'Haobam Paban Kumar’s Nine Hills and One Valley – A Personal and Political Journey of Manipur,' Kalpa Jyoti Bhuyan takes an insightful look at this film.
Screened as part of the Indian Gold section of the 22nd Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, Nine Hills and One Valley is Haobam Paban Kumar’s second feature film after the National Award winning Loktak Lairembee (Lady of the Lake). Made in Manipuri and Tangkhul language, the story of Nine Hills and One Valley follows Anam Ahum, a Tangkhul from the hills, as he travels to Imphal to see his daughter. Throughout the journey, he greets and meets a diverse set of individuals. And as he becomes an active listener to their stories, the film silently exposes us to the perennially dire state of affairs in Manipur.
Because of the fact that it feels so real, it would have been more appropriate to classify Kumar's film as a docu-drama rather than limiting it solely to a fictional narrative. It is very thought-provoking and it lacks the kind of narrative and structure that a film should have which almost makes it a documentary. However, despite the fact that the characters are played by non-professionals, the participants are aware that they are part of a film which very much makes it a ‘constructed’ reality if not a strict ‘representation’ of reality.
Much like Jafar Panahi’s 2015 Iranian film Taxi Tehran, Kumar's Nine Hills and One Valley too blends fact with fiction. With a man behind the wheel guiding the journey, it makes us, the audiences, stand witness to uncomfortable questions about the existing hill-valley conundrum, rise in ethnic conflicts and the role of an indifferent polity in Manipur. Only here, unlike Panahi, Kumar is not forbidden from making movies.
As Anam Ahum , the central character of the film, offers a ride to the various passengers he come across while on his journey, he also tries to engage them in a conversation wherein they put forth the different aspects of Manipuri society and their personal challenges of living through such difficult times. They lament about lives being lost, houses being burnt, and the collective difficulties being shared. The film is a very subtle ode to the simplicity of human lives and how peace is disrupted by the sledge hammering consequences of the politics of identity and difference.
The film also operates as a beginners guide to the politics of Manipur but not in the grand old traditional fashion of political dramas. The static shots of inside the van makes us equally a part of Ahum's journey as we silently witness the conversation taking place from the back seat of his van, trying to empathise with the plight of a Northeast Indian girl enduring racial discrimination in Delhi, a football player who has disappeared and is most likely to have joined the insurgency movement, the Kuki-Naga conflict, and the tragedy of a house on fire.
A character silently marks his regrets about the previously existing inter-cultural bonds between the tribes and sub-tribes of Manipur as he reflects on the sad plight of the current enmity that dominates this divide. Another places his faith on a hopeful future in which the nine hills and the valley will be united. However, the film is not a micro-level study of these characters, but rather of the society as a whole, and it maintains its critical voice throughout.
Director Haobam Paban Kumar adopts a bold way to show these sensitive issues of a state burning in the flames of hatred and negligence. It questions the developmental agenda of the government and critiques its policies. In fact, the movie begins and ends with a mass protest symbolising the everydayness of such events. Any productivity that takes place is between such demonstrations only.
Despite this, hope persists in the face of painful remorse. The character of an evangelist bears Kumar's representation of hope who found new meaning in religion after a personal tragedy. It’s unclear as to what the writer-director wants to suggest or infer from the character but the public seems to be unconcerned about religion as well as discontented with the political circus at play. They are just concerned about the ongoing violence and feebleness of their future.
A high angle wide establishing shot of an ongoing religious congregation inside a church takes place where the crowd below is reduced to miniature version of themselves. The energetic speaker dives right into the aspect of cultural assertion. When the shot shifts to the reaction of the audience present inside the church, they appear to be anything but interested. Aside from that, the faces of the people are rarely the focus of attention because the importance resides in the conversations that take place and the stories that are being shared. These issues that are devouring the state are experiences and concerns that are shared by and appeal to all.
A woman describes how she had escaped from what appears to be an ethnic persecution earlier in her life, during which she lost numerous members of her family. The fact that the images of her telling the incident are presented via a cell phone video demonstrates how these stories are frequently used for news and views, but very little is done to find a solution.
But despite the film's humanist voices successfully registering a protest in this regard, Haobam Paban Kumar's politically conscious filmmaking might be a drag for viewers who are already exposed to similar kind of films, and its 75-minute run time won’t suffice to bail it out. However, the back stories of the characters make it engrossing and intriguing enough to keep it going.