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Sanakeithel: In Search of the Proverbial ‘Gold’ – Part 2

Scenes of mother and child from Sanakeithel. Photo Courtesy: Th Doren Singh

The market is a space open to everyone looking for a chance to survive; does this hold true for women as well? Thinking through ideas of home, women’s sexuality and its engagement in Manipuri Cinema

By Rekha Konsam

There is a market by the name ‘Sanakeithel’ in Imphal. It is north of the main market. This market has little to do with the movie that is its namesake released in 1983. ‘Sana’, literally meaning gold, is also a term used with reference to royalty. Hence, the English translation of the movie title goes as ‘The Golden Market’.   

Speaking on the late director M.A. Singh’s concept, his son Amar Maibam explains that the title is an immediate reference to the adage that one would have a fighting chance of survival if one somehow manages to reach a marketplace. Be it trying out one’s luck, hard work, trickery or even if it may be begging – there is always a possibility of surviving out there. For those who have nowhere else to go to, it is a place open to anyone and everyone.

Thibu thiradi sana phaoba phangi’ (if you search hard enough, you could even find gold). The market of ‘Sanakeithel’ is not the beatific promise of a prosperous market associated with any existent market or elitist as the term ‘sana’ might seem to suggest. Gold is precious and there is no saying that one might end up finding it in the market. The adage speaks of the possibilities in the face of impossibilities: it is about making something out of what seems like a hopeless situation. This is a possibility not of a beautiful potential dream but one driven by despair.  

Sanakeithel could be any market. By extension, the film is also about spaces away from home and people who inhabit these spaces that are in the margins or the underbelly of society. Far from the idea of the ‘keithel’ as standing in opposition to home as a haven, it is a refuge to some. However, this refuge is not the same for everyone.

Babu, the physically challenged beggar advises Ibungobi to stay away from the ‘angaobi’ (mad woman) Nungshi because those are people whose whereabouts are not known. For one, there was a time when there were many mentally challenged people frequenting public spaces. They were a common sight. This speaks of the late entry of mental health awareness and care in this society. At the same time, one cannot help think about what constitutes ‘angaobi’.

Madness does not necessarily have to be about mental health as Foucault (1988) argued in Madness and Civilization. Rather than discussing Foucault, I am more intrigued by the usage of the term ‘angaobi’. The term is often used not in context of health or well-being but in other senses as well. It is used lightheartedly to call out a naughty girl child (the suffix ‘bi’ refers to feminine gender). More often it is used as admonishing to reprimand particular actions or conducts that step beyond the permitted societal limits. As reprimands, the market (keithel) and the streets (lambi-sorok) have always been used to connote more than their specific literal meanings to refer to open public spaces. Combined together, these connotations are not used in a complimentary sense – more so, when examined through gender-sensitive lenses.      

For a woman to be called an angaobi on her way to the streets or wandering the market is a rebuke to remind her of not knowing her place or conduct. Underlying this rebuke is the firm understanding that a woman’s place is located within the domestic arena and that for her to not have such a place to return is not quite the same as being homeless. It comes to be seen through tinted glasses of morality that question her character: mayum hangani khangdabi (one who doesn’t return home), lamda koi-lei leibi (one who frequents anywhere). Many a times we have seen women either being compromised and forced to accept certain dictates or live with the taint of condemnation.

Home, here, is not the poetic place of where the heart is, neither is it a place of shelter; it is a defined place within a social structure. Whether they be from real life, of people we personally know or anthropological accounts or through the fictive works of literature or films –such instances that hinges on transgression and the need for it to be socially compromised is so frequent that it has been normalized. These normalizations further perpetuate it. Why is a woman’s moral character questionable because she comes home late? Why does it mean she has to become a man’s spouse if, for whatever reasons, she is delayed for the night (even against her consent)?

An oft-heard comment – nangnabu pammadi phanaraga namduna louraga loire (if you decide that you like her, we will forcibly make her yours) – is a something that we hear on movies today also. It is not always in a dark mood but passed around as light banter, a joke and even fed as a romantic notion of how much the man desires the woman in question. It is time that the seriousness of such comments be taken up and the toxic nature of such notions that has no respect for another individual be discouraged from being pedaled as romance. It is damning that there is no realization or acknowledgement of the threat to another person that lies at the very heart of such statements, more so, as such dialogues are passed off as jokes or off-handed comments. This is part of what we know as rape culture. It is in this sense that the dialogue initiated in Manipuri Cinema by the movie Sanakeithel appears to have remained suspended nearly 30 years even after its release.

In the movie, the curious thing is that the moment Nungshi becomes an ‘angaobi’, she is somewhat suspended from being a mother to her child: ‘suspended’ because the audience is keenly aware while she herself seems lost to it. Motherhood is placed on a high pedestal in the Manipuri society. Time and time again, the familiar trope of the resilient strength of the women as comparable to the leipaklei flower (galangal rotunda) that emerges against all odds has been repeated. In the meantime, talks on and about women primarily continue to be centered around the concept of ‘mother’ thereby giving primacy to her reproductivity and her place as such. There is hence an inability or a refusal to accept women as persons in their own rights beyond these confines. With that said, even as mother, they are bound within a certain typecast.

The stereotype image of a mother is that she is caring, protective and selfless. To this day this stereotype has been repeated, either in confirmation or condemnation of its other or using it as a yardstick against which to measure all mothers (step-mothers, foster mothers, etc). Yet, the mother that one sees in Sanakeithel does not fit the stereotype of a strong sacrificing protective mother nor does she question that; on the contrary, she is a vulnerable violated challenged one; she is someone who needs care and protecting.

As an ‘angaobi’, the social bindings no longer restrict her. This allows her to have a place of her own in the public space of the market where she has no business otherwise. She is no longer bound to the hearth. She walks through the market uncaring of the gazes directed at her or the insulting words thrown to her. Disturbed only when she is physically disturbed, she lives on hand-outs and sleeps where she can find a space to curl in. In Nungshi, we see the ironic possibility of what happens when gender norms are suspended but this possibility is not realized. It is left to tease our minds. 

For a film released in 1983, Sanakeithel was a provocative film of its times to take on the issue of gangrape – in and for itself. It remains relevant to this day. The sensitivity and depth with which the director MA Singh touched on the nuances of the issues is laudable. However, some of the later films have not been very encouraging while many others have been downright insensitive, offensive or regressive. In saying so, I express my views not as someone well acquainted in the field of cinema but as one of the many audiences of Manipuri Cinema.

Manipuri Cinema recently celebrated its golden jubilee. It is an important milestone to be cherished. At this point, it would be a good exercise to reflect how much Manipuri Cinema has progressed from the days of Sanakeithel when it comes to addressing such issues as violence, gender roles and relations, domestic and sexual violence along with women’s presence in public spaces. Furthermore, it would be interesting to examine the direction it has taken on these issues with the surge in digital films.

The proverbial ‘gold’ in Sanakeithel is as promising as ‘hope’ itself was in Pandora’s box – a promise that is not necessarily fulfilled but continues to linger on nevertheless; and the hope lingers on that there are more gender-sensitive movies in Manipuri Cinema.  

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