Saturday, June 9, 2007

Small money, big dreams

If there is one thing that keeps Manipuri digital films alive more than anything else, then it is the sheer love of the art by its patrons and filmmakers. This may be true of any other film industry. But if you look at the size of the industry and the time, energy and enthusiasm that Manipuris put in the production of films, one thing would strike an observer: so much for so little stakes.

Consider the budget of an average Manipuri film budget. A modest amount of 5-6 lakhs is a respectable allocation for a film that is entirely shot in Manipur. Stars’s salaries which usually take a lion’s share of a film budget are incredibly low in Manipur. Leading Manipuri actors in the equivalent league of Shah Rukh Khan and Rani Mukherjee take home—hold your breath—a mere fifteen to thirty thousand. Directors are luckier with fifty thousand followed closely by editors and script writers.

This sounds crazy. But not so crazy if you look closer. Manipuri digitals are usually made so fast that actors—and they are few in number—make up for the peanut paychecks they receive in increased volume. It is common for a star to sign as many as five films at one time and work for all of them simultaneously with acrobatic shooting schedules. Some films are made as quickly as in 15 days!

The real problem however is not the schedules of the actors but the inordinate time it takes for a finished film to go to the theatres. A producer has to wait for at least two years before she gets to screen her film in a theatre.

The paucity of screening halls is caused by the decline in the exhibition business during the celluloid days when there were few films to show because of low rate of production. The balance sheets of the exhibitors were understandably in the red. Many theatres had to shut down and turn into schools, shopping plaza and offices.

That slump has now turned into sunny outlook. With the advent of the digital film boom, the few remaining theatres are doing a great business, often finding it difficult to accommodate the digital films that are being churned out at the neck-breaking speed.

At the beginning of this write-up, I said so much effort was invested for so little stakes. The most that a producer can expect from a film as profit is in the range of one to three lakhs. And it is a difficult call for the producers to predict the outcome of a film at the box-office, as is the case with any film anywhere in the world. Out of ten films, only about two will turn up profits, three will get even and the rest will go to the dumps.

One strategy that producers employ is to spread the risk. A newly released film will be first released in theatres in Imphal only. If it gets favourable word-of-mouth publicity, the producers would seek to cash on it and eventually release the prints at the theatres in sub-urban and rural areas where the film would have already created a “wave” as one prominent film director told me. If it sinks at the box office in Imphal, the film would be released elsewhere as a new package completely disassociated from the dismal performance at Imphal.

The entire cycle from Imphal premiere to the openings in far flung theatres is complete in about six months. A simple arithmetic would put the duration from production to final box office collections at around 3 years (1-6 months for production, 2 years for booking a place in a theatre and 6 months for screening the film at all theaters).

No producer would be forthcoming on the precise amount of profits made out of a film. This reluctance is in part due to the fears on the part of the producer to honour financial obligations due to the supporting actors (leading actors are always given special treatment). It is not uncommon for a producer to default on payments due to small actors and instead treat them to a sumptuous dinner with some gifts. These are treated as favours that would be returned in some form—a tacit understanding that nothing is for free.

The following is a budget break-up of an average Manipuri digital film:
(Figures in thousand)

Leading actor: 15-30
Actor in supporting roles: 2-5
Script writer: 15
Director: 50-60
Editor: 20-30
Costumes: 10
Music: 40
Light: 30-35
Make-up person: 15
Transportation: 50
Equipments: 20-30
Arrangement shoots (like wedding, rainy scenes etc.): 20-50
Marketing: 50
Contingencies: 50

To sum up, anybody with a few spare cash can produce a film in Manipur. It’s not the important point though. What’s remarkable is why Manipuris get so excited about dedicating themselves to such a low-margin and high-risk venture as filmmaking that promises nothing more than a few pittance in profit at best. The answer is, Manipuris love arts, music, dance and theater; and cinema provides the ultimate platform that happily blends all these. Above all, they love experiments.

