attempt at a departure of a section of Manipuri digital film makers from an increasingly crystallised tradition which has only the cash register at the box office in mind – though undoubtedly a very compelling consideration for a tottering industry just about learning to walk on its own legs. Perhaps anticipating this new trend is also the physical shrinking of cinema theatres, just as the Paradiso in Thangal Bazar where “Nobap” was screened for press preview before official release Sunday last. The audience for this new experimental film trend obviously would not be too big, but arguably they would be much more critical and discriminating of quality.
“Nobap” craves to reach out to this new audience. The story tries to break free of melodrama, and although not entirely successful, does a commendable job. As expected, this leaves the audience with one less burden of having to go through the familiar exercise of “willing suspension of disbelief” demanded by so many other cheap, although sometimes incredible mimicries of Bollywood. Hence, there was nothing impossible about most, if not all that happened on screen, hence the invitation to identify much more intimately and personally with characters and situations depicted in the movie. It must however be admitted, not all the situations and sequences were stiched up seamlessly.
“Nobap” is about eight boys in a not so idyllic village. It is not idyllic precisely because the picture is one of a frustrating stagnation. There is abject poverty all around; the village school is in a shamble; few of the village folks seem to be engaged in any meaningful work, they do not even seem to work in the paddy fields that surround the village, although the fields have the verdant, fecund and productive look; there is a drunkard father who does no work but continually fritters away the starving family’s meagre income on his addiction and bullies his wife and young son; evidences of corruption also show up when school teachers who arrive in the village one fine day to receive a visiting minister take away the footballs gifted by the minister to their homes in Imphal at the end of the show.
Even the eight boys hang around the village playground the whole day every day of the week with no sign of parental objections. The stagnancy also strangely produces no evidence of anger or resistance anywhere. In short, there is an unreal atmosphere of passivity which probably was not intended and resulted out of directorial oversight. All the same it is a passivity which jars uncomfortably and awkwardly, like a slow moving vehicle screeching to a halt.
The village is also no longer a complex community that we know a village to be, although there were also some nice little touches that gave it real life. As for instance (Abenao), the girl in the lead role, drops a hint of worry and anxiety in a casual conversation with her mother one day about the welfare of an elder brother who is not at home and probably has joined the underground ranks. In another scene, impoverished parents (not the mother) try to send away their children to sweat shops in Imphal for a little extra income. A jeep driver (Raju) goes out and rescues them, strangely without the consent of their fathers who sent them away in the first place. There were more. Underground cadres seek the favour of the jeep driver once to drop them off at an undisclosed destination; Women vendors helplessly talk of their frustration at the ways of these “kidnappers”. They only pray the kidnappers do no harm to the genial young man etc. Touches like these make the slice of rural life that the movie tries to sketch, realistic, and thankfully balance off the jarring shortcomings.
Amidst this stagnation there is however some pro-activity. The local passenger-jeep driver, (Raju/Thambou), the chief protagonist of the film, is replete with this quality. This man of few words, is not only industrious and upright, but also has a fan following amongst children on account of his image as a good-hearted rogue. The village play ground is adjacent to the village jeep parking, and Thambou soon comes to be the protective big brother of the boys, buying them eatables in evening when he returns from work, mentoring them, and eventually grooming them up into a formidable under 15 football team with a help of a colleague who was once a known footballer.
Sports is inherent in the Manipuri character, but not because people here have nothing better to do, or because they are simply naturally talented and sports loving. Sports from this viewpoint is very much about sublimated aggression. It is about taming and disciplining a fury inside and giving it a creative outlet. This aggression is a condition induced by certain physical and psychological circumstances. This idea comes across in a much more raw form in the case of physical and contact sports. Football belongs to the latter class. The story of sports stars like Maradona, Pele, Mike Tyson, Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Luis, Mohammed Ali, Zinedine Zidane, MC Mary Kom, Ngangom Dingko, Kunjarani Devi and in fact the whole horde of superlative sporting performers from the state would have this theme in common in their lives.
“Nobap” somewhat fails to be convincing on this front. The eight children fell in love with football seemingly because they simply had nothing else to do, not even go to school. The only time they showed some semblance of sporting aggression was when fate deprived them of their first real football, and they go wild kicking Nobap (a large citrus fruit slightly smaller than a football) resulting in one of them fracturing a leg.
Characterisation also generally lacked roundedness. There are few who are able to self-question, or introspect self-worth, grow, change, expand vision or accept essential but tragic compromises of life with dignity etc. True the theme of the story may have been structurally limiting to explore this area deeper, still the parts played by Raju, Gokul, Abenao and Ranjana, had rooms for more depth. All four, superb actors and actresses that they are, however played their parts extremely well. Raju’s confidence and the ease with which he carries his head over his shoulders is a pleasure to watch, Abenao’s calm betrays a still volcano within, Gokul and Rajana, although playing supporting roles, were abundantly talented.
The eight boys, Denil, Chingkhei, Chingkheinganba, Biken, Russel, Oliver Chiru, Robinson and Santosh were obviously footballers of merit. They put up a good entertaining show both on the playing field as well as off it.
All in all, “Nobap” is a valiant venture. It is to the credit of director Heisnam Tomba and producer, script writer, lyricist Suresh Hidang, that they are able to provoke critical engagement of the audience. Like all serious narratives, cinematic or otherwise, discerning cinema goers would probably continue to dissect and savour the film long after the show has ended. This would be quite unlike the circus of commercial cinema which are good only so long as the immediate sensation lasts but leaves the audience with nothing much to glean after the curtain drops.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author