Manipuri Cinema: A Recountal

By: R.K. Bidur *

The Lumieres first displayed their films to a paying public in the basement of the Salon of Paris Grande Cafe on December 28, 1895. The first official public screening of a motion picture in the U.S.A was on April 23 in 1896.

India had the first screening of film on July 7, 1896 at the Watson Hotel in Bombay. Two decades after the invention of the novelty of cinema at the turn of the century, moving picture came to Manipur. People called it "Basikop" (a corrupted expression of Bioscope), a highest form of entertainment among the urban folks. Unlike screening in the tent on the parks and empty lots of Bombay, Calcutta, Madras etc.; screening of films in Manipur was held at the royal palace, the cantonment (4th Assam Rifles) hall and the Victoria Club Hall, Babupara.

Bioscope came to Manipur probably from the extension of era of Film d'Art and its dominance in Indian film market. Emergence of Talkie gave all the more impetus to the ever expanding cinema business. Sound film was screened in Manipur from 1936, not much later than the release of the first Indian Talkie "Alam Ara " on March 14,1931.

"Prahlad" a mythological film was first screened at the Manipur Talkie House which was popularly known as Kasturigee Hall (Kasturi's Hall) as the owner of the Hall was Kasturi Chand Saraogi. It was situated at a place near the present Hind Jalpan Hotel, Paona Bazar. Tickets for cinema shows were printed at the Churachand Printing Works, Sagolband Meino Leirak.

Before long another cinema house came into existence at the Awang Dukan, just two or three shops to the north of Hotel Maharaja, Thangal Bazar. People called it Ramkumargee Hall (Ramkumar's Hall). Probably it might be the Imphal Talkie House, some recall. However, there is no formal presentation of facts. It did not run shows for long. However a prominent cinema house established before the war was Diana Talkie just on the very spot of today1 s Friends Talkies. This hall was of partnership enterprise. Vikharam, Jainarayan Maheswari and Gurumayum Gunzani Sharma of Sagolband Meino Leirak were the partners.

It exhibited pictures till the day just before the bombing of Imphal on May 10, 1942. The last picture was Mei HarL Cinema houses were rapidly set up in the 1930s. Sougaijam Nabakumar from Moirangkhom constructed a cinema house called Chitrangada at the place where the Manipur State Road Transport Corporation now stands. Dada Shaheb Phalke's Raja Harishchandra was screened at this cinema house.

It appeared that Sougaijam Nabakumar purchased the single machine of cinema from Ramkumar. Report has it that a Sardarji too exhibited biscope shows at the place west to Mesrs W. Ibohal Singh & Sons, M.G. Avenue. A talkie house just to the north of Singjamei Bazar was set up during the 1959-40 period. All the cinema houses however ceased to exist at the outbreak of war. During the years of War - between mid and late forties, Friends Talkies, Victory Cinema, MNB Cinema and Imphal Talkies (formerly Rupamahal) were set up. However MNB Cinema was ultimately dissolved.

In the 1930s brisk business in cinema shows created a strong apprehension in the minds of the socialists in Imphal. The general feeling was that the talkie cinema would soon drain away the economy. Meetings were held at different places in Imphal, agitations against cinema were launched. There was a big rally of protestors on the road, condemning the talkie cinema - singing and shouting all the way:

Talkie cinema we shall boycott
Motherland beckons us.
Ruthless cinema has put her in dire strait!
Let's cry in a chorus
Talkie cinema we shall boycott.

Keisham Kunjabihari who later became the Editor of 'Ngasi', a vernacular daily, was the lead singer and Longjam Dinamani, Elangbam Leikai, the Dohar (who repeats the piece of music by the lead singer, like Antiphonal Singer) of the Chorus. However the rise and spread of cinema stop it. Cinema thus came to stay and became very much part of the Manipuris1 life.

Manipuri Cinema was begun when Maharajah Kumar Priyobrata made films of actuality in 1936. History of Indian cinema gives an interesting account. Harischandra Sakharam Bhatvadekar, popularly known as Save Dada, a Maharastrian and probably the first Indian filmmaker was hypnotised by the Lumieres. He possessed a motion picture camera and immediartely started to photograph various evetits and objects of certain interest in 1898.

In the similar fashion, M.K. Priyobrata too was completely enchanted by the Charlie Chaplin films he had seen regularly at Raipur, Central Province (near Madhya Pradesh) where he received his school education in the 1920s. On his return to Imphal and acting on the advice of Col.Dr. Tylor, Civil Surgeon of Manipur Hospital, M.K. Priyobrata purchased an 8mm movie camera and went on filming socio-cultural events and other happenings in the existing milieu and many trips to places in and out of Manipur. He expressed in an interview that the object of filming was to preserve records in celluloid for the future. His covering of Hiyang Tannaba (Boat Race in the Royal Boat) is textured with imagination and expression - the two basic elements of cinema art. The films were shown to many people at the palace. R.K. Joy showed the films at the Chitrangada Natya Mandir Hall at the homestead of Ngangbam Shyamkishore, Yaiskullakpa with tickets sold.

