A tryst with Manipuri movie Sanabi in Madras

S Balakrishnan *



What a coincidence! As I was fine-tuning my trip to Manipur, a Manipuri film was to be screened in Chennai (formerly the city of Madras). The email alert from Indo Cine Appreciation Foundation (ICAF), Chennai, listed the film for 4th March at 6.30 pm as "Sanabi", a Manipuri film.

Not one to miss the chance to watch a free film, especially a film from North-East which is a rarity down South in Chennai, I rushed to the theatre from my office on the pretext of an appointment with the doctor. I had to beat the peak hour traffic of Friday evening, the mad weekend evening rush. Google maps came handy to locate the venue. I was visiting the Tagore Theatre of NFDC within the Govt. Music College for the first time; hence I had to travel through the known but crowded Mylapore area. When I reached the venue at 6.31 PM, I felt victorious to have reached within half an hour. I was just able to beat the clock but the film had started dot on time, it seemed.

But it was all in Manipuri without the English subtitle; the bewildered audience sat in silence as a lady character on the scene walked down the village street and reached heroine Sakhi's house; she then hands over the yarn bought at the market to Sakhi's mother along with the gossip that Sakhi's ex had married another lady and so on and so forth. Fortunately by that time the English subtitle had appeared to the great relief of the audience. Otherwise it would have been like a silent movie for the Chennai audience!

Sanabi is actually the name of a rare local-breed mare pony reared in the homestead of the heroine, loved and pampered to the core by her father. Her family is from another village, brought to this village by Mangi's (hero) father to tuition him when he was a kid. As the story progresses, the hero (actually he can be described as an anti-hero), in a drunken state, demands Sanabi to be loaned to him for a game of polo, but Sakhi's father, who also coaches him in polo, refuses.

To teach his Guru a lesson, Mangi steals Sanabi; it is also a trick to convey his love for Sakhi. Later, he relents and hands over Sanabi to Sakhi, but with the 'warning' that Sanabi would henceforth be stolen often. Sakhi surreptitiously smiles. A happy ending! Though titled Sanabi, the pony does not see much of action except the daily routine of to and fro trotting between the grazing land and its shed. A simpleton peasant literally worships Sanabi and sings and dances the same song as sung during Rass Leela, "Lotus has bloomed (yonder) in the East, Come to me, I will escort you ....", thus goes the song.

I wanted to have a feel of Manipur before my LTC trip. Being my last LTC opportunity, I wanted it to be a memorable one and chose Assam and Manipur. In fact, I wanted to accommodate as many of the seven NE States as possible during the trip, but found it too difficult to squeeze more than two within the 12 day period. Even this would be a rushed one with too a hectic schedule. I cannot justify such a short trip to such a wonderful region. Rather, I am doing injustice. Luckily, I had lived in Sikkim for 5 1/2 years and also made a trip during the last LTC in 2014. So one less of the eight NE States.

Sanabi is a 35 mm colour film directed by Aribam Syam Sharma and released in 1994; it was jointly produced by National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) & Doordarshan. Sanabi won the Rajat Kamal (Silver Lotus) for the Best Regional Film in the 1996 National Film Festival. Aribam Syam Sharma has not only directed the film but has also written the screen play and the film's music director as well. Sanabi was one among the package of films produced by NFDC and screened during that week. It runs for almost 2 hours. The cast includes Devan, Kiranmala, Takhelambam Nobokumar, and others.

The movie Sanabi did not disappoint me. Shot entirely in rural Manipur, it presented the real Manipur in all respects .... the local tradition, customs, attire, beliefs, religion, art and culture, sports, concern for conservation of local gene pool, and all that is related to the simple rural folk of the State. So much so that Sakhi's father laments that he is unable to find a suitable stallion mate for Sanabi, indicating the slow death of local breed. The 1995 lifestyle of rural Manipur was brought alive with Ambassador cars, Lambaretta scooters, mini bus, no electrification, and such authentic facts.

The movie depicted well the Vaishanavite religious customs and practices - the long tilak on the forehead from nose upwards worn by elderly people and also during the Raas Leela dance performance.

Respect to elders/teacher (guru) by bending down and touching the earth with both the hands; the concern about loss of local breeds of fish, vegetables, pony and cow; the need to at least preserve the local pony gene, a prized breed. I could notice that weaving is part of the life. Chai (tea) seems to be the favourite drink, offered to visitors at home and discussions held over a cup of tea at local tea shops on current affairs ... chai pe charcha (I wonder if BJP got the idea from this film)!

Heroine Sakhi being a dancer, the story weaves in and out of Rass Leela, but the fast tempo was not shown. I had a chance to watch the graceful performance in Chennai, once. Jealousy among the troupe members, a human feeling, was also indicated subtly in the course of the movie. The elaborate wedding scene of the adopted brother of Mangi was unique and wonderful! It almost resembled a Rass Lela performance.

Manipur being the motherland of Polo, I was happy to see scenes of Polo, once as being practiced by the hero and his friends and the next as a competition. The game, along with thundering hoof sound of the ponies, was exciting. I wished it lasted for some more time but the story moved to another scene as the game was picking up momentum. Hope we would get to enjoy a game of polo (just watch, not play!) during our visit.

A notable feature of the film was that it had no background music, but that never affected the flow of the film. In fact, it added to the quality of the film. Just only the natural and essential sounds required for the scenes! A novel effort, indeed!

As the credits were being shown, I felt proud that the film had been processed at Prasad Labs, Madras (now Chennai)! I could also see a few South Indian names who had served as technicians. Initially, I had difficulty identifying female characters, as all the faces seemed to be similar. This is natural for anyone watching film of a different region for the first time. Slowly I could overcome this problem, but by then the whole film was over!

At this juncture, I remember watching Manipuri dolak players performing in Gangtok, Sikkim, sometime in 1985 or so. I was mesmerized by the mid-air movements of the lanky artistes, their fast beats and that of their dolaks. Wow!

I was hoping to have a glance of Moreh, my dream destination, the border town with Myanmar, where Mangi is supposed to have earned a rich living, but it was not shown at all. As our visit coincides with Holi festivities (Yaoshang/Dol jatra), we hope to see a slice of Manipuri culture, including raas leela performance. I also plan to use the few Manipuri words that I learnt from Sanabi - Ima=mother (hence the famous Ima Market in Imphal); phere-phere=ok, ok; lao=come, and mama=uncle (this seems to be a universal word in India; in Tamil also it means the same).

I wish someone would be kind enough to invite us for a traditional wedding as shown in Sanabi. In that case it would qualify to be the most memorable experience of my life! Forget about the wedding feast, just for the event. Not that I would reject an invite for the wedding feast - a taste of authentic Manipuri cuisine. I would rather grab it with both my hands and mouth as well!

* S Balakrishnan wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer can be reached at krishnanbala2004(AT)yahoo(DOT)co(DOT)in
This article was webcasted on April 04 2016.


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