Old people in Manipur tell their grandchildren the story of a small bird called the pebet that outsmarts a predatory cat. When theatre group Kalakshetra Manipur stages Pebet, many in the audience, for long afterwards, can hear the plaintive call of the mother bird to her children, ‘Pebet te tu.’ Across India, Pebet te tu is a unifier, the silk that binds people who have watched Pebet and felt the searing politics of Heisnam Kanhailal and the performative excellence of his actor wife and partner, Heisnam Sabitri Devi. A new documentary, titled Theatre of the Earth, captures the aesthetics of Kanhailal and Sabitri.
Imphal-based filmmaker Doren Oinam spent “four rigorous years trying to understand their work”. An earlier film, Songs of Mashangva, has travelled the world and won the National Award. Recently, My Name is Eeooow, about “the Jynwrai Iawbei, the musical names in the East Khasi Hills of Meghalaya” won the Tangible Culture Prize in the UK. For those familiar with Kalashetra Manipur, Theatre of the Earth comes as a tribute; for those who have not watched a Kanhailal-Sabitri play, it is a glimpse of two astute performers. The film provides the dots; the audience will need to join these with their own emotions and experiences.
Excerpts of an interview with Oinam:
Your film is important for what it does not show. There is no visual of the army though AFSPA played a great role in Kalakshetra’s theatre.
When I started writing the treatment for the film, I had a plan to show such visuals. When I got deeper into it, I started telling myself that I should make the film minimalistic to reflect Kalakshetra Manipur’s kind of work. They use minimal props in their plays. Ima (Sabitri) talks about the atrocities of the army, and the rape scene of Draupadi is shown in the film — these give the context of the Manipuri society.
What kind of an audience did you target for the film?
The works of Oja (Kanhailal) and Ima have a niche audience. Even in Manipur, it doesn’t have mass following. Though, this film will impact theatre and art lovers, I hope to reach out to the general audience as well. A couple who started from zero, from poverty with no training in theatre became one of India’s finest stage icons. It should inspire every individual. From the sweeping landscapes to shots of Draupadi’s rape scene, the film’s treatment is a perfect match for the aesthetics of Kalakshetra Manipur.
How challenging was it to be minimal?
Understanding their kind of theatre was the most challenging task. I read their books, attended workshops, talked to them and stayed with them. Once the internalisation process began, I started dreaming. Temptations were high to show this or that but my experience has also taught me restraint. I have these words engraved on my phone on treating a film — minimalistic, poetic, lyrical. I was also lucky to work with a sensitive editor from Kolkata, Subhadipta Biswas. The transition he created from one scene to the next is so smooth that you don’t feel the movement.
There is a strong presence of patriarchy in the film in the form of Sabitri Devi’s experiences. This is ironic because Kanhailal-Sabitri is one of the most equal partnerships in Indian theatre.
Oja was a difficult person to hang around with. With Ima, it’s a wonder world. Her energy level and sense of humour rub on to you. I am amazed by her personality because she is the one who has borne the burden of running the household, bringing up six children in poverty and also shaped the theatrical idea of Kanhailal. I observed that patriarchy came out strongly in their everyday life. Oja had a tendency of interfering, obstructing the conversations or activities of Ima. He would say, ‘You keep quiet. This should be done this way.’ I have often asked myself this question, ‘Is Ima being suppressed?’ After Oja passed away, Ima started getting invitations to speak in seminars or conferences and she rejected them. She would say, ‘I don’t know anything. I was just a shadow of Oja’. I used to tell her, ‘Ima, Oja has always been doing the talking and you have been always made to stand behind. You should accept all invitations.’
Kanhailal died while you were making the film? Why didn’t you include this?
The life story of Oja and Ima is not only about theatre or art. It is an inspirational story. Like Kalakshetra’s plays, my film had to portray the resilient spirit of the weak and the oppressed. When Oja was diagnosed with cancer, Ima sank into depression. The film was going to have a pessimistic ending. The theatre scene in India is not very bright. The miniscule grants given by the government come sporadically. Theatre audiences have shrunk. Only a daring person can do theatre in India. I don’t want to tell another pessimistic story on theatre.