A hundred films in five years is big. Large enough to make the likes of King Khan, Big B, Katrina Kaif, Priyanka Chopra and their ilk stop dead in their tracks. But for Kamala, 22, who has acted in over 100 Manipuri films since 2003, and Sadananda, who has played the lead in over 50 in the past four years, the spotlight came easy.
In September 2000, an insurgent outfit, Revolutionary People’s Front, issued death threats to theatre owners and cable operators. Hindi film posters were torn down. The ban, intended to isolate the state from the rest of the country, brought the curtains down on the dozen or so cinema halls.
As the last theatres were dimming the lights, some directors and producers got the cameras rolling, starting a new wave of Manipuri films in video format. Theatres switched from celluloid to digital, some making do with a DVD player hooked to a projector. These films are produced on a budget of Rs 2–6 lakh and lead actors get Rs 25,000–30,000. Manipuri films come with Bollywood-style song-and-dance routines. At first, even non-Manipuri stars acted in them. And, hold your breath, Lata Mangeshkar, Udit Narayan, Kavita Krishnamurthi and Alka Yagnik have all lent their voices to these films.
From its first feature in 1972, Manipur has bagged nine international and ten national awards. Although filmmakers mostly take their cues from Bollywood, their work also reflects endemic social conditions. Mami-Sami, for instance, dwells on militancy in the state.
The silver-screen rush has made stars out of ordinary Manipuri boys and girls. With fan bases cutting across political factions and communities, popular actors often play peace ambassadors and are adored in villages and cities alike.
But the very fear that gave Manipuri cinema a new momentum is now threatening to stifle it. Last year, two insurgent outfits, the Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup and the United National Liberation Front, attacked the Bollywood-style song-and-dance routines and Western clothes seen in these films. Several filmmakers packed up. Says director Oken Amakchan: “I stopped making commercial films since I had no creative independence.”
However, Manipuri cinema has learnt to cope with adversity. As Sadananda puts it: “Manipuri cinema is all about a few lights, one camera and lots of action.”