Through all my years of growing up in Manipur, the cinema halls and their surroundings were the most happening place. They were the social hub where hawkers, black marketers, pedestrians, young couples, families and friends gathered, and restaurants and tea shops dotted the area. Till the early 2000s, watching a film—whether made in Bollywood, Hollywood or Manipur—meant a trip to the theatre, meeting people and having fun.
The previous generations speak fondly of the day Matamgi Manipur (Present Day Manipur), the first full-length Manipuri feature film, was screened in 1972, fifty years ago. For the first time, we saw our own people on the silver screen speaking our language.
Today, only two cinema theatres that screen Manipuri films remain in Imphal, Usha Cinema and Friends Talkies. The rest of the theatres have shut down or turned into shopping centres. Until early 2000, there were around 60 cinema halls across the state. Thoibi, who did not want to give another name, has made a living re-selling tickets in black at Friends Talkies in Imphal’s Paona Bazaar for the past two decades. “Earnings are miniscule now,” she says. “It is very difficult these days. We make about Rs200 a day at most.” With just two shows a day—11a.m. and 2p.m.—and fewer movie-goers, ticket sales have dropped over the past decade.
In the 80s and 90s, women like Thoibi made a considerable amount everyday buying tickets in bulk from the counter and selling it for at a higher price. Back then, cinema tickets were in demand and it was hard to get tickets to new films. Men would be physically fighting their way to the ticket counter to book. It’s not just Manipur, across the country, theatre tickets are no longer in demand as streaming services release new films on their platforms, and audiences have found more comfortable and convenient ways to catch their favourite movies.
After video cassettes arrived in Manipur, cable television followed, leading to a huge setback for cinema halls, and film makers, producers and all those associated with the industry. Manipur has seen the transition from celluloid to digital, and the shift to OTT has affected revenues of theatres further.
In his recent book, Manipuri Cinema, which chronicles the history of 50 years of cinema in the state, Meghachandra Kongbam writes, “The advent of cable TV and video led to closure of cinema halls across India in the later part of 1980s… Manipuri cinema met a major crisis in the exhibition sector in 2000 following the ban of Hindi films in cinema halls.” In the mid-1990s, he writes, the state government earned ₹1 crore per year from cinema halls, a remarkable amount for a small state like Manipur. By 2002, that dropped to just over ₹4 lakh.
In 2000, the insurgent group Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF) imposed an indefinite ban on screening of Hindi films in cinema halls and rent or sale of cassettes in video parlours. The ban was to protest the custodial death of its central bureau secretary at the hands of the Assam Rifles on 10 September 2000. In retaliation, the Assam Rifles played Hindi film songs at top volume through their public address systems in Imphal, and regularly screened Hindi films for free at its headquarters at Kangla Fort. Kongbam says all this dealt a blow that filmmakers in Manipur are struggling to recover from. The ban on Hindi films continues.
Kongbam’s book provides an understanding of the struggles, setbacks and successes of Manipuri cinema through essays and anecdotes. A tribute to the first generation of filmmakers, producers and actors of Manipur, Kongbam’s book also provides an overall picture of how cinema shaped the socio-political landscape of Manipur over five decades. “This book essentially captures the spirit of filmmakers, their enthusiasm, their struggles. It is a tribute to the film pioneers of the state,” says Kongbam.
Among the pioneers he has dwelt on is, of course, Matamgi Manipur, directed by Debkumar Bose, which made its debut on 9 April 1972. The day of its release is commemorated as mami numit (birth of cinema) in Manipur. It went on to win the President’s Silver Medal for the best regional film at the 20thNational Film Awards in 1972. Other films followed, including Imagi Ningthem, Inshanou, Phijigee Maniand Loktak Lairembi, winning national and international acclaim.
This year, Manipur is observing the 50th anniversary of the state’s cinema and the Manipur State Film Development Society (MSFDS) has organised film festivals, talks and other events. It has been a chance to revive the old camaraderie around movie watching and filmmaking.
At the MSFDS lawn recently, a group of young women were chatting and giggling as they waited for more friends to arrive for a film screening. “After a long lockdown, this is so nice, to come out and meet friends,” said one of them. “We get to meet, have fun and watch films.” The group has been visiting the MSFDS regularly ever since the Golden Jubilee event started last year.
MSFDS secretary Sunzu Bachaspatimayum the shows brought to life “the dream of an evening life”. Film screenings have been held till late in the evening with the public thronging the auditorium. MSFDS has also set upthe S.N. Chand Film Archive and Museum as a tribute to S.N. Chand, the first film-maker from the state. “This is an initiative to preserve our film heritage and make Manipur a thriving hub of cinema,” Bachaspatimayum said. “We have separate rooms for the vault, archive, museum, conservation room. Trained student-volunteers have begun the work of conservation.”
The society is also proud of its efforts to restore and digitiseS.N. Chand’s film Brojendragee Luhongba (1972), which was screened recently for younger audiences who had never seen the filmmaker’s work. “It was in very bad condition. It could have been lost,” he says. “We are able to save it.” Apart from the special festivals to mark the golden jubilee, MSFDS has been holding regular, ticketed screenings at its auditorium. “We are not making a huge profit, but we are not running at a loss either,” he says.
Bryan Akoijam, founder MD of Tantha Entertainment, who helps organise the film shows, says the purpose is to bring people together. “We want to use film to recreate a social space that has been lost, especially during the pandemic years.”
Ninglun Hanghal is an independent journalist based in Imphal.