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EXCLUSIVE: A rendezvous with film critic Meghachandra (Part 2)

Meghachandra Kongbam

In an exclusive interview with TFM, the ace yet the humble film critic of Manipur Meghachandra Kongbam not only exhibits his immense knowledge of the world of films in Manipur but also throws amazing insights into the history and dynamics of filmmaking in the state.

TFM: What are the potentials of Manipuri Cinema?

Meghachandra: The legacy of Manipuri Cinema had its struggling past with a commitment to the modern era of challenges and development. When Indian Cinema was six decades old, Manipuri cinema was born with Debkumar Bose’s Matamgi Manipur on the April 9, 1972. To make the film, the equipment and technicians were engaged from Calcutta (now Kolkata). Even the film director Debkumar was from Bengal. But, the collective efforts of those Manipuris involved in the film were themselves eminent in their own fields like literature, theatre and music. When they made the film, it became a grand success and the pride of Manipur. The first Manipuri film bagged the President’s Silver Medal in the 20th National Film Awards and thus received national recognition just when it was born.

Within a decade, Manipur cinema hit the national limelight and became India’s pride. International recognition came with Aribam Syam Sharma’s Imagi Ningthem (My Son, My Precious) bagging the Grand Prix in the competition section of the Festival of Three Continents, Nantes in France in the year 1982.  Thus, Imagi Ningthem became the first and only Indian film to receive the top prize in the Nantes. The film travelled around the globe participating at many major festivals.

Aribam Syam Sharma’s another Film- Ishanou (The Chosen One) produced in 1990 was the official selection in UN Certain Regard of the Cannes Film Festival 1991, and participated in many major international festivals. These works proved that Manipuri cinema had vast potential in the international arena.

Within 25 years, up to April 1997, Manipur produced only 28 feature films. Out of 28 feature films, nine films had won national awards. This shows that every third film produced in Manipur had won a national award.

SN Chand, Aribam Syam Sharma, GC Tongbra, M Nilamani Singh, L Banka Sharma, MA Singh, a FTII Graduate, G Narayan Sharma, K Ibohal Sharma, Thoudam Doren and Sanakhya Ebotombi were the torchbearers of Manipuri Cinema.

The second generation of Manipuri cinema started in 1990. During the period, Manipuri cinema had its own technicians and equipment for pre-production and only the processing part was done outside Manipur.  A group of talented and energetic filmmakers including RK Kripa, Oken Amakcham, L Surjakanta, Chandam Shyamacharan, Chan Heisnam, Biswamittra, Ksh Kishorekumar, MK Jeet, Thoungamba Thouyangba, Ningombam Tomba, Jiban Heisnamba, Makhonmani Mongsaba, K Bimol Sharma, W Ibohal, Rajen Khuman and Kh Kuleshwar became prominent during this phase.

From the 1990s to the early part of 2000 were the glorious period of Manipuri cinema for its commercial viability. Manipuri audience could see at least a new Manipuri film every year and the years, 2000, 2001 and 2002 had achieved production of an average of seven films. The state government earned more than Rupees one crore per year as revenue from the entertainment tax from around 60 cinema halls in the state.

Despite many hurdles, filmmakers like Haobam Paban Kumar, SRFTI graduate, Maipaksana Haorongbam, Dr Bhupen Hazarika Film Institute graduate, Oinam Gautam, Ajit Yumnam and others emerged in the third generation. Haobam Paban Kumar’s Loktak Lairembee (Lady of the Lake) made in 2016 became the first digital film certified by CBFC which won the national award as well as the Golden Gateway in Jio Mami Mumbai Film festival 2016. The film had its world premiere in Busan and travelled around the globe. As per CBFC, there was no production of Manipuri film in 2017.

The year 2018 witnessed three digital films and the film- Magi Matambakta directed by Dr. Makhonmani Mongsaba made its entry in Bangalore International Film festival and Third Eye Asian Film Festival, Mumbai.

The year 2019 had witnessed the production 12 digital films gaining its momentum in the production sector. The film- Pandam Amada directed by Oinam Gautam had its world premiere in the Dhaka International Film Festival 2020 and also screened at Third Eye Asian Film Festival. Eikhoysibu Kanano directed by Ajit Yumnam participated in the Jaipur International Film Festival 2020. Eigi Kona (Stallone My Pony) directed by Bobby Wahengbam and Maipaksana Haorongbam was screened at the 51st International Film Festival of India 2020 in Indian Panorama Section, bagged the Best Regional Film in the 67th National Film Awards 2019, and participated in the competition section of the 4th Ottawa Indian Film Festival 2021.