M.K. Priyobrata's films were not candid camera work. He tackles the actuality shots with certain degree of success and channels his message through the given natural materials. The war and his becoming Chief Minister of Manipur at the end of war simply made him turn away from being a film maker in his own rights. Some of his short films are in the archive of X-Cine Studio, Paona Bazar, Imphal. With easy money coming from the war boom a few persons - Ayekpam Biramangol, Sougaijam Nabakumar, Sinam Krishnamohol etc. tried their hands in producing a Manipuri film in 1948.

Rathin Sen, an employee of Kalkuta Commercial Bank, Imphal Branch was collaborated to make all sorts of contact with Kali Studio, Calcutta and necessary arrangements. Mainu Pemcha a famous play of Rupamahal Theatre was translated into Hindi by Bithal Das for making film out of it under the same title. The prospect of marketability being the guiding factor, the film had to be done in Hindi. Thambalngoubi Devi played the title role. Laishram Netrajit, Kangabam Gojendra, Kwairakpam Momon etc. were the other local artistes in the cast. Biman Chatterjee, playing the role of Borajaoba, Shilla, Shuktidhara etc. were artistes from outside the state. The film was made under the banner - Shri Shri Govinda Film Productions. Ultimately they could not do beyond nine reels due to lack of sufficient fund for further investment. Some of the nine reels were screened as Trailor at the Victory Cinema and Imphal Talkies. Had the film been completed, it might have been a milestone in the history of Manipuri cinema and an impetus to the emergence of early Manipuri cinema and filmmakers as well.

Kongbrailatpam Ibohal Sharma, a professional photographer, took up the unsuccessful mission of filmmaking in the early period. He possessed a feverish interest in the cinematography. With almost a museum piece 16mm Bolex movie camera, Ibohal Sharma shot seven silent features Ningthemcha Ahum (1960), Ichel( 1961), Mongpham (1962), Cultural Heritage (1964), Imphal Diary, part I & II (1965-68). He was the producer, writer, cameraman and director of all the films and set up studio and laboratory equipped with indigenous devices and means to get the films developed, printed and edited. The small fund he could amass was too meagre to make his films talk.

In those days there were no departments, no institutions to take care of the film. Dialogue and music setting were provided by playing a tape recorder at the back of the screen, like pianos, harmonium, tabla, etc. had been played in the early silent film era of Indian cinema. He did not make these films for a profit, but rather took them to different localities for free shows. Ibohal Sharma experimented and explored a vast range of techniques only to find means of filmmaking indigenously and economically.

While, after the initial impetus was provided by filmmakers - Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak, a group of inspired filmmakers - Shyam Benegal, Girish Kamad, Basu Chatterjee, Kumar Shahani, M.S. Sathyu, etc. were creating a movement - 'Indian New wave' - a genre radically different from the formula film in the 1970s, Manipuri Cinema was just bom. Karam Monomohan Singh (popular name - Karam Amumacha), a spirited enterpriser produced for the first time a Manipuri full-length feature Matamgee Manipur under the banner of K.T. Films and got it released on April 9 in 1972. As cinema in other States had done in the begining, Manipuri Cinema also drew its resources from the Manipuri Theatre which has almost a century old tradition. It was scripted from a popular theatre play $nd had also mostly theatre artistes in the cast. Adroil, artistic quality inherent in the people and charming landscape are great potentialities of Manipuri cinema.

No wonder, the first feature film Matamgee Manipur bagged the President's Award in the National Film Festival of India in 1973. Another notable film that closely followed Matamgee Manipur was Sajatia Films' Brojendrogee Luhongba produced and directed by S.N. Chand and released on 14th July in 1972 simultaneously at the Asha Cinema and the Friends Talkies. The film was based on the unpublished novel of the same name by the great poet, Dr. Lamabam Kamal. Well edited, the film captured the socio-cultural image of typical Manipuri life in the best traditional way. It bagged the Manipur State Film Award in 1984.

