Langgoi Challabi - Paradise under Siege
A Textual Fabric and Discourse Community

Provided by: Usham Rojio *

Langgoi Challabi - Paradise under Siege, a documentary film scripted and directed by A. Bimol Akoijam is a film that I had seen for the first time at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi at a screening organized by Manipur Research Forum. That screening was followed by a discussion in which I also took part.

Since then, I have been thinking of reflecting on some of the issues that had come up during the discussion, particularly relating to three aspects of the film - its structure, intertextuality and music, which intrigue me. As it happens, I saw the film once again for the second time last November at Jamia Millia Islamia organized by North East Study Centre of the university to commemorate the beginning of 10th year of Irom Sharmila's indefinite hunger strike against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.

The context of this screening forced me as a Manipuri with all my existential and artistic inclinations to think once again on this film produced by the director along with Thaounaojam Tarunkumar under the banner of Introspective Media in association with Second Millennium Mongoloids (producer of Meera Memcha and Nobap) and Seven Salais (producer of U-Thambal).

The film narrates a story of violence encountered by the narrator which is expressed in two different modes of narration - visual and voice over. The manner of its rendering is not quite like the ones I have seen in other documentaries on Manipur. These two syntagmatic narratives in different forms structure different meanings, and invite multiple readings. The visual narrative reflects chronologically the violence in Manipur while the voice narrative is a poetic search for a poetic justice.

The film shows that this irrepressible violence is neither reverberation of rage nor a resurgence of savage instincts or even the result of resentment; it is an outcome of a loss of a political life. It starts effectively with Ng. Mono Monsang, a member of Manipur Legislative Assembly, 1948 (first of its kind in South Asia constituted through elections based on universal adult franchise), reminiscing about the Assembly which was dissolved on 15th October 1949 after Manipur was merged into the Indian Union.

Interestingly, 'Assembly' becomes a symbol of this loss of a political life which runs as a central theme in the events that unfold the narrative of the film. Thus, underscoring the violence and the widening gap between hill and valley in Manipur, the opening reminiscence of 1948 Assembly appears later in the film in the form of burning down of the Assembly building in 2001.

Captivatingly, the two narratives in the form of the visual and the voice narrations, which progress in the opposite direction and also in parallel, interweave at many junctures to furnish a kind of homological relation between the poetry and the reality encountered by the narrator. The visual narrative in sequences with breaks and digressions in the narrative brings out the travesty of contemporary existence or the fragments of the existential crisis in Manipur which the narrator has stumbled upon.

The use of fragments, the breaks and digressions, in the film reminds me of the concluding parts of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. In this novel, which has also been made into films, the monk Adso of Melk returns to the burned abbey, where he finds in the ruins scraps of parchment, the only remnants from one of the great libraries in all Christendom. He spends a day collecting the charred fragments, hoping to discover some meaning in the scattered pieces of books.

In a very similar manner, in Langgoi Challabi, the narrator had also collected archival footages, live recordings, press accounts, oral histories, documented performances and academic studies—all to confirm a very emotional public involvement in the film as well as the attachment of political meanings to specific musical and visual expressions. These disparate fragments are significant to the narrator's attempt to order the experience of Manipur as he encounters it.

The narrator comes as a collector of fragments, an archaeologist creating an order from the remnants of the past and the present, building a framework that allows him to derive a collective meaning. But it is an exercise that opens up multiple ordering by the spectators; they might as well derive their own order of things in Manipur from this film.

In fact, there are "traces," bits and pieces of texts which the filmmaker borrows and stitches together to create new discourse. It is a composite of multiple texts. Reality, history, subjectivity and identity are textualised and thus the film becomes a public forum to raise queries or debate issues through its songs, poetry and visuals, that the oppressive structure have not allowed in the normal channels. The film can be examined through its "intertextuality".

Before I go to this aspect of the film, a few words are in order here on the discourse of intertextuality and the position of the filmmaker. Intertextuality by and large cultivates the romantic image of the narrator as free, uninhibited spirit and independent creative artist. By identifying and stressing the intertextual nature of discourse, however, constructs a discourse community where the filmmaker is simply a part of the discourse tradition, a member of a team, and a participant in the community that creates its own collective meaning.

Not infrequently, and perhaps ever and always, texts refer to other texts and in fact rely on them for their meaning. All texts are interdependent: we understand a text only insofar as we understand the other. The film reflects this feature as its intertext becomes a "Text" - a seamless textual fabric for the viewers to engage and be a part of its discourse community.

Being a theatre activist, I find the invocation of two political plays in the film interesting. These two, Awang Nongpok Lamdamgi Nawa (Children of the Northeast) by Lokendra Arambam and Pebet by Heisnam Kanhailal, are well-known theatrical texts that are critically rooted in the experiences of the people in the region, particularly Manipur.