Not surprising for a state that has produced such theater legends as Ratan Thiyam and Kanhailal.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

No sex please, we are Manipuris

Manipuri films are often close imitations of the Bollywood flicks in form, if not the content. Song, music and dance are one of the most important ingredients in a Manipuri film. Like some of the Mumbai’s potboilers, Manipuri heroes woo their love-interests in the sky, mountains, snow and the oceans. Hero-laden helicopters fly into a song sequence out of nowhere, even if the hero is an unemployed chap in the film. Shoots are done in foreign locations like Singapore as a trick to draw audience. Actors change their clothes many times in a span of five minutes. Even the music scores are adapted from the South Indians. Almost all the usual ‘aesthetics of attractions’ of Mumbai cinema are employed to gain eyeballs as Manipuri filmmakers struggle to recover their production cost in a highly competitive market that is confined to the Imphal valley. (Picture: Mami Numit being celebrated on April 9, 2007 at MDU hall).

So you might ask what is Manipuri about Manipuri films. Despite the cosmetic similarities with other regional cinemas, Manipuri cinema has begun to come on its own. This is largely a result of self-regulation of the Manipuri film industry and in part because of a sort of cultural regimentation imposed on the filmmakers by the underground organisations.

Take for example, the song and dance sequence. Manipuri songs are done very tastefully without any display of tits and bums and that makes it eminently fit to be watched together in a family of three generations without any awkwardness and embarrassments. Elements of sexual titillation are completely absent from the Manipuri cinema, that compared to it, a typical item number of Mallika Sherawat would look like a soft porn stuff. No rain-soaked blouses for the Manipuris.

The Manipuris are a very conservative people. It’s an article of faith among the Manipuris that women should not drink wine, not reveal too much cleavage, not go out late in the night, not laugh too loud, not have food before their husbands do and so on.

These values get reflected in the Manipuri cinema.

The Imphalwood filmmakers are aware of the consequences if they cross the line of decency and fantasy. The community has a powerful impact on what one can do in Manipur—not only in the films but also in other walks of life. If a filmmaker ignores the sensitivities of the Manipuri populace, she is in for a sure trouble. That trouble can also come from the insurgents who considers Manipuri cinema to be a nationalistic product and a cultural ambassador. This notion has led to some actors being prohibited from working together in films because of their too ‘inappropriate’ on-screen and off-screen chemistry. In an extreme case, a female actor was shot at her legs because she acted in an erotic scene. Some of her male colleagues have paid a direr price: they have been executed while others fled to neighbouring states. This happened about a decade ago.

Many rounds of parleys have taken place between the Film Forum, Manipuri, the apex body of the Imphalwood and the underground organisations on censorship issues. While the Film Forum, Manipur has been zealous about guarding its artistic freedom, the UGs have been insisting on enforcing a code of conventions that purport to uphold the dignity of the Manipuri culture and society. A middle ground has been struck which seeks to satisfy both the filmmakers and the UGs.
This mutually agreed code is enforced by the preview committee of the Film Forum, Manipur. From now on, a director must submit his print and screen it before the said committee for clearance. The committee approves the film on the basis of some criteria, most of which to determine whether the film transgresses the line of decency, misrepresents the culture of the Manipuris or imitates too profusely from Bollywood. The members of this committee are known to show their utmost displeasure at the sight of sarees, sindur, mangal sutra, heavy make-up, exposed ribs and ‘vulgar scenes’. A director has to comply if cuts are recommended in any portion of the film. Only then can it be submitted formally to the Central Board of Film Censorship at Guwahati for censorship certificate.

Such a system does generate lots of bad feelings between the committee and the filmmakers. It also doesn’t help that most Manipuri filmmakers have grown up on a diet of Bollywood movies—their filmmaking approaches and techniques are uncannily similar to those of the Mumbai’s films. It appears to be quite a temptation for a Manipuri director to make use of alien cultural symbols, often subconsciously, like a mangal sutra, a North Indian usage which does not exist in the Manipuri society. The preview committee acts as a filter to sift through such kind of disconnect between the reality and the cinematic representations.
Film activists mindful of the anomalies in the Manipuri films exhort the filmmakers to look elsewhere for inspiration if Manipuri film has to carve out its own destiny. Korean films are being promoted as alternative films that Manipuris can emulate. The realist feel of the Korean films with their simplicity, brevity of emotions and subtlety are a model for a new breed of young filmmakers. The vice like grip of Bollywood is slowly but surely loosening as Korean and Latin American movies make their foray into Manipur, via the international market at Moreh, a border town straddling Manipur and Myanmar.
There are merits and demerits of extra-institutional/official censorship. On the brighter side, Manipuri films are becoming more realistic and distinct from the homogenous commodity of Bollywood. Liberals are however worried that it is a form of cultural regimentation that restricts freedom of artistic expression and experimentation. The line between vulgarity and art is a thin line and it is a difficult task differentiating between the two. In Manipur, it is the insurgents and the like-minded members in the Film Forum, Manipur that is shouldering this tricky task.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

How Satyajit Ray got floored...

