Sonia’s film touches upon a touchy subject in Manipuri society, where for ages it has been broadly said that it is “unethical” for men to reach out to or for that matter unintentionally touch the women’s lower garment ‘phanek’.
By Salam Rajesh
Young and upcoming filmmaker Sonia Nepram has opened the Pandora’s box of sorts on long standing traditional norms of Manipuri society even as her film Bloody Phanek peeks into society to understand myths, beliefs and taboo associated with everyday life of the people. Film as a genre of story-telling in motion picture has the ability to look deep into society, reflecting what is beyond the looking glass. That is precisely what Sonia attempts at in taking up a subject which is much talked about but hardly brought before the scrutiny of the public.
The Manipur Premier of Sonia’s documentary Bloody Phanek was the highlight of a two-day Women’s Film Festival 2021 (March 8-9) organized by Imphal-based Film Society of Manipur at the spacious cine auditorium of Manipur State Film Development Society (MSFDS) as part of the nationwide observation of the International Women’s Day on March 8. Supported by the Federation of Film Societies of India and MSFDS, the two day event featured films by women filmmakers from different parts of the country.
Sonia’s film touches upon a touchy subject in Manipuri society, where for ages it has been broadly said that it is “unethical” for men to reach out to or for that matter unintentionally touch the women’s lower garment ‘phanek’. The reference is particularly on the garment worn by married women, phanek of all types used at home or on ceremonial occasion. The taboo or social stigma attached is that it is unbecoming of a man to touch or handle the garment, both at home and in public. ‘Untouchability’ in another sense persists even today in society.
The film explores this narrative where the protagonist (the filmmaker herself) tries to understand the logic behind such restriction prevailing in Manipuri society, that, too, at an age where universally the rights of men and women are being emphasized as ‘equal’. The response is quite interesting, where a section of the women interviewed persists on the traditions, while some are open to the suggestion that things have changed and the taboo no longer holds ground.
The flow of the film is intertwined with expressing the singular beauty of the texture and design of the women’s wear, in specific the Mapan-naiba phanek – the striped sarong with Khoi-mayek embroidery at the borders – which is interpreted as fertility concept and is symbolic of the material culture and the undying tradition kept alive by the women for ages. Manipuri women, in particular Meitei women, are easily recognized by the elegant Mapan-naiba phanek which has a demanding presence in society.
The other side of the story – the ‘untouchability’ aspect – dominates Manipuri society specifically on occasions of intense conflicts of interest between State and the people. The worn garment of the women becomes symbolic of the stiff resistance by women against State’s repressive actions. Strung on ropes, phaneks are hung up in public places across the streets to prevent state forces from advancing upon the protestors. The women’s wear becomes the ‘protective’ shield between the advancing forces and the protestors. The underlining logic behind the action is that the men – in the state forces – would not publicly dare to step under the line of phaneks to pursue the protestors.
The strength of the social taboo emancipates in such situation where street fights could result in outright prosecution of the youths and men unless there is a shield protecting them. The phaneks become that shield. In this space age, it indeed is spectacular that social taboo can restrain armed personnel from running down the street protestors. This very spectacle too was witnessed on the streets in Myanmar the other day where forces of the military junta are clashing with pro-democracy protestors.
Sonia Nepram has a tinge for diving deep into society to understand things that are seen and heard, but unexplained. Her other documentary film “Gun and a God” is a narrative that looks into the life of Purnima, a former cadre of a valley-based insurgent group and who since had come out in mainstream society to live life as it is. The similarity in both her films is the search to understand the attached social stigma on certain aspects of life that society frowns upon.
In Bloody Phanek, Sonia seeks to bring out the aesthetic beauty of the phanek against the backdrop of the pervasive ‘stigma’ attached to it – the untouchability aspect. The aesthetic beauty of the Manipuri women becomes manifested in their finery featured with the Mapan-naiba phanek, elegant and dazzling. At the same time, too, the phanek becomes symbolic of the sustained preservation of centuries-old cultural traits defining Manipuri women. This, in the shadow of the phanek as a protective shield in street clashes.
The film also slightly touches upon a very important aspect of Manipuri tradition. The use of the Khoi-mayek design pattern as border embroidery on men’s wear symbolizes the concept of the mother’s warm embrace of her child and in protecting the son from harm as when facing the enemy in battle. The loin shirt worn by the Manipur king, Rajshri Bhagyachandra has embroidery of the Khoi-mayek on the borders. As the experts on Manipuri lore says, this is interpreted as symbolic of the mother protecting her child from harm. The wear of a piece of the cloth from the mother’s lower garment phanek on the men’s wear is therefore interpreted in a higher level of sense defining the oneness of man and woman.
Sonia is backed by a team of young crew members in the making of the film. Camera and editing by Sandeep Soubam, music by Sunil Loitongbam, sound by Prabin Kumar Khagembam and Th.Ramakanta, research and script by Paonam Thoibi with Sonia, subtitle and creative art design by Kapil Arambam, and of course, directed and produced by Sonia herself. The film has already traveled places, too, featured in several national and international events. It has to be seen how this next generation team of film workers knock heads together again on a new idea to present yet another challenging film on another aspect of Manipuri society – perhaps a treat for Manipuri cinema in its year of Golden Jubilee celebration (April 9, 2021 to April 9, 2022)
(The writer is associated with IUCN Commission on Environmental, Economic & Social Policy. He can be contacted at email@example.com)Manipur, Women’s Film Festival 2021, Bloody Phanek, Sonia Nepram