A scene from the first play in which one character says "Let me play the dead boy so as to understand this society" was brought into the film to bear upon a real incident of a school boy Netaji who was allegedly shot by the police personal when he was waiting his school bus seen in the film through the archival shots. This character's desire of death as a detachment to establish an intimacy with the life of the society pervades in the motif of the narrator that reflects a tension between a desire for distancing while seeking an intimate answers to the issues and problems of contemporary Manipur.

Tension and violence of an internal contradiction in Manipur is also captured through the text of Pebet. The narrator's disquieting poser on the internal strife flows into the visuals of the play by the well-known theatre personality Heisnam Kanhailal along with an observation by Lokendra Arambam on the play in the audio track.

The visuals of a physical theatre is intertextualised with an intellectually remarkable and reflective comment:
"The cat plays such a role of dominant and influence and his attempt to exploit the original situation in the family and his attempt to seduce them and his general deprivation of their indigenous life creates a situation when the subject people are oppressed, it creates another structure of oppression. A state of deprivation, a state of subjugation and a state of oppression creates a new form of oppressive structure within the subjects themselves that they fight, they quarrel and they lose the purpose of their sense of awareness that they are collectively oppressed by an outside force." The back-to-back shots of army personnel with their gun drawn and the dead body of a school girl who was killed by bomb planted by insurgents that immediately followed the remark by Lokendra Arambam amplifies the hermeneutics of the tension.

Another remarkable example of intertextuality in the film is the use of an archival still photograph of Second Nupi Lan (Women's War, 1939) with the shirking cries of the naked women protestors in front of the Kangla Fort in 2004 on the audio track at the end of the narrative on women's resistance with shots of the Women's War Memorial and live pictures of women activists. One also wonders why the two different incidents are juxtaposed together provoking various interpretations which also lead to the ambiguity of the film text.

A brief shot of Irom Sharmila accompanied by an invoking silence, and a lone lotus and the green field with fluttering of paddy plants with the sounds of storm as the three frames that immediately followed the archival shot of the Nupi Lan signifies another aspect of the film: the use of semiotic of silence and sound. Silence in the film becomes a part of music which has its own peculiar semiotic partaking of a sign-relationship understood in terms of intersubjective communication with the other bits of the film.

A striking feature of Langgoi Challabi is the use of popular patriotic songs as a critical part of its narrative. Foregrounding communicative aspects of songs, the film makes use of popular patriotic songs such as

Sana leipak Manipur, Manipur/
Koloi nangi Manipur, Manipur/
laija nungi mani, narakki leirang/
piktakna mangal chaobini

(The land of Jewels, Manipur, Manipur/
Thy name is Manipur/
Pearls of the deep water/
The flower amidst the herbs/
Tiny but a magnificent glow
Ho Ima! Poknapham Ima.../
nanggumbi leite Ima.../
Koina Thiduna, Lapna Chattuna/
Nanggumbi phangloi Ima...

(Oh Mother! Motherland.../
There is none like you, Mother.../
Search around and go forth long distance/
none will be there like you Mother...

The former song, which serves as a leitmotif of the film, is rendered thrice in different moods and tempos marking the narrative moments as the film moves from a romantic nostalgia towards a world of militarized conflicts through the mundane and ritualized realities of contemporary Manipur.

The other song Ho Ima! Poknapham Ima... (Oh Mother! Motherland...) is employed ironically on a very emotionally sensitive visual scene of emergency treatment of a dying man during the incident of 18th June 2001. Although the manner in which this song is used in the film invokes a powerful emotion that reminds one of the sentiments of June 2001 incident, it seems to divert from the leitmotif of the film and seems more of sentimental treatment.

This is an aspect that characterizes the melodramatic underpinnings of the film, which is simultaneously, and ironically, seems to emerge from a postmodern intellectual dilemma. I wonder whether this noticeable melodramatic flavour of the film is a reflection of the aesthetic taste of the filmmaker or the influence of the popular cinematic taste in Manipur or the poetic nature of the reality the film engages with.

But what has left an indelible mark on me stems from the same flavor: the haunting melody of the vocal invocation, particularly towards the end. This invocation underscores the hermeneutic power of the rustic and soulful music by Heisnam Tomba. His music and the excellent editing by Tamcha (of Mami Saami fame) and Chaoba Thiyam make this short film a worth-watching experience.

* Usham Rojio is a frequent contributor to (and eRang)
The sender can be contacted at urojio(at)gmail(dot)com
This article was webcasted on January 14 2010.


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