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By: Shikha Kumar
Until I’m old and have no strength, I will continue to play baseball. It means more to me than my husband,” says Bhanu, as she proceeds to coach a group of children in a field that resembles a run-down version of an actual ballpark. The scene is a poignant one in Mirra Bank’s ‘The Only Real Game’. In a region where insurgency between separatists and the army dominates the lives of, Bank found an unusual story — the Manipuris’ love for baseball; and that too in a nation where cricket is worshipped.
The inspiration for the film came from Bank’s 2005 meeting with Somi Roy, a member of the Manipuri royal family, and Muriel Peters, the founder of First Pitch, an American project aimed at aiding the growth of baseball in Manipur. “When I heard of a following for baseball in India, I knew there’s a movie in this,” says New York-based Bank, who started working on the film in 2006. The documentary, which played at the Mumbai International Film Festival last year, released in Los Angeles on June 20.
Narrated by Academy Award-winning actor Melissa Leo, The Only Real Game traces the history of the sport in Manipur to World War II. Then-American president Franklin Roosevelt had sent his country’s air force to back the British who were then ruling India. The soldiers in Manipur would play baseball in their free time, and soon the locals, both men and women, picked up the game.
Apart from capturing visuals of her stay in Manipur, the documentary is peppered with archival footage obtained from the American air force from their time in Manipur, as well as shots that show the effects of the insurgency, protests and armed movements in the state. “Once I came to Manipur, I knew the story wasn’t just about baseball; there was a larger cultural context and sports became just a medium to tell the story of the lives of the Manipuris,” she explains, adding that baseball has served as an escape from the strife in the daily lives of the locals.
The film, shot between 2006 and 2010, is told through the lives of several people — Devika, a young mother and an HIV and drug substitution therapist, who moonlights as a baseball coach; Lalit and Raju, two teenagers who harbour dreams of playing for the Major League in the US; and Jeff and Dave, Major League coaches who are training the players. The Major League team also puts forth a proposal for a proper ballpark, but it does not get approved by the government.
Shooting the 82-minute documentary came with its own set of challenges. “It was difficult to shoot outside Imphal. There were constant black-outs and no access to certain areas. However, since I’d spent so much time with the Manipuri crew, I never felt any fear and Imphal became like home,” she says.
Bank now hopes to have a theatrical release in India later this year, so the documentary gets the attention of the Indian government, eventually leading to the building of a baseball field in the state. “A release in India will mean a lot to me. The film could prove to be an instrument of change in Manipur,” she says.