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.