There’s an account related to me by Mr K. Ibohal Sharma (pic on the left), producer of the Manipuri feature film, Imagee Ningthem that got registered in my mind more than anything else he told me. It concerns the making of the film and how it went straight to international film festivals to a rapt audience and before an incredulous aficionados, critics and filmmakers in India. Among them was Satyajit Ray, who probably was not even aware of the existence of Manipuri cinema.

When news about the Manipuri film being critically acclaimed at the Nante International Film Festival (in France) reached India, the reigning kings of the Indian cinema like Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and others were shell-shocked. They had never heard of Aribam Shyam Sharma, the director of the film nor had they watched any Manipuri film of any consequence in their life. The Bengal Film Society eventually contacted the makers of the Imagee Ningthem to screen the film in Calcutta. “It was an honour for us. We stopped regular shows in Imphal so that we can take the reel to other cities from where requests have also come in for screenings,” the octogenarian producer-cinematographer told me.

Once in Calcutta, it was the turn of the Manipuri filmmakers to get shocked by the reaction of the audience. It was clear the audience didn’t appreciate the film. The Manipuris didn’t exactly expect a standing ovation, but they were also not prepared for boos and sneers from the Bengali crowd not used to the alien language and characters on the screen. “People disappeared from the hall faster than the blink of the eye, and those who remained were a handful of foreigners. “MK Binodini, the storywriter, who came with high hopes was literally reduced to tears and requested me to take her home,” he recounted. But before they went back to the hotel to retire for the night, they decided to take a walk to the venue of the national film festival being held in the city just for the heck of it and in part to drown away their bitter experience at the theatre (Gorky Sadan). To their surprise they found out that their film was declared the best feature film in the national panorama. Tear of humiliation turned into tears of joy instantaneously.

How did the doyens of the Indian cinema size up the film? “They watched through the film without saying anything and left without saying anything. They were clearly speechless,” Mr Sharma recalled.

The film was invited to participate in major international film festivals at New York and Tokyo.

This was in 1982. In the same year, Imagee Ningthem won the Grand Prix at Nante International Film festival. Aribam Shyam Sharma had joined the international mainstream even before making it big in the national stage. His success story mirrors the trajectory of the evolution of the Manipuri Cinema.


Ray’s influence on early Manipuri cinema
By Satyajit Ray, I don’t mean the person and his works only. The New Wave cinema and the realism that was the hallmark of the Bengali cinema also had a deep impact on the form and content of the early Manipuri cinema. In fact, the first attempted Manipuri cinema, Mainu Pemcha, was a collaborative effort between Bengalis and the Manipuris. The film was based on a Manipuri play written by Ayekpam Shyamsunder Singh and translated by Bidal Das Panchotiya into Hindi. For reasons of commercial viability, the film had to be made not in the Manipuri language but in Hindi. This reflected the sad reality that still cripples the Manipuri film industry – which is the lack of a big market.

A joint stock company was formed which was christened Shri Govindaji Film production and after raising the funds started shooting from 1948 till April 1949 at the Kali Studio in Calcutta. Directed by Jyoti Das, the cast included both Bengalis and Manipuri actors with the latter in numerical preponderance. After completing a substantial part of the film in Calcutta, they had to come back to Manipur as some scenes required shooting in Meitei Yumjao (traditional Manipuri house).

An interesting thing happened in Manipur. The public who were already thrilled with the prospects of seeing their favourite play on the celluloid requested Biman Chatterjee (playing a Manipuri character in the film) to demonstrate his acting skills at the Rupmahal Theatre, which he obliged.