Within five decades, Manipuri cinema bagged 39 National Film Awards- 18 in feature films, 18 in non-feature films and three in writing on cinema. Ten Manipuri feature films and 22 non-features were selected in the India Panorama of the International Film Festival of India.

Thus, Manipur became the leading state, producing films in Tibeto-Burman language in India where films are mainly made in three major language groups namely Indo-Aryan, Dravidian and Tibeto-Burman Languages.

TFM: Why and how is Bollywood so popular in Manipur? Is it still popular now?

Meghachandra: Manipuri people usually love music, dance and performing arts. It will be tough to find a Manipuri who can’t sing and dance. Bollywood films with rich dances and songs attract the Manipuri people. Though the screening of Hindi films in theatres is banned in Manipur, the people watch Hindi films on other platforms.

TFM: Do you think cinema really presents the society and its culture?

Meghachandra: Though cinema is the product of technology but the expressions in cinema are the reflection of society. Naturally, cinema either it be Manipuri or any community does represent the people and their culture.

TFM: What is the difference between art and commercial films? Do you think Manipur produces Art films?

Meghachandra: Realistic films are generally known as art films. Commercial films are those films that are made for entertaining a large audience to collect huge revenue. Few film directors like Aribam Syam Sharma, MA Singh, K. Ibohal Sharma, Oken Amakcham, Makhonmani Mongsaba, Maipaksana Haorongbam, and Haobam Paban Kumar made so-called art films.

TFM: Most films in Manipur are melodramatic, do you think there are fewer story writers or filmmakers who are not bold enough to make films that reflect realities?

Meghachandra: The target of the many filmmakers is to make their films a commercial success, to get the returns of the producers. They may assume that the Bollywood style of melodramatic stories can attract more audiences. As for story writers, there are a lot of reputed writers in the field of Manipuri literature. It appears that those writers in the literary field have more closeness with Manipuri theatre rather than films. Many filmmakers in Manipur are not trained in film institutes and have limited knowledge of different styles of film production. Only a few filmmakers like MA Singh, Haobam Paban Kumar and Maipaksana Haorongbam received formal training in filmmaking from Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute, Kolkata and Jyoti Chitraban Regional Institute of Film and Television, Guwahati respectively.                                                                                                                                                                          

TFM: Can you share some of the best movies you have watched?

Meghachandra: I like SN Chand’s Brojendragi Luhongba, Aribam Syam Sharma’s Olangthagi Wangmadasoo, Imagi Ningthem and Ishanou, MA Singh’s Sanakeithel, GC Tongbra’s Khutthang Lamjel, L Banka Sharma’s Madhabee, Makhonmani Mongsaba’s Chatledo Eidi, Maipaksana Haorongbam’s Eibusu Yaohanbiyu, Haobam Paban Kumar’s Loktak Lairembee and Bobby Wahengbam and Maipaksana Haorongbam’s Eigi Kona in Manipuri cinema.

At the national level, I like those movies made by Raj Kapoor, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Shakti Samanta, Prakash Mehra and so on. K. Asif’s Mughal-E-Azam, Mehboob Khan’s Mother India, Vijay Bhatt’s Baiju Bawra, Bimal Roy’s Madhumati  are still stuck into my memories.

TFM: Can you tell us about your first experience of watching a film.

Meghachandra: I got my first experience in watching a film in a theatre in December 1967. My father and an aunt took me to watch a movie in Imphal city as a special programme for me after my Middle School Leaving Examination which was a class V examination conducted by a board. The movie was Dharmendra-Nutan starrer Dil Ne Phir Yaad Kiya at Friends Talkies at Paona Market. I still remember the songs- Aaja Re Pyar Pukare sung by Lata Mangeshkar and Dil Ne Phir Yaad Kiya sung by Mohd Rafi, Suman Kalyanpur and Mukhesh. We earlier planned to watch Sunil Dutt-Nutan starrer Milan at Pratap talkies at Paona Market but couldn’t get the tickets.

TFM: Share some anecdotes on early years when films from Mumbai reached Imphal.

Meghachandra: During those days, everyone eagerly awaited the arrival of any new Hindi film in the theatres in Imphal. The thirst for watching Hindi films usually came after the songs of the films which were broadcast in advance in the All India Radio as well as the songs on polyvinyl records  that were played widely during community events and public functions.

