Rising against all odds

Aribam Syam Sharma will be remembered for putting Manipuri cinema on global stage

Published - February 23, 2018 01:50 am IST

LIVING LEGEND Aribam Syam Sharma

LIVING LEGEND Aribam Syam Sharma

Manipur is known to the world for having a rich cultural heritage, unique classical dance forms, music and theatre.

On the cinematic horizon of Manipur, Aribam Syam Sharma,81, rose above complex socio-political circumstances and went on to enrich Indian cinema. Fondly known as Eiga Aribam or Pabung Aribam, he had a major role in revolutionising the cinema of Manipur during the ‘70s. In his more than 40-year journey across the cinematic map, the ace filmmaker has made 14 thought-provoking feature films and 31 non feature films that depict the dynamics of Manipuri culture and its way of life. His films are unique and inimitable which articulate stories of common man. Unlike the complex cinematic style adopted by many contemporary directors, his films follow the linear narrative structure to represent simple Manipuri life in an uncomplicated framework.

The origin of Manipuri cinema goes back to the late ‘40s of the last century. A group of enthusiasts from Manipur attempted to make the first Manipuri film with “Mainu Pemcha” (1948). Based on Manipuri folklore stage drama, Ayekpam Shyamsunder Singh’s work “Mainu Pemcha”, is a romantic tragedy. But the film remained unfinished. People of Manipur had to wait for almost 30 years to watch the first Manipuri feature film “Matamgi Manipur” (Contemporary Manipur, 1972), by a Bengali director Debaki Kumar Bose. It was released in 1972 and thus heralded the new beginning in Manipuri cinema. S.N.Chand, the first Manipuri director surfaced on the cinematic space, with two of his films, “Brojendrogee Luhungba” ( Marriage of Brojendro, 1974) and “Ngak-I-KoNangse” ( Wonderful You are; 1978).

International acclaim

When Manipuri cinema was struggling to get its identity as a distinctive art form, Aribam Syam Sharma brought the Manipuri cinema on the International map through his epoch-making films. His film “Imagi Ningthem” ( My Son, My Precious, 1981) was awarded the Grand Prix at the Festival of Three Continents , Nantes in 1982, while his “Ishanou”, ( The Chosen One, 1990) was the official selection at the 44th Cannes Film Festival . “Sangai –The Dancing Deer” of Manipur (1988) was honoured with the Outstanding Film of the Year 1989 by the British Film Institute, His debut feature film, “Lamja Parshuram” (1974) ran for more than three months in theatres and along with his third feature film “Olangthagee Wangmadasoo” (Even Beyond the Summer Horizon,1979) was a landmark in Manipuri cinema.

M.K.Binodani, the renowned writer of Manipur and his long term associate, wrote stories and screenplays of “Olangthagee Wangmadasoo” (1979), “Imagi Ningthem” (1981), “Paokhum Ama” (1984), “Ishanou” (1990) for Aribam. “I only take the story from the writer. Then we work and re-work on the subject together, ” he says. Known as the father of Manipuri cinema, he is one of the few filmmakers in India who never sought cheap popularity but pursued serious social concerns.

A scene from “Imagi Ningthem”

A scene from “Imagi Ningthem”

His films address a wide range of themes that help us understand the socio-political and cultural milieu of Manipur. He deconstructs the stereotypical images of women in his film. The conventional image of a cruel step- mother is rejected in his film “Imagi Ningthem” . The film presents the step-mother as a considerate and compassionate mother. “In my films, there are no bad characters. Human beings are not bad, but it’s the circumstance that makes man bad. In Santiniketan too, we were taught that human beings cannot be bad by birth,” says the veteran filmmaker.

The National award winning Manipuri actress Leishangthem Tonthoingambi Devi, popularly known as Tonthoi, who played the lead role in “Leipaklei” (2012) says, “The character of Leipaklei was very challenging as it narrates the story of a woman who is surrounded by problems. She is depicted in the film as a symbol of patience and strength. Leipaklei is a local flower found in Manipur. Working with Pabung Aribam was an ultimate life-fulfilling experience .”

The non-conformist filmmaker stepped into the world of cinema through theatre. He reminiscences his time with Adoor Gopalakrishnan, “Adoor and I travelled together to London Film Festival. Adoor’s film ( ‘Elippathayam’ ) and mine (‘Imagi Ningthem’) were screened at the Festival. It was a very tough competition . Probably, he got one vote more and won the recognition from British Film Institute. At the same time, I came to France and got the Grand Prix – Festival des 3 Continents, Nantes.”

Cinema was never his first choice, it was music and theatre. “My first love was music and theatre,” he admitted. He studied at Viswa Bharati of Santiniketan and did his masters in Philosophy. He was trained in Rabindra Sangeet and classical music and dance at Santiniketan. When he had been in Santiniketan from 1956 -1960, he used to watch films in Bholpur as Santiniketan did not have any cinema halls. “Guru Deb did not allow cinema halls and the railway stations to be set up at Santiniketan. One night, I saw “Ajantrik” by Ghatak, and then, I felt something in me. It was a kind of discovery. The expression, time and space of the film had inspired me,” he recollects. Coming back to Manipur, when he turned to serious filmmaking, people discouraged him saying that Manipuri films would not survive as there were only a few cinema halls. But fighting against all odds, he made films and achieved the commercial success too. The new generation filmmakers of Manipur, he believes, must work hard to enrich local cinema.

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