Unfortunately the film could not be completed due to financial difficulties. In a last ditch attempt to revive the film, the producer approached the Manipuri Maharaja to support the film. The Maharajah was favourable to the idea but historical circumstances did not allow him to devote attention to the film. 1949 was a chaotic year coinciding with the end of the World War II, and for Manipur, the question of her political existence hanged in uncertainty. The question of whether the Kingdom of Manipur should join the Indian Union generated a lot of public debate with even the institution of monarchy perched precariously in the line of fire. It was a momentous era that triggered the insurgency movement over the issue of the legitimacy of the “annexation” of the Manipuri Kingdom into the Indian Union by Sardar Patel’s “clever handling”.

The seventies assumed great significance in the history of Indian cinema. Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen pioneered the New wave cinema and changed the cinematic landscape of the Indian cinema. Mythologies and other formula films began to give way to socials. Shyam Benegal, MS Sathu, Basu Chatterjee, Kumar Sahni and others continued and took forward this tradition of filmmaking to greater heights. The Manipuri filmmakers, meanwhile, were burning with the ambition of carving out a niche for themselves. They were studying the new phenomenon so that they were not left behind. The film society movement took root in Manipur and got itself affiliated to Indian Federation of Film Societies which had its headquarters in Calcutta.

After the botched attempt of Mainu Pemcha, K. Monomohan took upon himself the task of making the first Manipuri feature film – Matamgi Manipur (Today’s Manipur). Like Mainu Pemcha, it was directed by a Bengali director, Devkumar Bose, son of the celebrated filmmaker Devki Kumar Bose. Adapted from a play Tirth Jatra written by by Arambam Samarendra, the film had an all-Manipuri cast, and it was in this sense a more indigenous venture than Mainu Pemcha. The film began shooting in December 3 1971 and was wrapped up in January 1972. Considering that it was the first experience for the Manipuri actors before the camera, they performed beyond expectations. This was proved when the two leading actors Rabindra Sharma and Y. Roma received the Rashtriya Chalchitra Purashkar, which is better known as the President Award. It must have been a record for any regional film industry for its first film experiment to be getting recognised in such a manner. “The Manipuris are natural artistes; they are gifted with the talent of arts, music and dance,” writes RK Bidur, a founder member of the Manipur Cine Club and president of the Manipur’s Film Critics Association, referring to the success of the Matamgee Manipur.


The 90s—the beginning of the end of celluloid era
After a glorious history, celluloid era has effectively had its last appearance in 1998. The following is the list of the films that were made including the name of the director and producer during the period 1972-1998. Documentary films and VHS format movies are not included, as are the digital films that are the rage now. These will be dealt with in separate postings.

Manipuri celluloid films
Year Title Producer Director
1972 Matamgee Manipur, Karam Manmohan Devkumar Bose
1972 Brojendrogee Luhongba, SN Chand SN Chand
1974 Lamja Parsuram, G Narayan Sharma A. Shyam Sharma
1974 Ngak-e-ko Nangse, Wangkhem Basanta SN Chand
1976 Saphabi G Narayan, Sharma A. Shyam Sharma
1979 Khuthang Lamjel, Thongam Haridas GC Tongbra
1979 Olangthagee Wangmadasu, G Narayan Sharma A. Shyam Sharma
1981 Imagee Ningthem, K Ibohal Sharma A. Shyam Sharma
1981 Khonjel, M Nilamani M Nilamani
1981 Wangma Wangma, Durlav L Banka Sharma
1983 Sana Keithel, Thoudam Doren MA Singh
1983 Paokhum Ama, Film Div. of India A. Shyam Sharma
1984 Thaba, Khaidem Sakhi Devi K Ibohal Sharma
1984 Langlen Thadoi, Khaidem Sakhi Devi MA Singh
1984 Yairipok Thambalnu, H Gehendra L Banka Sharma
1986 Iche Sakhi Thoudam Doren MA Singh
1988 Kombirei, G Narayan Sharma G Narayan Sharma
1990 Isanou, Gauhati Drsn A Shyam Sharma
1990 Engallei, M Kumarjit RK Kripa
1990 Paap, M Nilamani M Nilamani
1992 Khonthang, Thoungamba Oken Amakcham
1993 Sambal Wangma, Sobita K Ibohal Sharma
1993 Thambal, Vishnu/Surjakanta RK Kripa
1993 Madhavi, K Bhupendra L Banka
1994 Mayophigee Macha, Thouyangba Oken Amakcham
1995 Sanabi, NFDI/Drdrsn A. Shyam Sharma
1995 Khamba Khamnu, Ch Shyamcharan Ch Shyamcharan
1996 Kanaga Hinghouni, Chand Heisnam Chand Heisnam/Vishwamitra
1997 Sanamanbi Sanarei, G Narayan Sharma G Narayan Sharma
1997 Khamba Thoibi, M Nilamani M Nilamani
1997 Chinglensana, Th. Binapani Rajen Meitei
1997 Iraal Oirage, Chand Heisnam Vishwamitra/Kishore Kr
1997 Yenningtha Amada, M Nilamani/Ashwini M Nilamani/Ashwini Kr
1998 Amambasu Anganbani, Chand Heisnam Vishwamitra/Kishore Kr
1998 Thawaigi Thawai, Thoungamba Thoungamba/Thouyangba

