“No! I won’t have it! You just can’t decide on your own. No, I tell you! Come along, my son.”
Ekashini’s words crack like a whip. The two men she says this to are left stunned. Ekashini marches off with a little boy in tow. Manipuri writer Maharaj Kumari Binodini Devi wrote this dialogue to bring her much celebrated Manipuri film Imagi Ningthem (My Son, My Precious) directed by Aribam Syam Sharma, to a startling and radical close. Janet Maslin, while reviewing the film in 1982 for the New York Times at its international premiere at the Museum of Modern Art, found it “genuinely and effortlessly touching” despite its technical shortcomings. “The film ends on a somewhat ambiguous note, but it seems to endorse a position with which the audience may not agree,” the review added. But then, few women were as boldly transgressive as Binodini’s women.
Ekashini is one of three women in the film, written by Binodini based on her radio play of the same name. The character of Ekashini played on screen by Rashi (Manipuri actors go by single names) is a happy, contented housewife with a stable, hardworking husband. Her cousin Dhani, by contrast, is single and cerebral. She refuses to pay a bribe, preferring to take up a humble job as a schoolteacher in a remote village. Dhani is the one who finds out that a frail boy in the village was the son of Memtombi, a tomboyish teenager. The boy’s father is her cousin Ekashini’s husband who left the young village girl pregnant and returned to his family in the city.
All three women come up against the behavior of men in different ways. Refusal, un-acceptance, protest, and “no” resound throughout the film. Dhani’s quiet protest in an introspective voiceover with the camera framing her in close up as she rides a rickshaw on her way to her new job, speaks wryly to the corruption she has decided she will not accept. “No!” a young Memtombi cries, in a flashback, when Ekashini’s husband sends a man to marry her to give their unborn child a father’s name. Her refusal is short, loud, and searing. Binodini is not given to proselytizing in her art. Her characters do not deliver long speeches. Ekashini, the willful protagonist in the film is given to droll, sharp remarks. She is all heart. She pays little heed to social norms. She acts from the gut. When in all her Gauguin-like beauty, Ekashini returns from singing in the Jalakeli, a choir of ladies of noble descent, signifying to the Manipuri viewer that she is of high traditional status, higher than her husband, she remarks cavalierly, “My husband is away on training. So I decided to go ahead and sing this time because I really, really wanted to.” Ekashini does not need permission. On the other hand, Dhani is ruled by the head. Played by Jamini, a veteran from Society Theatre, a repertory company devoted to the plays of social satirist GC Tongbra, Dhani is an effective foil to the headstrong Ekashini. “How can you do this? You just can’t take somebody else’s child,” she berates her cousin when Ekashini brings home her husband’s child with another woman. “But what’s the problem,” is Ekashini’s innocent retort. A disarming request to Dhani to enroll the boy in a school follows.
Yet Ekashini is not immune to patriarchy and its dominance. Aribam sets the conversation with her husband, about the little stranger he finds in his home upon his return, in the family kitchen. The director has Ekashini wash his feet, a practice uncommon but not unheard. He looks down at her and asks her who the boy is, and why she is so involved in him. “He is nothing to me. They didn’t want him. They threw him away. I wanted him,” Ekashini answers back. The camera looks down on her, and up at him, the dialogue inverting the power dynamic of the frame. “I can’t walk away when a boy hangs on to me and calls me Mother. I cannot,” she says with finality, walking away from her flustered husband.
MK Binodini, who published under the single name of Binodini is noted for the centrality of women in all her work. It is not at the expense of men. There are no bad men in her writing, just complex characters, sometimes clueless dolts, but never villains. It may be said that Binodini admits to only one true villain in all her creations – her doll Ati. As the youngest daughter of Maharaja Sir Churachand Singh (1891-1941) and Maharani Dhanamanjuri Devi, Binodini often said that the palace staff used to eavesdrop when she played with her dolls. Her dolls’ colorful characters and the accompanying running dialogue gave them distinctive lives and destinies. They became a precursor to the snappy exchanges and characterisations, the hallmark of Binodini’s film and literary creations.
The empathy the princess writer had for people, far removed from her cloistered upbringing sharpened when she was drawn into a circle of leftists during her college years in Shillong. It marked her subaltern perspective, down to her last work, her palace memoirs, Churachand Maharajgi Imung (The Maharaja’s Household: A Daughter’s Memories of Her Father). The politically formed writer’s exposure to the literature of the Bengal Renaissance, further broadened at Tagore’s Santiniketan where she became the celebrated muse to the sculptor and painter Ramkinker Baij, and found her reaching beyond the strictures of ideology to a universalist, humanist art.
A feel for the dispossessed runs through all Binodini’s work. It extends to the privileged, like Binodini’s great-aunt Princess Sanatombi who crossed national, racial, and political boundaries by becoming the consort of a British Political Agent in Manipur, and was the subject of her historical novel Boro Saheb Ongbi Sanatombi. Like many of Binodini’s characters, Princess Sanatombi was no simple victim in real life. Ostracised by her people for falling in love with Col. Horatio St. John Maxwell, who personified the enemy that had deposed her monarch father, Princess Sanatombi lived on her own terms. She even went so far as to present the ritual Ras Lila at the British Residency, with herself leading the temple dance.
Binodini always demurred when she was called a feminist. She chafed at the restrictions of labels. She found run of the mill feminists tiresome. A political activist all her life, she had no patience for careerist do-gooders. It was her upbringing as a princess, in the manners, aesthetics, and refinement of the royal court at the heart of Manipuri culture, that led her to say: “Culture and education are two different things. Culture is preferable.” Nowhere is this distinction better than in her play Asangba Nongjabi (Crimson Rainclouds). The cerebral, practical Indu and the emotive village woman Keinatombi reflect it. Binodini would add drily, “It is best if you have both.”
The radical position that Binodini takes beyond education and culture in My Son, My Precious is that love transcends familial relationships, norms and relations between men and women. “Mother, don’t go away,” says the little boy in a delirious fever, played luminously by 6-year old Leikhendra in what is surely one of cinema’s greatest turns by a child actor. “No, I won’t leave you. My son, my precious,” says Ekashini, tearful. There, in that scene, Binodini has us. A mother’s love is the last word.
Binodini is that rare writer from royalty who made a mark first and foremost as a writer. Her personal history from her courtly childhood to leftism and, finally, to a deeply rooted, yet universally humanist art, enabled her to bridge the worlds of tradition and modernity. She brought a rich sensibility to her life as an enlightened commoner. Her refusal to be tied down by privilege or ideology freed her to interact with people from all walks. She married her surgeon husband against her family’s will, choosing a modern professional over suitors of traditional nobility. She briefly held political office in the 1950s, and then withdrew quickly to her art as a sculptor of distinction. She fell in with a group of likeminded artists and intellectuals in 1960, including the young Aribam who went on to direct My Son, My Precious.
They gathered at her home salon in Yaiskul from then on. As the group Roop Raag, they produced the dance, theater, music, film and literature that created and defined Manipuri modernism. She wrote in a range of forms matched by few writers – short stories, novel, theater, radio plays, dance scripts, travelogue, song lyrics, essays, and screenplays.
And running as a thread in all her varied work as Binodini emerged as the key renaissance figure of Manipuri modernism was her love of humanity and her Manipur. “I love Manipur. I love it like it belongs to me,” she once said. It was her strong women characters who represented this love, displayed by Ekashini, Dhani, and Memtombi on screen as the writer’s three women of My Son, My Precious.
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