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Poster of 2009 Manipuri film "Kaboklei"

“Kaboklei” Will Remain as One of the Rare ‘Round Characters’ in Manipuri Film’s Exploration of Cinematic Styles

Cast: Manda Leima as Kaboklei, Hamom Sadananda as Pamheiba, Huirem Seema as Kaboklei’s Mother, Ranjit as Kaboklei’s Father, Sagolsem Dhanamanjuri as Indu, Sorri Senjam as Pamheiba’s Younger Brother, Wangkhem Lalitkumar as Minister, Pamheiba’s father, R.K. Hemabati as Minister’s Wife, Narendra Ningomba as Manihar, Heisnam Geeta as Manihar’s wife, Bhogen as Kaboklei’s local brother, Rina as Thagoi, nurseDirection, editing: Pilu Heikrujam

Producer: Bandana Meisnam; Story: Khaidem Pramodini; Screenplay: Narendra Ningomba; Lyrics: Soibam Ibomcha Singh; Art Director: Ranbir Thouna; Playback: Pushparani; Make-up: Jenny Khurai


Little spoken of therefore little heard of, but easily one of the best cinematic explorations of poverty amongst the Meiteis in Manipur as the community moved from their traditional agrarian base to the present peculiar urbanized service-oriented economy. “Kaboklei” like any non-commercial cinematic enterprises catering to an audience with taste moulded largely by the Bollywood brand of song and dance melodrama, cannot exactly be said to have made a splash or even a strong enough ripple at the box office, but critics nonetheless were left impressed. In the 7th Manipur State Film Festival 2010, it was a strong contender for the best film title, although in the end, there were others deemed better on the strength of a combination of several cinematic attributes, but it did bag the best female actor award. Manda Leima very much stole the show, and she was the unanimous choice for the award by the panel of four judges, headed by Manipur’s master film director, Aribam Syam Sharma. Two of the judges handpicked by Eigya Syam, Samik Bandyopadhyay and Shyamal Karmakar, both from Kolkata, were even of the opinion that if “Kaboklei” had made it to the national level competition, Manda would have been a strong contender for the best female actor title. Eleven years down the line, I can now reveal how I know this inside story. I was the fourth judge in Eigya Syam’s team.

“Kaboklei” is not one of those formula films where good and evil are stereotypically and clearly placed on opposite sides of the fence, and the outcome of the fight between the two predictable even at the start. Good and bad cinema in this genre has been about how completely and creatively the villains are defeated in the end, and how enduring and resilient the protagonists were in holding out against the villains’ heartless dominance and subjugation before the tables turned. Kaboklei belonged to a different story telling style altogether, and just as nothing is in black and white in life, nothing or little are in black and white this story either. Even the ways of providence are not predictable, and portrayed as neutral determinant of life as it unfolds differently for different people. This willingness to see reality as it is and not as a sugar-coated melodrama is not a wonder, considering the film is based on a short story by the late Khaidem Pramodini, sensitive and prolific poet, a contemporary of the late MK Binodini.

What the film lacked to be a complete cinematic enterprise is a complicated plot with many interesting digressions and parallel side stories converging at the end for an explosive cathartic denouement. This is understandable, for it is based on a short story. Constrained thus by the limits of a short story it follows a linear narrative, tracing the trials and tribulation of a very poor but uncompromisingly brave girl who never gives up agency even in the most trying circumstances. Not for any lack of intensity or grip but by the essential linearity of the short story genre the film is also bound by, was Kaboklei probably left behind in the last leg of the race for the best film title in the 7th Film Festival. Personally. I would still rank it as one of most interesting. In its own way, it has also shown Manipuri cinema new possibilities of cinematic explorations. Unfortunately, having not succeeded on the commercial front, few directors since have been brave enough to walk the same path, which in my opinion is a grand opportunity left waste.

Kaboklei is a poor village girl with boyish daring defying the norms predetermined by the patriarchal world. Intelligent and much loved by elders and peers in the village, she is shown as naturally talented, including as it was discovered during an audition for a small village skit in preparation for a state level competition, in acting. Her passion in the portrayal of the character she was given, wins her a place in the team, and she even gets to travel outside the state for a theatre competition. But talent notwithstanding her dismal poverty-aggravated fate ties her down. Her diseased father is weak and bedridden, and her still young mother is a vendor at a market. There is never enough food in the house, and the audience can feel the tension in the family with the mother as the only earning member striving to keep the family hearth burning. The father in silent agony loudly articulated by his looks, watches on with helpless guilt. Kaboklei is unhappy and angry at her mother for not being more considerate to her invalid father. But the mother is young, and she begins to have an affair with a regular visitor at her stall at the market, a moneyed but married man and Kaboklei senses this too.

