‘Come back before dark’ are words that every young person in Manipur has heard ad nauseum. Of course, repetition does not make them irrelevant. Depending on the prevailing political situation, or the level of insecurity, these words can take the form of advice or a threat, uttered every time one steps out of the house. And these words are relevant to Manipuris of all ages, ethnicities and genders, though especially young men. Amidst the fear that pervades the Imphal Valley after sunset, though, the pursuit of entertainment remains an ongoing one.
This writer remembers an evening in late 2009, when large groups of excited people – young and old, male and female – were heading towards a public compound, locally called a lampak, in the Wangkhei area of Imphal. Lampaks generally serve as community spaces, a sort of unenclosed park. A moora (a low cane stool) in hand, chewing on paan following an early dinner, most of the people were discussing the day’s events while heading towards the night’s shumang leela, literally meaning ‘courtyard play’. An all-male troupe, the Peace Maker Artiste Association, was performing the popular play 21st century gi kunti (Kunti of the 21st Century). The storyline revolved around the impact of being exposed to cultures different from those that are indigenous to traditional, conservative Manipur.
As the play progressed, the theme became distinctly political, reflecting the shift in the ideologies of those who went underground in the name of revolution, and how some came back aboveground and joined mainstream politics. On stage, the actors also explored the distancing from ideology in the so-called revolutionary movement in Manipur, and the transference of allegiances from the side of the rebels to the embrace of the state. That six unique productions of the Shumang Leela have been produced to date are proof of its popularity. Then again, perhaps the crowds are testament not to the power of the performance but rather to the stark reality that the occasional play, film screening or concert is the extent of the night-time entertainment available in Manipur today.
A more benign time
This was not always the case. During the 1980s, families would commonly head out to watch films after work, carrying their sleeping children back home late in the evening. Streams of people walking down the streets of Imphal, on their way home after the 6 pm film showing was a routine sight. One of this writer’s lasting memories is catching the last show of the martial-arts film Fists of Fury (1972), and falling asleep after complaining about Bruce Lee roasting a frog and eating it. Little did I know then that Bruce Lee, and other popular stars, would soon disappear from the big screen in Manipur.
For those who grew up in Imphal during the 1980s, what the city has become over the past two decades comes as a great shock. In 1980, the entire state was declared a ‘disturbed area’ under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958 (AFSPA), greatly impacting on people’s day-to-day lives. Adding to these problems, the 1990s were a time of internecine violence between the Naga and Kuki, two major tribal groups of Manipur. Thereafter, in the 2000s, the people of Manipur lived with the consequences of the preceding two decades, particularly marked by the degeneration of the various movements into extortionism and thuggery.
During this time, assorted armed groups and civil-society bodies also have also undertaken moral policing. So-called ‘cabin restaurants’ were banned to control ‘immoral activities’, while self-declared guardians of the people could often be seen publicly ‘disciplining’ drug addicts. In 2001, one of the insurgent groups, Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) even imposed a diktat that Manipuri girls and women wearing saris, salwars or trousers would be shot dead on sight, though this was widely defied. The KYKL issued another decree in 2005, implemented across the valley, insisting that school-going girls in Class 9 or higher wear only the phanek, the traditional sarong-type dress worn by women.
One of the most visible signs of the deteriorating times was the demise of late-night film showings. The 6-9 pm show ceased to exist, even though the current last show, from 4 to 6 pm, is more often than not cancelled due to the lack of customers, as most are still at work or school. ‘Who wants to risk getting back home after dark?’ says a frustrated Oinam Dinesh, a young distributor in Imphal. ‘Only when the film is a big hit do some people come in to see it. Further, with the scarcities due to the economic blockade, who will use hard-gotten, expensive fuel to go and watch a film?’
That these theatres continue to exist at all is perhaps something to celebrate. After the Revolutionary People’s Front banned the screening of Hindi films in 2000, most cinemas in the valley resorted to screening English, Nepali, Bengali and other regional films. But that too ceased after a few months – there were no takers for most of these, while English-language movies were often deemed unfit for family viewing. In time, the void left by the forced disappearance of Hindi films was partially filled by the introduction of digital Manipuri films. The first among these, Lanmei (Wildfire), was released in 2002, paving the way for a wave of others. Despite the immediacy of the politics being played out in the state, these films still revolve around romance and drama. And this is perhaps understandable. ‘Patriotism and subjects that deal directly with conflict are still not very popular among filmmakers, as there is the problem of censorship,’ says Narendra Ningombam, president of the Critic Association (Film) of Manipur. ‘Filmmakers want to play it safe by not antagonising any of the rebel groups.’
Yet the new local films found it hard to keep their audience, perhaps in part because of their lack of relevance or immediacy. Soon, many of the cinema halls in Imphal were turned into schools and business centres. Before the ban, ten major cinema halls functioned in the Imphal area, along with many smaller ones. Since the ban, seven of the major halls have shut down, while the remaining three generally have only two daily shows.
In contrast, the Shumang Leela and the other forms of theatre, enacted in an enclosed space with a proper stage, do not shy away from addressing issues related to the conflict. ‘The history of leela and drama started with satire,’ says Ningombam, who was involved in one of the first theatre productions to directly address the conflict. ‘Even during the monarchy, there were plays that mocked the king. There was and still is more freedom in plays. There is no censorship for plays, unlike films.’ Speaking about his own experience, Ningombam says that the audience’s response was overwhelming: ‘This was a play that people could relate to, as it reflected their personal crisis.’ Indeed, it was shown at three shraddha ceremonies – Hindu death rituals – at the request of the families of the deceased, all killed either by state forces.
Still, opportunities for entertainment of all kinds have decreased drastically in Manipur over the last two decades. Collectively, this has been a clear further blow to the state’s social fabric, already in tatters due to the unstable law and order situation, with depression and anxiety having become widespread. On cold winter nights, this writer’s mother would sit outside the house, refusing to go to bed. When asked what she was doing, she would say, ‘I am enjoying the moonlight.’ But many moonless nights made it clear that the moon itself held no fascination for her: in fact, she was waiting for her son to come back home. It was no different in many households across Manipur. Nightlife, as it exists in many parts of peaceful India, never really existed in Manipur. Nevertheless, after the 1980s the situation deteriorated further – even the occasional dinner parties, staying over at friend’s place or a leisurely walking after dinner, became dangerous luxuries. As such, parents in Manipur still have no option but to tell their children to ‘come back before dark’.
~ Akoijam Sunita is a freelance journalist based in Imphal, Manipur.