In continuance of the review of two award winning Manipuri films started last week, here is the second instalment critiquing Romi Meitei’s short film, “The Tainted Mirror”
A simple plot of an innocent football field rivalry between two village boys who also happen to be neighbours and fast friends resulting in a thirteen minutes bitter-sweet tension is how Director Romi Meitei’s “The Tainted Mirror” can be best summarised. In the end, a drama that had all the scents of a sinister tragedy, by the power of moral rectitude, was spared of a denouement of disaster.
This is a short film. In its narrative structure, it does not have the room to enter the complexity of even a short story. The short film genre is defined as “an original motion picture that has a running time of 40 minutes or less, including all credits”. Even by this standard, The Tainted Mirror is short at a little under 13 minutes.
Does this extreme brevity have to mean a compromise in the quality of narrative? Not necessarily. At least not in the hands of directors who have mastered this genre and made its idioms and syntaxes their intuition and second nature. A helpful analogy to understand the versatility of this genre would be that of newspaper political cartoons where a single caricature and a sentence can say a lot more than even a thousand words.
From the past many sort films of similar durations that he has done, Romi Meitei certainly would qualify to be one amongst the genre’s foremost practitioners in the state and country. His hallmark wit, his extreme economy with dialogues, and not the least, his unique ability to build cliff hanging suspense till they reach explosion points, are all seen in The Tainted Mirror and these are also what give the film its power and charm.
This is indeed a very well-made film though it does tend to leave the impression of being a little too overtly didactic. The communication of the central message too tends towards baroque, but this, though a little too loud, somewhat enhances and amplifies the clarity of the message. The ring of propaganda however is a constructive one therefore should not generate any serious censures of critics, despite the old debate that open didacticism in art does not make good art, and that hiding good art is a quality of good art. But it must be reiterated here again that the short film genre itself would have inhibited adherence to this standard definition of good art as marked by the space given for issues to evolve and mature organically, for there would be no time for this. Like a political cartoon, the message has to be designed for quick, sharp and incisive communication. From this vantage, The Tainted Mirror accomplishes the job with finesse, elan and to near perfection.
The story revolves around Chaoren, a pre-teen school going boy and his friend Sana who acts as the prop and foil to bring out a tearing self-inflicted dilemma in Chaoren. For most part, Sana exists in the background, unaware of the psychological purgatory Chaoren landed himself in on account of him.
The opening scene shows the two boys among other boys being coached after school to play football. Apparently, they were being prepared for a match fixture with another local boys’ club. Sana is the better player and the coach picks him to be the team captain making Chaoren jealous of his friend. On the field there was nothing much he could do to change the situation for Sana was clearly more talented than him in the game.
After the day’s training, Chaoren returns home with a feeling of defeat. His farmer parents are shown tending to their commercial vegetable farm when he arrives. Father is spraying something on a vegetable patch and his mother too is at work at another spot and she cautions Chaoren not to go too near his father as the spray was not good for health. When the three decide it was time for some rest and walk towards their house, Chaoren expressed eagerness to try his hands on his father’s spray tool and spray a patch of cabbages nearby but his father said no as these were not meant for the market and were for their own consumption. Chaoren’s innocent mind thus gets its first dose of contaminant to taint it. He gets to learn what they eat and what they sell to others are different.
At home later in the day, his father uses a syringe to inject tiny doses of a fluid, seemingly a hormone, in brinjals in a basket one by one, murmuring what a wonder chemical this was, capable of making the brinjals twice their natural sizes overnight. When Chaoren suggests they cook some, he is scolded saying this can make them all ill. Television news in the evening has a commentary on a rapidly spreading scourge in the state of the use of chemicals in food farming and how this can result in severe ailments among those who consume them. Chaoren queries if this is true. The answer is in the affirmative, but he is scolded again for being too inquisitive about matters beyond his age. The contamination of Chaoren’s mind is now complete, and is about to take a sinister turn. Next morning, on the way to school, he takes some of the chemical treated brinjals and stops at Sana’s house to gift them to his friend saying they are from his family’s garden.
If the rush with which this soiling of the innocent mind was established was too overt and exaggerated, compelled as it was by the short film format, what were to follow from then on are far more intense, nuanced, profound and touching. They establish the moral layer of the human character which goes far beyond the visible world where behaviours are determined by actions and reactions, incentives and conditioning.
This autonomous moral agency also can, and is meant to transcend the quotidian zero-sum-game equations of everyday life in which the premium is on selfish rather than enlightened interests. This moral fabric is not an immediate product of nurture either and instead is a quality inherent in the human character per se, therefore manifests even in children who have not been tutored to imbibe it, although such tutoring can catalyse its growth. Chaoren for instance was taught its opposite by his unscrupulous parents, but this was not enough to prevent the moral being in him ultimately blossoming.
Religions have called this the evidence of a supernatural order, while scientists would rather explain it as a culmination of the evolutionary process of empathic bondage among homo sapiens, enhancing exponentially their social formation ability, consequently putting them at a much better stead in the survival battle than all other sentient beings, and indeed life forms.
The morning after the brinjals gift, Sana did not turn up for football practice and in his absence Chaoren becomes the choice for captain. The shy glee on Chaoren’s face is visible despite his effort at camouflage. But on the following day when Sana did not turn up again, Chaoren’s initial sense of victory begins to acquire the countenance of worry.
Sometime later he learns from the coach that Sana is severely ill. Chaoren’s worry begins to darken into guilt. Every time he passes by Sana’s gate on his way home, he has the impulse to enter and enquire after his friend, but courage fails him as he imagines Sana’s mother screaming at him accusing him of attempting to murder his friend.
Chaoren life is now a living nightmare. The boy finally decides he has to confront the demon within him in order to exorcise it. He heads to Sana’s house, timidly slides open the bamboo gate and enters the compound where he is greeted warmly by a surprised Sana’s mother. After some initial hesitation, Chaoren asks if Sana is ill.
Sana’s Mother is touched:
“So my child, you came to enquire after your friend. Sana also never stops asking about you. Come come.”
She leads Chaoren into the house where Sana is on his sick bed. She leaves Chaoren there and goes away to warm a glass of milk for the boy.
The climatic, or more accurately anti-climatic scene, is novel. It would take anyone by surprise. It is even a little startling. The two young friends are there in the room silently acknowledging and absorbing the warmth of each other’s presence. Sana is flat on his back on the bed, eyeing his friend weakly from the pillow, and Chaoren too looks back at his ailing comrade but the excruciating weight of guilt hanging around his neck like the proverbial albatross is unmistakable.
Then in a feeble voice Sana begins telling his friend:
“The brinjals you gave me….”
Chaoren’s face grows pale and faint at hearing this.
“… my mother said will cook for me after I recover,” Sana completed the sentence in a tone of innocent gratitude.
Chaoren is momentarily stunned. He can suddenly feel the mounting pressure in his head released as when the sluice gates of an excessively filled dam are suddenly lifted or when the safety valve of a pressure cooker whistles and lets off excess steam. The dark forebodings of tragedy, guilt and remorse weighing his soul down was now evaporating fast and a broad smile of extreme relief appears on his face. That timeless magical moment is allowed to freeze on screen, and the film’s title credits and cast pages begin scrolling.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author