A castle of digital dreams

Machu Cinema is at Samurou, about 15 Kms from the Imphal city. Open to public last year, it is becoming one of the most frequented spots for the young love birds. There are three shows daily, and on weekends, it has one more show in the evening. The last show begins at 7 pm, making it one of the few commercial shops that's opened that late. In Manipur, life ends 5 pm. Machu means colour. True to its name, the theatre has added a little bit of colour to life in the violence ridden Imphal valley.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Imphalwood: Digital revolution and the Death of Celluloid

This is my first post on the Sarai readerlist as an Independent Fellow, and I hope the topic of my research-- Imphalwood: Digital revolution and the Death of Celluloid—would be of interest to you. A word before I go on further: Other than the movie culture, I will be even more delighted if I succeed in giving you new insights into the society, culture, politics and economy of Manipur. This is hoped to be achieved by juxtaposing the Manipuri cinema against the larger mainstream media. The mainstream media are either ignorant of the North-East of India or they choose to ignore/ downplay news and views emanating from it for reasons best known to themselves. As much as most will consider this a clich├ęd refrain of the Manipuris and for that matter people of the North-East in general, the harsh truth is: the impression in the North-East is that a pothole in a Delhi road merits much more extensive coverage by the Delhi-centric media than the parliamentary elections in the regions do.

Media bias

At rare times when the region grabs the attention of the news editors, it is inevitably the news of bomb blasts, ethnic clashes and counter-insurgency operations that get disproportionately played up. There is an unspoken rule- of- thumb that gatekeepers of the Indian media follow when selecting news from the NE. The first one is, if the news is not about violence, then throw it to the dustbin. The second rule is, if the copy is not laced with bloodshed, it should tell exotic facts (mostly narratives remotely related to reality) about the bewildered region and its people.

It's not uncommon to find features on the North-East in the Indian media that reek of condescension and stupidity (most of the times) on the part of the writer. Features with headlines like "Nagas eat dogs", "Is casual sex a way of life in Mizoram?" and myriad such tasteless fictions of mind of lazy reporters find their way in print. What's worse, editors seem to prefer these drivels over the more pressing issues of the region like insurgency, underdevelopment, corruption, education and many others. And this in turn creates a further incentive for the dumbos to write more of the same, because they sell. Media like any industry is a commercial entity that is hypersensitive to the market. Feel pity for those people who still believe that journalism has a mission and responsibility towards society.

Then imagine the frustration that people of Manipur might face when they seek to let out their genuine concerns and voices in the media. Sharmila Irom had to be on fast for six years to demand the scrapping of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act before the media felt its conscience pricked. Her supporters say, and with much truth, that Medha Patkar or a Arundhati Roy or for that matter Mamata Bannerjee or Narendra Modi would have taken just two hours at the Jantar Mantar to create a media storm more effective than six years of Irom's agony for justice could ever achieve. And you thought Indian media was skin blind. People of the North-East are not black, but they are Blacks of India. So don't be surprised when some brave Manipuri women had to take the desperate step of baring themselves in full glare of the cameras to attract the mercy of the Indian media. They knew that the only means of getting coverage is by playing to the gallery of stereotypes held by the Indian media.