Indian Film Industry enjoyed its Silver Jubilee Celebration from 28th April to 18th May, 1939 in Bombay. Manipuri cinema in hardly an industry. It is yet to have its own infrastructure, not to talk of production, distribution and exhibition - the doctrine of unity, However it sees 25th year of its existence, reckoning from April 9 in 1972, the date on which when Matamgee Manipur was released. Some theoreticians express their strong point of view that Matamgee Manipur was no doubt, first seen a Manipuri feature, nevertheless it may not be beyond the controversy seeing that the film had a hired director from outside Manipur- Deb Kumar Bose of Bengal film industry, who also did the screenplay of the film; even the assistant director was one Manoj Sen. The film was produced under the supervision of Debaki Memorial Unit, Calcutta. Further, they state the fact that no regional film in Indian cinema had ever begun first with its director from elsewhere.

The first Oriya film "Sitar Vivah" was written and directed by Mohan Sunder Deb Goswami of Puri in 1934. So also the father of Assamese Cinema is Rupkumar Jyotiprasad Agrawal in whose fond memory the film studio at Kahilipara had been dedicated. His ancestral tea-estate at Bholaguri was virtually turned into a film studio when Jyoti made Assam's first feature "Joymati" in 1935. Taking cue from the great pioneer Hiralal Sen, J.F. Madan made Bengal's first feature "Bilmangol " in 1919.

All in all, Sajatia Films' "Brojendragee Luhongba" may have the logicality for claiming the place of honour. In fact it too was released in 1972, only two months later than "Matamgee Manipur". It bears the mark of immense contribution and selfless service to Manipuri cinema by the film's director, S.N. Chand. He quit attractive Government service only to be producer, scriptwriter, music-director, singer, actor and the director of "Brojendragee Lugongba." He sold his properties a few lakhs worth to finance the production, unmindful of the returns and looked after the entire production unit.

Disputes as to which is the first feature film produced in Manipuri may persist. However, whichever may be the first, one can say without any fear of controversy that the Manipuri cinema rightly celebrates its Silver Jubilee in i 996-97. For, by simple arithmetic, it is quite 25 years from 1972 - the year in which both "Matamgee Manipur" and "Brojendragee Luhongba" were produced.

Manipuri cinema is proud of having 31 feature films (including 2 short features) to it's credit within a span of 25 years, the number of films surpassing the number of years. Manipuri cinema started with films of social and folktales-myth genres. Filmmakers seemed more to learn film syntax. Their approach to action, arration, make-up, lighting, direction all were fashioned after theatre plays or all India Hindi film. The decade of the 1970s witnessed production of Manipuri film almost every year. Two of the films "Saphabee" and "Olangthagee Wangmadasoo" won the coveted Rajat Karnal in'the National Film Festivals of India. It might be ascribed to the rich cultural heritage, beautiful tradition and above all the artistic skill of the Manipuris.

A notable feature in the Manipuri cinema is the traditional folklore and legends being brought into limelight through film medium. However, films are so crudely made that they simply destroy the charm and beauty of the folk art. Films so structured have only been patronised by a class of people who go to cinema solely for thrill, suspense and entertainment. At the same time our socials too may not be fair. Some make an attempt to present a new cinema seeking a new contemporary meaning of the Manipuri society, caught in the whirlpool of tradition on the one hand and pulled by the alluring force of modernity on the other.

However most of the films of this genre try to go safe with folk themes and family drama rather than going down to the core of social problems like drug abuse, addicts. Otherwise G. Narayan Sharma's "Sanamanbi Sanarei" and the director duo, Chan and Bishwamittra's "Kanaga Hinghouni" are significant films.

Aribam Syam Sharma, leading filmmaker not only of Manipur but also of the North East set a new trend in depicting social realism when he made "Imagee Ningthem", one of his finest films so far in 1981 under the banner of X-Cine Productions, produced by K. Ibohal Sharma. Foreign delegates made a wonderful discovery of Manipuri cinema in "Imagi Ningthem" screened in the Indian Panorma and Filmotsav '82 in Calcutta.

The film was entered in the Nantes Film Festival in France and bagged the Grand Prix. He then went on making two outstanding films Ishanou and Sanabi that created a great sensation in the Indian cinema. Syam Sharma adopts a cinematic style marked by location shooting, maximum elimination of melodramatic elements and deglamourisation of the film. We only wish he would successfully revolutionize the Manipuri Cinema to open anew vista.

A small group of young directors emerging in the 1990s a notable feature of Manipuri Cinema, however are caught in the cobweb of good and bad cinema and they are not sure of themselves to which step they would take next. If the state government is mooting upon having a broad based cultural policy, it should come up with a definite film policy within the guidelines of the Rational Film Policy. Then only can the Manipuri film industry will come into the realistic shape.

* This article is originally written and published as part of MFDC 25 year (1972-1997) celebration. This article was webcasted with due courtesy to MFDC (Manipur Film Development Corporation) on October 1 2009.

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