As IFFI-2015 prepares to celebrate the oeuvre of Aribam Syam Sharma, the legendary Manipuri filmmaker says honesty of thought is crucial to cinema.
“Here I am a regional filmmaker but when I go out of the country I am called an Indian filmmaker.” One could feel the pain in Aribam Syam Sharma’s tremulous voice. The doyen of Manipuri theatre and cinema is in news for the upcoming India International Film Festival-2015 in Goa will have a special retrospective of his work. In the ’70s and early ’80s, Sharma worked with film stock which many of the Bollywood filmmakers would have sold as scrap but through his sensitive portrayal of human emotions that made his films a darling of international film festivals, he tided over technical limitations and emerged as a strong force in meaningful cinema.
When Hindi film heroine was dancing around trees, he gave female characters and children a voice with his long time collaborator M.K. Binodini Devi. In fact, two of his most remembered works, Imagi Thingthem (My Son, Precious) and Ishanou (The Chosen One) stand out for their moving portrayal of the state of woman in the society. If the former is about a girl, whose motherly instincts are doubted as licentious, the latter explores what happens when an ordinary woman acquires a divine status in the society. Both are poignant but both don’t over-romanticise the idea. Some critics judge the director’s gaze according to gender and Sharma was not spared either. “See, my writer was a woman and I was honest to myself. That is the key for me,” Sharma reflects.
He is right and it is this honesty that made his films bridge the East-West gap. Writing about Imagi Thingthem, The Guardian film critic observed that the images flickered, the female characters moved like Charlie Chaplin but despite its faults it expressed something true and honourable. The characters were real and not invented.
A master in philosophy and trained in Rabindra Sangeet at Santiniketan, the multi-faced artiste started as an actor and composer with Matamgi Manipur, the first film in Manipuri. “After making a mark in theatre, I realised cinema is a means to showcase Manipuri culture to the world. We have rich cultural ethos. We are the only state in the North East which has its own dance form. I wanted to preserve the Manipuri identity for posterity and for this documentary is a reliable format.” His films on Manipuri pony and Lai Haroba festival are still used to understand the Manipuri ethos.
“I am perhaps the only director who has been noticed for both his feature and non-feature films,” remarks Sharma, who also heads the feature films jury this year. “When I was young I used long shots but then I realised that on the small screen, where our films were usually telecast, it loses its charm. Slowly the charm for long shots waned for filmmakers. While looking at some of the films this year, I found that young filmmakers are rediscovering the value of long shot. I found young filmmakers are using the digital format really well. They are raising political issues in the films, something I could not do, and what is most important is that many of them are being honest in their treatment of the subject.”
As the conversation progresses, Sharma reminds that he has dabbled in popular cinema. He jogs back the memory to tell that his Olangthagee Wangmadasoo and Sholay released simultaneously and that his film did better than Ramesh Sippy’s magnum opus at the box office in Manipur. “However, I realised that there is more to cinema than to just pander to popular taste. If you keep the people intoxicated, they will eventually fail to value the merits of milk.”
On the state of cinema in the North East, Sharma says, “At times we feel neglected. Insurgency has changed the mood. Hindi films are no longer shown here. Cinema is a potent medium to show our culture to the world and if the government doesn’t back it, the North East will remain alienated from the mainstream.” Dedicating a section to the North East cinema at IFFI is a good move but the veteran avers that it will not show results consistently unless there is enough quality work from the region to show case. “The government bodies should get involved at the production stage. In this regard National Film Development Corporation and Doordarshan can play an important role. Till a couple of years back Doordarshan used to commission films from the North East. That programme needs to be revived.”
Meanwhile, having recovered from illness, Sharma, 79 is eager to return to the director’s seat this January. We are waiting for yet another ‘precious’ gift.