There is a very famous story which I had repeated recently at the North East film festival conducted by NFDC at Mumbai. Noted filmmaker from Sikkim Mr.Santen Bhutia was a fellow panelist who had narrated an incident which had happened to him just the other day at Gateway of India. People mistook him as a foreigner. At the inaugural ceremony of the same festival, Mr. Armstrong Pamei IAS, also was narrating something similar to this incident. I responded through this famous story of Mr.Lal Thanhawla(former Mizoram chief minister) checking in a Mumbai hotel, where he was asked to produce his passport. There is always a déjàu feeling in these stories. But there is a tail-twist in Mr. Lal Thanhawla story.
“Madam I am an Indian”-said Mr. Lal Thanhawla”
“Sir, but you don’t look like an Indian.”
“Madam, please tell me how does an Indian look like?”
This story has got both philosophic and political edges. I will keep on repeating this story wherever the North Eastern identity vis-a-vis Indian mainstream is the discussion point. Bollywood missed an opportunity to cast someone like actor Lin Leishram or any female artist from Manipur in the Biopic of Mary Kom. So, when it comes to weaving a local thread into the mainstream narrative, iconography plays a vital role. There comes the story of maestro Aribam Syam Sharma, 88 years old now, who had won prestigious international awards and 19 National Awards for his Manipuri films. My film ‘Aribam Syam Sharma- Laparoscopic cinemascapes’ is an attempt to locate this philosopher-storyteller in the universe of cinema today.
It is true that I have used a clip each from his two films ’Imagi Ningthem’ and ‘Ishanou’ very sparingly in my film for furthering his aesthetics which is very personal and very rooted too in Manipuri culture. These telling illustrations of a very individual style of a filmmaker expressing through an actor’s entire body is a different take on cinema. He may not yield to the demands of cinema to use a close-up. His ‘technique’ of storytelling is primarily determined by the specifics of his culture. The ‘technological’ demands of cinema are willfully submitted to that of a broader primordial philosophic premise.
I could persuade Aribam Syam Sharma into a kind of in-depth dialogue. I was planning a more or less conventional visual journey at that time. I did not view the footage for quite some years and when I gathered enough courage to experiment on the form, I decided to disarm myself from the visual flourish and confined myself to the contours of his face. I used exactly the opposite idiom in cinema which Syam Sharma himself abhorred.
The camera surveys him through a close-up basically, keeping any frilling to the bare minimum. Shyam Sharma was not quite convinced about my ‘counter-contour-cinema’. Then he saw the final film himself. His long association with my editor Atish Nandy had helped us to construct a collective idiomatic audacity. This film ideally should act as a textbook on culture specific cinemas of India.
There are some other documentaries too made on Syam Sharma and I consider Haobam Paban Kumar’s film, which is a tribute to his Guru as cinema-worthy. In a conventional sense, I have kept the biographical data outside of my narrative. But whatever flown in as part of the visceral journey with the master are there in it.
For example, Syam Sharma loosing both his parents at a tender age and then growing up under the parentship of his own uncle and aunt, without even knowing about the loss of his parents is a poignant aspect. When he recollects these emotional turmoils, it comes back to him ‘ as if it is in a play’. So what matters to me as a filmmaker are the emotions which are wired within a human being and the natural expositional graph possible within cinema. I avoid forceful imposition of data which can be fatal to cinema as an experience.The literature does matter for a musician as long as he plays and elaborates the Raag on that given text of literature. Here again, there is a 180 degree aesthetic difference in Manipuri music. For a traditional Manipuri musician the icons do matter. Iconography is primary to him and the music has to yield to the meaning of iconography. He doesn’t elongate or condense the words while dwelling on the music. This is a completely different approach to music. A sequence in my new film deals with these complexities where Irom Sharmila appears as a nun in a dream to another nun in Kerala and there hangs a tale,a new cinema!
The shooting of the interview with Aribam Syam Sharma was done long ago and I took around three months to edit the film. The music was done by Tomba Heisnam who inherits a rich legacy of music and theatre running through his veins as the son of thespians Kanhailal and Sabriti Devi.
I had sent the rough cut to Syam Sharma who kept on watching it every night as a kind of ritual for almost a month. He had just one creative suggestion to make which was incorporated in the final film. Editor Atish Nandy and myself are keeping those mutterings from Imphal to ourselves. In retrospect, it appears that we were hit by an asteroid named Aribam Syam Sharma.
I do consider that biographies are storehouses of unique stories for cinema. I have done a couple of them applying different cinematic styles. The most challenging task in my opinion is to get a biographical film pulsate. Camera is a spoiler and it is almost impossible to make a person to be in his/her own elements when the camera is around. You have to develop a rapport over a period of time with whom you make a film and simultaneously annihilate your shooting unit with some kind of black magic. There comes a chance for you to get into a love-hate playfulness with the person in front of your camera.
Mahasweta Devi, Nirad Mohapatra, Aribam Syam Sharma- all these three are success stories for me in negotiating with cinema. But there are so many others from whom I had to run away or my camera had to be saved. Whenever I succeeded, I had a throbbing film in hand and whenever I failed, I could collect stories of tension thrown onto the pages of my script for a new fictional feature! Amen.
Joshy Joseph is an award-winning film maker and writer