The people of Manipur are passionate about two things: one,standing for elections (every third person in the state including the neighbourhood grocer vies for a ticket) and the other,making movies. The deluge of Manipuri movies is testimony to this fact. As many as 80 movies are made and released every year in this north eastern state making the Manipuri commercial film industry one of the most prolific in the country.
Jenny Khurai,a 35-year-old transvestite,is one of the many emerging movie producers on the scene. She is both the producer and make-up artist for her second film Piza. I design outfits for traditional Manipuri weddings. But Ive also been doing the make-up for stars in other films, she says. What does it cost to make a movie in Manipur? Not very much,she says. Khurai is spending ‘6 lakh from her savings on this movie. Unlike conventional movies which are made on celluloid,all movies in the state are shot in digital mode. This ensures the process is a little more sophisticated than a home video camera. The total budget of any given movie,in the state is about ‘5 lakh,including actors fees,film crew and equipment.
A political event in 2002 led to an unprecedented increase in the production of indigenous films. Underground militant groups in and around the valley,(where most of the Hindu Meiteis live) placed a ban on Hindi movies throughout the state. Everyone saw this as an opportunity to make their own movies. The state already has a long tradition of storytelling,so this was not an alien art, says documentary filmmaker B.M. Sanzu Sharma. However,there were certain restrictions imposed by militant groups. There was a dress code imposed; lead characters had to wear traditional clothes and the storyline had to be in keeping with the states moral system, he says.
The film industry went through a rough patch in the year after the ban. Nine out of the 30-odd theatres in the capital,Imphal,shut shop; four were converted into schools. The largest Shanker Talkies lay desolate in Lamphel,one of the largest residential colonies in the city. The fading pale yellow building now houses the Manipur Film Forum,a body of registered filmmakers for both directors as well as producers. When the halls were functional,many shared just one celluloid projector between them. So after a morning show in one theatre,the projector would be shifted to another movie hall for a second screening.
However,after the ban,there was a spurt in movie production. Over 150 movies were made in a year. Going out to watch a movie is nothing less of an adventure in Manipur. There are no evening shows for security reasons. With only three shows a day,and theatres shut on Sundays,movie goers usually take a day off from work to watch a new film.
Usha Talkies is one of the most popular cinema halls in the heart of the business district,Pauna Bazaar,in Imphal. The faded cream buildings interior is dark and dingy and reeks of urine. The two toilets inside the hall are unusable. Due to power shortage in the state, the inside is unlit,the snacks counter operates under candlelight even during the day. The afternoon show is packed even as a new movie is released on a weekday.
Our movies are fairly successful in halls. But we need to look for other means to recover costs. One of the most profitable methods which has emerged over the past few years are community screenings. Since movie lovers are not always comfortable leaving their homes,they ask us to screen new releases at a birthday or anniversary get-together,in a hall or a park. We charge ‘20,000-30,000 for each of these screenings. So from a single movie,I make at least ‘3-3.5 lakh, says one of the states most successful commercial director,Romi Meitei.
Superstar Rajkumar Kaiku has been working in the industry for 11 years now. One of the highest paid actors in the state,his fee ranges between ‘50,000-60,000 per movie. Like most other actors in the state,Kaiku started his career with music videos. He acts in as many as three to four movies a month. The movies are made really quickly. Sometimes,it doesnt take more than 15 days to complete a film. Most producers in the state are PWD contractors who just want to do something different with their money, says Kaiku. A couple of years ago,he went to Mumbai to give Bollywood a shot,but then returned to Manipur. It was the right choice,he says.
Film shooting is a common sight on the streets of Imphal. A crew of barely 10 people head out to a market place to shoot the maiden scene for Piza. Kaiku is playing a cycle rickshaw driver,aspiring to be an IAS officer. The storyline is typical of all Manipuri feature films it deals with the states aspirations and desire for stability. Success in the state always wears the garb of a government job or better still an IAS officer– it is the ultimate Manipuri dream.
As the crew set up a makeshift rickety trolley,Kaiku gets up on a cycle rickshaw armed with his copy of Competition Success Review for the film. A crowd gathers to watch the shooting from a distance. Two middle-aged women ask,Kaiku,you are so handsome,why did you marry so young? Even under all the makeup,you can see Kaiku blush.
We work in makeshift environments. There is no film city in Manipur,the government hasnt given us incentives. Sometimes,it becomes difficult to work. Despite this,Manipuri movies have won several National Awards, says Meitei,who has made 34 movies so far. Editing studios are a far cry from those used in metros. They comprise rented rooms where minimal equipment can fit.
Producer Rupachandra Vaishnav was a part-time contractor and ran a chit fund. From a middle-class Manipuri family with many domestic responsibilities,he managed to save money,to invest in a movie. I love movies. The returns arent huge but one can make money. I usually premier at Boat an open air theatre and the organisers give me ‘2-2.5 lakh, he says,adding that the CD market has helped producers recover a lot of their costs and make a profit.
Infrastructure aside,other problems abound. In January this year,R. K. Chandrakumar,secretary,Film Forum Manipur suspended all movie filming in the state in view of the threat from underground groups. With various underground groups demanding taxes,filmmakers felt the pinch of not being able to sustain their business.
But its difficult to keep the Manipuri filmmaker down. There is a popular story in Manipur. During World War II,even as British and Japanese troops were fighting each other in the state,and bombs rained down on Imphal,people were watching movies at the newly-opened cinema hall in the city.