When filmmaker Mirra Bank found that the essentially American game of baseball had a strong presence in strife-torn Manipur, she felt the story had to be told. She tells Bhumika K. that she hopes the film will give them legitimacy as sportspersons

Bhanu, in her 40s, is the godmother of baseball, the all-American game, in Manipur. She would ride around on her scooter picking gifted women cricket players in her home state to turn them into fine baseball players. Then there’s Devika, who was a national baseball player when she was 17, but couldn’t afford to pay for international travel. Without any bitterness at her own fortune she trains the next generation of baseball players in Manipur, including her own two children.

If you’re wondering who these people are, and what this game of baseball is doing in Manipur, American filmmaker Mirra Bank tells their story in her film The Only Real Game. The film won the best documentary at the New York Indian Film Festival 2013.

The oddball story beckoned to Mirra when her colleague and friend Muriel Peters, a film producer who’d lived in India off and on said she had heard rumours of baseball being played in Manipur, in a remote corner of northeast India.

“Muriel’s a huge baseball fan… and in my country no one knows about Manipur. When she visited Manipur (with film curator Somi Roy), the women players put on a game for her on Thanksgiving! I was wondering ‘why are these people playing our game’?” says Mirra, explaining how the film took root and why she felt the need to tell this story. “Because a story like that is irresistible,” she says with understandable finality.

When Muriel went to Manipur, the players asked for assistance in the game. So she came back to America to set up First Pitch, a group of baseball-loving New Yorkers who donated equipment, and two major league envoy coaches who decided to come to Manipur to train them in baseball clinics. She also decided to produce a film on the whole story.

Mirra has researched painstakingly how American baseball landed there. She points out how Imphal, Manipur’s capital, was a turning point in WW II — “Imphal was where the Japanese turned back,” because the Allies had cut off roads leading into India. “Americans I spoke to were there in Manipur in non-combat positions, flying cargo planes to China with ammunition and medicines, taking off from the largest airlift called ‘The Hump’.” These Americans from US Army Combat Cargo Corps in their 20s, would play baseball every chance they got. “Two magnificent American World War II veterans, in their 80s, had played on the same tarmac during the wars in 1944. And we found Manipuri men in their 80s who remembered it! That connection was epic,” adds Mirra.

“One of the big surprises for me was the degree to which women were committed, experimental, driven, and gifted baseball players. Devika embraced the game consciously for her kids, to strengthen them, and keep them away from the disturbing gang wars and drug abuse, which is otherwise common in Manipur. No one in Manipur is unaffected by violence, HIV/AIDS, or both,” she concludes. The men baseball players are doing great too, she adds, but the women in particular have taken to baseball, which is seen as pure and uncorrupted as opposed to corrupt cricket. There are four leagues of women-only teams in Manipur. Kids start learning when they are about four-years old. The girl’s team recently won the top trophy in India. “With such few resources they are doing enormously well,” adds Mirra. What she hopes the film will do is “be a tool to permanently give them a legitimacy as sportsmen. I’m not naive enough to think a film, or sports, can change history. It just makes them (the players) more accessible to the world,” she concludes. At every screening people are wiping their tears away, notes Mirra. Where it’s been screened in India, Indians have come up to her to say they are ashamed they didn’t know of this story in their own country.

It hasn’t been easy telling this story. The film’s making has been a slow and long process. First Pitch was started in 2006-2007. Mirra’s been here four to five times filming. Sometimes the crew filmed without her. “We’ve seen their (player’s) children grow up on film!” The most difficult thing was getting visas. With Manipur’s constant state of unrest wasn’t she apprehensive about filming there? “I probably understood less of the seriousness of the situation in Manipur when I started the film. We had armed security with us most of the time while we were there. But I never for one moment, felt I was in any danger... maybe it was magical thinking, or naïveté, or whatever you will.... People saw what we were doing as a good thing. I was always with people I trusted.” The people of Manipur were heroically candid and let her into their lives, says Mirra, speaking on issues of insurgency and the Army. “They want other people to know of their situation.”

Today the baseball clinic started by First Pitch is still on; it may be irregular and limping along. “Our first goal is to provide them a level playing field, a field of their dreams,” says Mirra. Sporting groups in America are clamouring to donate. Most major leagues donate their equipment after they finish playing one season. But there are speed-bumps in India — of clearing customs, and whether donated equipment will reach the right people here and benefit them.

For details see http://onlyrealgamemovie.com