The utter lack of knowledge about the region might also have fuelled the secessionist movement in the region and feelings of alienation. There is also some truth in the criticism that Indian education selectively promotes the ideologies, history and moorings of the dominant groups while failing to educate the masses about its other citizens living in the moffusil areas. So what do you do?

Here comes cinema

Cinema is a powerful tool that marginalized people can employ to counter the mainstream historical narrative and reorient the incumbent political, socio-economic and cultural order and discourse. Conversely, it is one of the most effective means of getting to know a society in an entertaining and sometimes provocative manner. For instance, if you have watched some of the Manipuri films, by any chance, then you have known more about the aspirations, conflicts and tensions of the small state more than you would have ever gleaned from reading ten books on the state.

Before giving a chronological introduction on the Manipuri cinema, here are some FAQs. They are intended to prepare you, the distant readers, (figuratively and literally) to a journey of discovery of the Manipur film industry.

How many Manipuri films are produced in a year?

Not 5 or 10. A conservative estimate is 70-80. Not bad for a young industry.

Have any Manipuri films won National and International awards?

Most of the films made on celluloid before the advent of the digital facilities were either award winners or award nominees though they were fewer in number compared to the current output of digital films.

Why are Manipuri films not much heard about nowadays or screened at film festivals?

Blame the entry rule of most of the popular film festivals which allows only movies made on film. No one in Manipur is interested in using celluloid medium because of its prohibitive cost. As these festivals are set to open to digital films in the future, one will get to see a surfeit of Manipuri films in the near future. And hopefully winning accolades as well.

Are there songs and dances in the Manipuri films?

Yes, they form an important ingredient of popular films in Manipuri films. But they are more realistic and devoid of melodrama overdose, unlike the Bollywood. Item numbers have not made an appearance in these films.

Are there playback singers?

Besides the homegrown singers, Bollywood artistes like Lata Mangeshkar, Kumar Shanu, Shaan, Kavita Krishnamurthi, Alka Yagnik, Anuradha Paudwal and many others have sung for the Manipuri film background scores.

What is the average cost of making a Manipuri digital film?

Anything between 2-20 lakhs. Some films have shooting done outside the state or in foreign locations in which case the budget can almost quadruple. Popular Mumbai based TV actors are paid to make guest appearances ala Bollywood item numbers.

Is Bollywood popular in Manipur?

It used to be but after the ban imposed by the militants on all Hindi movies and channels, Manipuris have started turning their gaze elsewhere. South Korean movies and soaps which are beamed through cable are lapped up like the Indian Saas bahu serials. DVDs of South Korean movies flood the market and they are qualitatively better than most of the Bollywood potboilers (sorry to say this). One can see some influence of the Korean films on the narrative and production values of the Manipuri cinema.

Are there adequate post production facilities in Manipur?

Earlier post production work used to be done at Kolkata, Mumbai, Bhubaneswar, Guwahati and Delhi . With digitalization, pop-and-mom studios have sprung up giving the sophisticated big studios a run for their money. With nothing more than a few desktops and a clutch of editing softwares, local talent has bloomed in these small facilities enabling the filmmakers to cut costs.

Why is Manipur film Industry called Imphalwood, not Manipurwood or Mollywood?

Imphal is the nerve centre --or Mumbai-- of filmmaking in Manipur. In fact, the films are made by the valley based Meiteis (non-tribe Hindu population) for the Meiteis in Manipuri language. Meiteis are the Kapoors, Khans, Bachhans, Ram Gopal Vermas and Ajai Bijlis all rolled into one.

Is there a market for Manipuri films outside the state?

There are already ambitious filmmakers in Manipur who are trying to carve out a niche for themselves as crossover filmmakers. South Korean films are a great inspiration as they echo the realism of the earlier celluloid Manipuri films. Subtitling film dialogues is being considered as one of the techniques to expand the audience base across the boundaries of Manipur. Baring Assam, other northeastern states do not have as robust filmmaking tradition as the Manipuris do, a fact that is being seen with great commercial interest. Manipuri diaspora in Bangladesh and Assam, filmmakers contend, could become consumers of the Manipuri films in the years to come if helped by a little promotional blitz. After sports and theatre, movies are billed as the next big export from Manipur. Quite a possibility.

