Fish fry for the Manipuri soul

What does it take to make movies in a state possibly more disturbed than Kashmir, where surviving each day itself is a triumph? Bachi Karkaria writes about a film that puts that battle in perspective
Fried fish is served first, the 'chicken soup' comes later, and by the time we reach the chaotic 'premiere' , we have made a rivetting journey through Manipuri cinema. And through a Manipur where the cliches of conflict and beauty take on a disturbingly different form.
If Mamta Murthy's first feature film, 'Fried fish, chicken soup & a premiere show', is so distinctive, it's partly because it was commissioned for Madhushree Dutta's ambitious research art and archive project, Cinema City, and partly because of the talented director's own cross cultural disciplines, mainly photography and curating.
'Fried Fish...' is a road film, 'hanging around' the making of '21st century Kunti' ; earlier Manipuri cinema wanders in and out. It's an experiential usage of the footage. The Manipuri filmmakers actually create the narrative, not just be the narrative," says the unnervingly young Mamta.
'21st century Kunti' is literally a home production, not only in the familial adjustments everyone makes as they struggle with intrinsic Manipuri constraints. The power goes off, and when even the 'CM's VIP line' fails to come on, they call for a candle. 'Do you have compact powder?' asks Joy, the director, helping out a harried Poison, the make-up girl. Popular novelist and playwright, Manaobi MM, nervously gathers his papers; he is writing for the first time for his own film. And behind a shabby curtain, his no-nonsense wife, and producer, H Neki, fries up a daily fish lunch for the whole team, squatting before a firewood stove.
She is a remarkable presence in the film, the typical product of a matrilineal society and a perfect foil to the more professorial Manaobi. Husband and wife juggle budgets and bribes; deal with the 30 militant groups who must be informed before any shooting starts; and negotiate their way past the Film Forum, self-anointed custodian of the purity of Manipuri culture. Apart from mauling the film's songs, it insists on the removal of a reference to 'chicken soup'. It's 'alien'.
The film draws in the larger swathe of Manipuri cinema. It's a long and vibrant oeuvre, not only because of a 30-year-long ban on the screening of Hindi films. Says Mamta, "Mine is not a curatorial representation . The films included are meant to trigger rumination. For instance , on roads as a site of love in an earlier era (even gay love - the first archival sequence I show in the film appears to be two men romancing each other, in the 1960s!) to roads as a site of violence in recent times."
Conflict strolls nonchalantly through her film. Its most unsettling sequence is the fake encounter of former militant C Sanjit, captured on a passerby's cell phone and then exposed by Tehelka. Says Mamta, "It struck me then that living constantly with conflict means having a bloody image of a killing coexist in your cell phone with that of your kids' birthday pictures. I took that thought to my film. So when Mr Manaobi leaves home on a scooter to buy medicines for his wife, he is tracing the path of C Sanjit who was on his way to the pharmacy for his sick uncle. I am trying to experientially depict what Manipuris say very casually - that staying alive in Manipur is like winning a lottery, pure luck."
The film's canvas broadens also to show the dovetailing of key political and cinematic moments. The night of the screening of the first magic lantern performance in Manipur was its last free night as an independent kingdom. Just over a century later, in 2001-2002, when Manipuri films went completely digital, the people were rising in mass protests against the Indian army's excesses.
Coming to the 'premiere', when the blue ray of the projection slits the dark night, a hush descends on the chaotic, Kumbhgrade crowd. For Mamta Murthy, this pivotal moment asserts that while Manipuri filmmakers 'sing a dirge that is crying out to the outside world', here cinema is also a psalm of hope' .
Bachi Karkaria
The Times of India
25 March 2012
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