Veteran Manipuri director Aribam Syam Sharma on his new film "Leipaklei".
Given the sweep of Bollywood, one can at times become blind to the existence of regional films. But they continue to exist, and speak eloquently about the regions they issue from.
Some of this speech can often be mimicry, imitation of the tropes of Bollywood, but there are the non-conformist few, who seek a representation that is real and truthful. Aribam Syam Sharma, actor, filmmaker, music director and 2006 Padma Shri award recipient, is one of them.
He entered the world of films through theatre, directing several plays written by his friends and eminent playwrights of the day, Arambam Samarendra (“a revolutionary playwright and writer-par-excellence”) and M.K. Binodini Devi. One of Arambam’s plays became the source material for the inaugural Manipuri feature film “Matamgi Manipur”, made in 1972, which had Aribam in an acting role. Subsequently, Aribam directed over 40 films, including several documentaries. His latest is the hitherto unreleased “Leipaklei”, also based on a play by Arambam.
The film borrows its name from a flower found commonly in the region, “a symbol of patience and strength.” It tells the story of Leipaklei, a woman named after the flower, whose life is surrounded by the hard trials of fate; separated from her husband, she is burdened with sustaining herself and her young daughter, the director informs us. “She had a lover once, but he joined the army and went to war. It was believed that he died in war.”
Leipaklei gains inspiration from the moments she spent with him and lives in the hope that he will return one day. He returns eventually, and brings with him a set of dilemmas because they can’t live together. “The conclusion is open ended; they may start living together,” Aribam adds.
“Showing those moments by which we gain strength, by which the pain of life is reduced, was really challenging,” Aribam reveals, adding that he wasn’t interested in telling the run-of-the-mill, boy-meets-girl story that has infiltrated Manipuri cinema. “Bollywood type of films are present now in Manipur also, but I have always tried to make meaningful cinema.”
Aribam has believed in what he calls “pure cinema” ever since he watched “Ajantrik” by Ritwik Ghatak as a student in Viswa-Bharati University, Santiniketan. Although he distinguishes himself from Ghatak’s “melodramatic” brand of cinema, he credits Ghatak with having shown him a “new route”. He also remembers travelling to the nearby town of Bolpur to watch films, for “Rabi Thakur didn’t want cinema halls and railway stations in Santiniketan. They would have destroyed the shanti of Santiniketan.”
“Leipaklei” was the opening film of the recently concluded Guwahati Film Festival and was screened to an enthusiastic response at the Kolkata International Film Festival. His film “Ishanou”, made in 1992, belongs to the exclusive group of 27 films screened at the International Film Festival of India last month in the Centenary Indian Cinema section.
Far from the hullabaloo over the ‘100 years of Indian cinema’, Manipuri cinema turned 40 this year. And Aribam, now 73, throws in his lot with the latter category. “Indian films are films that are made in the different languages of India,” he says.