TFM: Can you recollect some of the early years of filmmaking in Manipur?

Meghachandra: In the summer of 1971, I had an opportunity to watch the shooting of SN Chand’s Brojendragi Luhongba at my locality. SN Chand along with his crew members took shots for three important sequences of his film at the historic Ningthem Pukhri, the big royal pond dugout during the reign of King Pamheiba (1709-1748). In the whole day shooting, the crews took the panoramic shot of the pond where lotuses were blooming for credit titles. The shot continued with Brojendra’s maternal uncle coming towards Brojendra’s house after meeting an astrologer to fix the suitable date of marriage ceremony. This was the opening scene of the film. Other sequence was Brojendra’s arrival at his home after posting in Churachandpur, a hill station. There were two shots – a long shot of a lighted jeep coming towards Brojendra’s house and a mid-shot of Brojendra getting down from the jeep. The last sequence at the location was Brojendra’s Point of View shot at a double storied house lighted inside which revealed place where ‘Bashok’ (a popular form of Nata Sankirtana) performance took place. The last two sequences were captured during the night.

People from distant places and nearby areas thronged the place to have a glimpse of the outdoor shooting of the Manipuri film. I was also in the audience. ‘The shooting of the film was of the first Manipuri feature film’ and ‘the nose of the hero of the film had a plastic surgery’ were the talks of the audience during the shooting. As the film couldn’t complete on time due to financial problems, Debkumar Bose’s Matamgi Manipur got the credit of being the first Manipuri film which was released on April 9, 1972.

Later, I came to know ‘what is film about’ when I did PG Bachelor Degree in Journalism in Benaras Hindu University, Varanasi in 1978. Film medium was a subject taught under mass communication media. Film history, growth and development of film medium and the making of documentaries were taught in the class. Thus, I was acquainted with the film medium and found it an interesting subject. When the journalism students went for an educational tour in Bombay in 1978, we visited Films Division, Bombay apart from visiting Times of India, Indian Express. During the tour, some of us who took interest in film skipped the programme and visited Mohon Studio at Andheri East, Bombay. Filmmaker Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s office was in Mohon Studio.

Assuming as film journalists, we interviewed Hrishikesh Mukherjee and noted down in a notebook what he had replied to us. During the interview, Amitabh Bachchan with heavy make-up suddenly entered into the room and we were asked by the staff to leave the place. Amitabh Bachchan simply entered the room to seek the blessing from his mentor and touched his feet; Hrishikesh Mukherjee popped with his hand on Amitabh’s shoulder and said, “Your make-up is quite impressive”. Without uttering a single word, Amitabh moved away. He took the blessing from his mentor before the shooting of his part in the film- Satte Pe Satta directed by Raj N Sippy. Inside the studio, we met Rajesh Khanna, Sachin, famous character actor Nazir Hussain. We had a photo shoot with Nazir Hussain by our Click III camera, which can capture image only in sunshine. We saw a shooting of the hotel scene of Satte Pe Satta at the Mahon studiowhere Sachin was enacting his role. We had a photoshoot with the versatile character actor Nazir Hussain. It was a marvelous moment.

TFM: Please share your experience on the development of cinema halls in Manipur.

Meghachandra: During childhood, we came across only five cinema halls namely Victory Cinema, Friends Talkies, Imphal Talkies, Pratap Talkies and Usha Cinema in the heart of Imphal city. Except for Imphal Talkies which stood at Bir Tikendrajit Road, others were located along Paona Road. Paona Road was always busy due to cinema halls which ran its show at 11 am, 2pm and 5pm daily. On Sundays, morning show at 8 am was added. Later on, twin theatre – Asha Cinema and Jina Cinema at North AOC, another twin theatre – Shankar Talkies and Mini Shankar at Lamphelpat and another sister of Friends Talkies – Mini Friends at Governor’s Road came up. Cinema halls were meeting places of lovebirds and were an important part of one’s life. In Manipur, there were about 60 cinema halls. Due to the wrong policy of the State Government that allowed the screening of Manipuri Video films in the cinema halls in 2002; Manipuri Cinema has faced a dark era since 2002. As a result, there is no cinema hall having digitally equipped projector in Manipur except that of Manipur State Film Development Society auditorium.

TFM: Some of your views, thoughts on the evolution of the Big Screen Cinema in Manipur?