Late one evening, while waiting for her mother to return from another of her market rendezvous with her new beau, her father suffers a life-threatening attack. When mother returns it was already dark. Mother and daughter do everything in their power and means to save the struggling ailing man. They needed to call the doctor from the next village and since the mother’s presence at the ailing man’s bedside was felt more necessary, Kaboklei volunteers to do the errand. Mother though fearful of her daughter’s security, reluctantly agrees. It was at this point that Kaboklei’s world began tumbling. She gets accosted and raped by two drunk village ruffians. She returns home devastated and finds her father had by then expired.

Not long after, Kaboklei’s mother remarries leaving her on her own. A neighbourhood woman and a friend of her mother’s, becomes Kaboklei’s loving guardian. She arranges for Kaboklei to become a house helper in the amiable and generous family of the local MLA and minister. Kaboklei finds a new home in the minister’s house. Pamheiba, the sensitive and kind son of the minister, the older of the two sons, begins to have a soft corner for the girl. The younger son is a spoilt child and a drug user studying away from the state, but on a holiday return home, one day while the house was deserted, tries to sexually assault Kaboklei.

Before this, it became apparent Kaboklei’s mother is not having an easy time in her second marriage. She is constantly harassed and abused by her husband’s first wife and family, and had to ultimately leave and return to her now abandoned home completely broken in spirit. She also becomes terminally ill with cancer. Kaboklei gets to hear of her mother’s plight, and although still angry with her she realises blood is thicker than water. She takes leave from the minister’s household and returns home. Mother and child are both overcome with remorse at allowing their drift to happen, but the reunion was not in a happy circumstance as the mother did not have much time left to live. She dies and Kaboklei is alone again.

Minster’s family remains supportive and she returns to their home again. This is when the attempted sexual assault by the younger son happens. Meantime, the Pamheiba’s love for her also becomes public. The boy’s parents are disappointed by the match and tries to dissuade their son. They also were concerned about protecting the reputation of their younger son and the family from a possible scandal. Kaboklei too realises she has suppressed feelings for Pamheiba but she is determined not to reveal this under any circumstance. She is also too grateful to the family for her to become a cause for their distress or bring disrepute to them on account of the younger son’s assault on her, so she runs away.

In the climatic scene, Pamheiba comes looking for her in a mood ready to forsake his family but not her, and was literally a few feet away from her. She holds back her impulses to rush into his arms and continues hiding. When he ultimately walks away heartbroken and was preparing to leave, and Kaboklei realises this would be the last farewell, the dam in her heart bursts and she gives in to the tidal flood of emotions she has for the man, and rushes out towards him from her hiding place calling out to him loud. In the blindness of the moment however, as she rushes crosses the road where Pamheiba had parked his car, she is hit by another passing car and killed.

The denouement is rather contrived, but understandably it is a convenient way out for a short story. If Kaboklei had united with her lover, the story probably would have to continue, or else a sequel short story become unavoidable. For in such an ending, the catharsis would never have been complete, as there would be too many unanswered questions left unresolved. The idea of a tale, tragedy or comedy, concluding with a sense of all ends tied up, or in Manipuri, utka waiga sinnaba, would not have happened. For instance, the audience would still want to know if the minister’s family ultimately accept Kaboklei as a daughter-in-law? Would Pamheiba and Kaboklei leave to start a new life independently? What about the younger son and his relations with his elder brother?

What is remarkable about this film is the roundedness of its central character, Kaboklei, and I would add her mother. Their predicaments were never completely predetermined by destiny and instead were the result of a constant dialectic between what cruel fate had in store for them and their own volitional choices. Although always overwhelmed by the weight of destiny, they never lose agency. And like the best of ’round characters’ in literature, they are complex humans capable not just of falling in and out of love, experiencing joy and grief, rejoicing good luck and lamenting bad ones, but also of self-questioning and arbitrating their own choices and actions, and change accordingly even if the paths to such changes had tragedy looming over them.

The film does have abundant elements of melodrama and flatness too, but these are not central to the theme of the story. They are meant only to create the environment within which the story’s central ’round characters’ were to play out their lives. This is however not to say ’round characters’ are superior literary creations than ‘flat’ ones. Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist for instance is told with ‘flat characters’ almost exclusively, and the only ’round character’ in the entire tale being Nancy, the ruffian Bill Sike’s girlfriend and Oliver’s undeclared guardian. We also however know few other literary creations have left a more complete picture of the industrial age than Oliver Twist. But for dramas that go beyond the material manifestation of fate, and enter the realm of the psychological, there can be no substitute to a Hamlet or a Macbeth. Manipuri cinema has not seen too many of the latter type, and this is why I would consider Kaboklei a rare though far from perfect experiment in this genre.

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