Which is the first state in India (perhaps in the world) to fully digitalize film production, post production, distribution and exhibition?

Manipur. It has never been highlighted in the mainstream media. While the Hollywood talks about the Grand Digital Future where all films can be viewed in any platforms--iPods, mobile phones, internet, multiplex, home theatres--as the YouTube generation has increasingly become 'platform agnostic', that scenario is already unfolding in Manipur. Music video and movie clips are swapped religiously among the tech-savvy teenagers. Trailers are uploaded on the internet. There is no costly format conversion to be made, as everything is in bits and bytes and they are convenient for distribution and sharing.

Is piracy an issue?

Definitely. Digital format is the most fertile creature that can reproduce its own clones at a neck breaking speed. They spread faster among the cinema loving populace of Manipur more than the other formidable contender: HIV/AIDS. In response to this menace, producers have innovated local mechanisms to curb it. And they are effective.

It would be an understatement to say that Manipur has a rich tradition of film appreciation and filmmaking which dates back to the dawn of the last century. The first cinema screening in Manipur took place in the year 1920, only about two decades after the first world screening at Paris by the Lumiere brothers. The films shown were mainly the foreign films as during this period, any organized effort to make films in Manipur was absent. It was only after the World War II that the Manipur's first film company, Shree Govindajee Film Company, was established. Its first attempted feature film was Mainu Pemcha in 1948. However, the first full-fledged feature film Matamgee Manipur (Today's Manipur) was screened on 9th April, 1972 at Usha Cinema, Friends Talkies in Imphal and Azad Cinema. Post independence, the cinema movement got strengthened further with the establishment of Film Society in 1966, Imphal Cine Club in 1979 and Manipur Film Development Council in 1980.

The big moment for the Manipuri cinema came in 1982 when Aribam Shyam Sharma's Imagee Ningthem (My Child, My Precious) won the GRAND PRIX at the NANTE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL, the first Indian film to achieve the distinction. Since then many Manipuri films have won National Film awards, and of late a trend is emerging of young filmmakers fresh out of the filmmaking schools who have gone on to make experimental, yet hugely popular, films and documentaries. Last year, Pavan Kumar, an AAFT graduate won the applause of the audience and jury with his heart wrenching and brutally honest documentary that brought to the screen images of paramilitary forces' excesses perpetrated on civilians in Manipur under the shield of Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). The documentary won the Critic's award at the Mumbai International Film Festival and was also critically acclaimed at the Toronto Film Festival, Karachi Film Festival and a slew of other international platforms.

Technology has a big role in giving a big boost to the Manipur film industry. The digital format is a boon for the filmmakers in the state which has a tiny market that is confined in the valley. The film production cost has drastically gone down and as a result Manipur churns out more films in a year than it used to produce in decades before the turn of the 21st century. Though the audience is small, the returns on investment are almost assured, albeit over a long period of time, due to the digitalization of the post production, distribution and exhibition. Very few people know that Manipur is the first state in India to go the whole hog in digitalization of all the stages of filmmaking right to the exhibition. In fact there is no hall in Manipur any more that screen celluloid movies. The old film projectors have become an antique piece destined to land up in museums, and owners have replaced them with digital projectors.

This writer proposes to study how this transformation from the analog to the digital format has affected the content and form of the Manipuri films. Has it encouraged the producers, directors, cinematographers and writers to take risks and experiment with new forms of storytelling and visual language? Most importantly, is there a distinctive cinema called Manipuri Cinema in the sense of a unique theme, form and content? If Hollywood can be identified with big budget, technical wizardry and studio-cum-star driven industry, Bollywood with song and dance extravaganza, Bhojpuri cinema with vulgarity and songs, songs and songs, Italian cinema with neo-realism and French cinema with New Wave cinema, what is Manipuri Cinema then? That's a question that this study seeks to explore, with spotlights trained on other aspects of the Manipur cinema as well--its inspirations, prospects, economics, the cultural impact and its place in the pantheon of world cinema. Which I will attempt to elaborate in my forthcoming postings with empirical data and extensive interviews with the film fraternity in Manipur.

Comments, questions, suggestions, brickbats and bouquets are welcome any time.