Meghachandra: Manipuri cinema fails to match the ongoing evolution of digital cinema around the world. Unfortunately, the Art and Culture Department became the nodal department of film medium since 1980 in Manipur. As such, the link between the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in the centre and the Art and Culture Department has been cut off in Manipur for more than 40 years on the development of film medium. The Art and Culture Department has been promoting Manipuri video films in place of Manipuri celluloid/digital films. Video films were allowed to screen in the theatres in Manipur since 2002, even though the Central Board of Film Certification did not certify the ‘Video Films’ as ‘Valid for Theatrical Release’. Probably, this happened unknowingly as the difference between the film and the video film defined by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting was not widely known. As such, in Northeast India, film industries of Assam, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh are moving ahead of Manipuri film industry.

TFM: Are you currently associated with any filmmaking, acting or associated with any film production?

Meghachandra: Being a film activist, I have only associated with good film movement activities towards the promotion of film industry in Manipur.  I was the founder member of Cine Artistes and Technicians Association, Manipur established in 1998. From 2000-2004 for two terms, I was the President of the Association. The Association spearheaded the film movement in Manipur by taking up different activities.  During my tenure as President of the Association, I took the initiative to establish the Manipur Film Journalists and Critics Association in 2000 to accelerate the film movement.

TFM: When was the Manipur Film Society started, what are the objectives?

Meghachandra: The Film Society of Manipur was started in 1966. It was the third film society in Northeast India. It was affiliated to the Federation of Film Societies of India in 1969. It is the only living film society in Manipur. I took the charge of the President of the film society in 2016. Under the Federation of Film Societies of India, many film festivals have been organised with support from the Manipur State Film Development Society. The main objective of the film society is to promote the good film movement by organising film festivals, seminars, and workshops on good films.

TFM: Can we say Film production in Manipur is an industry?

Meghachandra: No. The entertainment industry in Manipur is video film industry, not a film industry. When there is not even a single cinema hall equipped with a digital projector, and there is no adequate production of Manipuri films in Manipur, how can we say that we have a film industry? As per ‘Theatre List’ uploaded by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Manipur and Mizoram are the only states in Northeast India that have missed the figure of cinema halls. When you entered the official website of the Central Board of Film Certification, you will find the figure of Manipuri films quite unimpressive for an industry.

TFM: What do you think is the most challenging task for a filmmaker or a producer in Manipur ?

Meghachandra: When there is no producer, there will be no filmmaker.  Both the producer and the filmmaker need to acquire sufficient knowledge on the marketing of films. They must study the marketing of films before the project starts.

TFM: Despite difficulties or challenges there are a good number of films being produced in Manipur. Any comment?

Meghachandra: Yes. With their individual efforts, some achieved national or international recognition. They brought laurels to the state. They must be encouraged with incentives from the side of the government so that they can continue their efforts to achieve more.

TFM: Where do you see filmmaking/film production in the next 5 to 10 years?

Meghachandra: With the announcement of a comprehensive Assam Film Policy in 2019, we expect the future of Assamese cinema will certainly be bright in the days to come. In Meghalaya, the State had already announced film as an industry and some renowned filmmakers like Pradip Kurbah, Dominic Sangma, Nicholas Kharkongor emerged to uplift their cinema for a global art-house audience. Manipur has its new film policy announced in 2020, but it is not a realistic policy. There is no financial incentive for the growth of film production as well as the film market in the policy. 

We have seen the potentiality of cinema in Northeast India and each State has produced its own outstanding films and reached out their films even at the international level.  Hence, there is a need for a strong support from the Government to provide basic services for the film industry. NE has more than 220 ethnic communities having its own beautiful dialect and distinctive way of life. So there are so many unexplored stories in the region that can create more fantastic, a different taste of Indian Cinema in both domestic and global market.

Once, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting organised biennial conference of Information Ministers of the States and UTs. It was a good and great platform for discussion on the problems and development of various media including films of each and every State and Union Territories. Now, it is required to continue the biennial conference so that overall growth of quality regional cinema can be brought about in India. 

As for the growth of Manipuri Film Industry, we need to move the Manipur Government to transfer back the Nodal Department of the subject of FILM from the Art and Culture Department to Information and Public Relations Department for streamlining the connection of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India and the state government, to establish the Manipur State Film Finance and Development Corporation Limited under the Department of Information and Public Relations as done in the Centre and other states, and to seek a special financial package from the Ministry for vibrant film industry in Manipur. 

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