Off key song

BY Ninglun Hanghal| IN Media Practice | 05/09/2010
A documentary on an intractable problem leaves the viewer with more question than insights
Manipur Song was telecast by NDTV Profit, on Independence Day. NINGLUN HANGHAL takes a critical look at its components

Pankaj Butalia's  Manipur Song begins with an introductory note on the political history of Manipur which states that the appropriation into the Indian Union after the British left in 1947 led to anti–Indian insurgency. It says that to counter this, the Indian state introduced the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in the region. It notes that in today’s Manipur there are over 20 insurgent groups fighting against the Indian army as well as among each other, that there is massive underdevelopment, drugs and HIV–AIDS are rampant along with many other problems.


AFSPA was introduced in the then "Naga hills" of Assam and Manipur (then a union territory) in 1957 as an ordinance, which became an act in 1958. This was later implemented in other states of the north east region of India. 

Since the narrator talks about travelling from Delhi in 2004, as a Manipuri viewer, I assumed that the film was made during or after the heightened protest against  AFSPA  in the aftermath of the alleged rape and killing of Manorama and the infamous ‘nude protest’. The film maker says he was provoked to go to Manipur without stating why or when. While a Manipuri can figure some things out I wonder what ‘mainland’ viewers would make of it. There is a background narration of `decades of problems', the mainland, disillusionment, etc but no description of the footage or pictures. In a documentary this simultaneous and effective use of pictures and footage is the key to conveying meaning. About the nude protest, the narration says it had caught the national media attention, but does not mention why the women protested.


Part 1 – Violence – the backyard of nationalism

The film shows that Nationalist Leader Sana Yaima, Chairman of the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), legitimized the "aspiration" for separation from India. This is shown along with footage of violence, protests, police firings, angry youths and episodes from the daily lives of militants.  


The narrator says that these militant groups were divided along community lines and mentions the Meiteis, Nagas , Kukis, Zomis and the Paites. Whereas the Paites are one among the "Zomi", there is no "Paite insurgent group" in Manipur. The communal conflict does not necessarily flow in that order of heirarchy: state ( India) - Meitei – Naga- Kuki- Zomi or Paites.

An interviewee, Ima Taruni a "meira paibi" activist (women torch bearers) spoke about some "incidents".  She said "At Thangmeiband, Thau ground we took out a protest rally...the police fired at us ... many were killed ...many injured ..we ran helter and skelter ... many people jump into the river and there was chaos and commotion ...chappals/ slippers and clothes were scattered everywhere..." This was translated as, "Women left their clothes. They lost control over what they were wearing..." There was no background description of this video footage.  


Part III – The diaspora as periphery


The Manipuri student studying outside the state, who spoke before the camera was watching "Manipur song"! 


Part IV – Living on the edge

A drug rehabilitation camp: An addict identified as ex-militant Kalachand says, "I was in jail for being suspected." This was translated as, "I was in jail in a case related to militancy." The addict further says that after being released he took to drugs as his family felt that the life of an addict was better than that of a militant. A conversation is shown between him and his mother. He says to her, ``you felt it was safer to be on drugs than join militancy. You gave me money without knowing the consequences."  The mother spoke of living in constant fear and tension. She said, "Yes i gave you money". The son continued, "Why are you giving?" and before waiting for her response added, ``You gave me money so that I do not roam around." Finally when the son strongly hinted at what she should say, she asked him to stop.


To the viewers the conversation appears to underline that the mother was to "blame" whereas that was not the case. It was like a memorized script. There was no interviewer.   


Part V: on the notion of collateral

Women commercial sex workers in shabby shelters: one woman narrated the story of how she landed in the "profession" and addiction. At the end she said "when I look back I feel nostalgic or rather so to say let down."  This was translated as, "I now regret all I have done all my life." Two other women identified as Lalli and Heting appear with another woman who did all the listening while they "confessed" before her and at times looked at the camera. At the outset the first woman asked for sun-glasses.

One of the women at times spoke in first person while at other times she said, ‘’they do not enjoy doing this. Sex workers don’t do it because they like it.’’ She also said, "We are regular drug users." These women also "demonstrated" their skills in using drugs on camera.


Even when changed, the names made it clear that they came from a particular section of the Manipuri society. They did not hide their faces during the whole show. In a state like Manipur where population is divided between hill and valley people, between tribals and non-tribals such an exposure will increase their vulnerability. The report does not have any background narration and neither were the women asked any questions. 

The documentary ended with the Iron Lady, Irom Sharmila, in tears.


Concluding remarks:

The film seems to be trying to sensitize ‘mainland India’ on a whole range of issues that engulf Manipur. There are some doubts over whether some footage on the notion of collateral was censored. 

For the distant spectator, and particularly for a Manipuri viewer, the 60 minute documentary appeared to be a mere collection of bad and ugly incidents. The parts have no interconnections and the narrative is rather poorly developed.

The film rightly observes at the beginning, "The conflict is so complex that it is difficult to separate cause from effect." There is no message for the audience or analysis of problems.   

As the narrator said in the beginning "the distance seems too much ...for those of us in Delhi the periphery seems so far away..." Perhaps Manipur is too distant and complex for the national media to encapsulate in 60 minutes.



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