Manipuri Vaishnava Cinema: Aribam Syam Sharma's contribution to Indian Cinema
'Laparoscopic Cinemascapes' works as not only a testimonial to Aribam Syam Sharma’s brilliance as a filmmaker, but it could also be considered as a manifesto of the Manipuri Vaishnava cinema., writes Aditya Modak, filmmaker and author based in Tripura.
‘Joshy Joseph’s documentary film Laparoscopic Cinemascapes (2022) not only facilitates further research and academic writing on Syam Sharma's cinema, but it is also testament to his immense knowledge of the cinematic arts’, writes Aditya Modak, a filmmaker and author from Tripura.
When it comes to the regional cinemas of India, one of the most illustrious industries is located in Manipur. Releasing about one hundred films a year, the Manipuri film industry is not only productively consistent, but is also entirely self-sufficient – a result of the Manipuri films’ cultural specificities that help them with their regional popularity. Also, with the absence of the popular Hindi cinema's hegemony over the cultural sphere of the state, the regional film industry in Manipur continues to thrive.
One name inseparably linked with Manipuri cinema is that of Aribam Syam Sharma. For as long as Manipuri cinema (or Northeast Indian cinema for that matter) continues to be discussed, Aribam Syam Sharma will always be regarded as one of the most influential filmmakers who not only shaped Manipuri cinema, giving it a unique identity, but also took it to international platforms, garnering worldwide acclaim. Despite his magnanimous contribution to the field of cinema, there have not been much intensive scholarly works done on Syam Sharma in the mainstream academic fields of Film Studies or Cultural Studies, and his works remain relatively underappreciated in mainstream media and academia. Joshy Joseph’s documentary film Laparoscopic Cinemascapes (2022) not only facilitates further research and academic writing on Syam Sharma's cinema, but it is also testament to his immense knowledge of the cinematic arts. The film provides a preliminary (yet extensive) groundwork for looking at Syam Sharma as a visionary filmmaker and thinker with his own unique take on films. His unique use of film language gives his films their Manipuri identity. Thus, it might even be possible to formulate a certain kind of “Manipuri film theory” through the points he elucidates in Laparoscopic Cinemascapes.
Before getting into the discussion of Syam Sharma’s use of film language, a few of his accolades need to be acknowledged.
Aribam Syam Sharma stepped into the world of cinema as an actor, appearing in the first ever Manipuri film, Matamgi Manipur (1972). He made his directorial debut in 1980 with Olangthagee Wangmadasoo (Even Beyond the Summer Horizon), which has the distinction of being the longest-running film in Manipuri history, having a theatrical run that lasted more than thirty weeks, breaking the local box office records of Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay. His 1990 feature film Ishanou (The Chosen One) (which he discusses in Joseph’s documentary) was screened in the ‘Un Certain Regard’ section of the 1991 Cannes Film Festival. But that is only the tip of the iceberg, as Syam Sharma’s impressive filmography has received appreciation and accolades from film festivals, critics and cinephiles from all over the world.
As an aspiring filmmaker from Tripura, listening to Syam Sharma in Laparoscopic Cinemascapes has inspired me to sail the unexplored waters of the cinematic arts. His approach towards filmmaking as a blend of tradition, culture, and cinema should be followed in order to truly configure the socio-cultural and political potency of regional cinema, so that it could be specific to its region while also having a universal appeal. This specificity is usually conceived to be on the level of content, but as Syam Sharma explains, it can also be conceived in the level of film form.
Instead of following the popular or mainstream cinematic traditions, a regional film becomes impactful when it follows a structure that resonates well with the cultural and social sphere it represents. For Syam Sharma, the most distinguishing feature of the Manipuri culture is their traditional music and dance. The Manipuri Raas Leela, also known as the Manipuri Dance, is one of the eight Indian classical dance forms, and it is through this dance form that Syam Sharma formulates his film theory.
In Laparoscopic Cinemascapes, Aribam Syam Sharma talks about the purpose of his film language, which, according to him, is to find out the “Manipuriness” of the Raas dance form, and through it, the Manipuriness that can be conveyed through Manipuri cinema. There are some fundamental questions whose answers he aims to find out by making films - what have the Manipuris contributed to the world? What is the most “important” or distinguishing feature of the Manipuri culture?
Most Hindu Manipuris are adherents of Vaishnavism. In Sanatana Dharma, the sampradayas get shaped according to their regional socio-cultural specificities. Similarly, Manipuri Vaishnavism is something very unique that pertains to the people of Manipur. Aribam Syam Sharma holds the Manipuri Vaishnava culture in very high regard, and it forms the basis of his film language. In a way, therefore, the form of Manipuri cinema that he perfects (and theorizes) can be termed as the “Manipuri Vaishnava cinema” or simply “Vaishnava cinema.” Vaishnava cinema does not have to be connected to the Vaishnava movement’s religious connotations, but it should be understood as a film philosophy, as a mode of communication, and as a form of aesthetics. One of the key tenets of Vaishnavism is simplicity, and Syam Sharma’s Vaishnava cinema aspires to adhere to a “simple” mode of communication and aesthetics. In Laparoscopic Cinemascapes, he mentions a popular Vaishnava saying, “You must be simple like grass,” which he adopted as a guiding force for his films. But alongside the simplicity, he emphasizes on the importance of “high thinking.” Both have to exist simultaneously in order to make a Manipuri Vaishnava film. While the visual components of the films need to be simple in their presentation, their connotations and purpose need to be intellectually competent and thought-provoking.
Intricately connected with Manipuri Vaishnavism is the Manipuri Raas Leela. This is perhaps the most distinguishing element of the Manipuri traditions, and one of the most famous classical dance forms of India. Its popular iconicity has rendered it a cultural identity that is purely and inseparably Manipuri. Depicting the Manipuri Raas Leela on film, however, is an extremely difficult task. This is what Aribam Syam Sharma aspired to figure out in his films – the “Manipuriness” in the Raas Leela. But performance arts like this cannot be easily depicted, or even filmed, in the cinematic medium. Be it the pre-Vaishnavite dance of Lai Haraoba or the Vaishnava Nata Sankirtan, Shyam Sharma’s goal has been to search for the Manipuri identity inherent in these dance forms, and the most effective way of doing this was through the application of Vaishnava philosophy in his film language. This Manipuri Vaishnava philosophy, expressed through these dance forms, according to him, are a “way of expression” that “must be kept, because this form of art... belongs to this world... [O]nce it’s lost, it will be lost forever.” (Aribam Sharma, Laparoscopic Cinemascapes.)
In performance arts like dance or drama, expressions are very important. Syam Sharma emphasizes on the “importance of expressions in their whole totality” – expressions that are not just limited to facial expressions, as is common in cinema, but rather bodily expressions that are derived from and linked with the Manipuri Raas Leela.
In the Manipuri Raas Leela, there is no use of facial expressions. This is one of the major characteristic features that sets it apart from other Indian classical dance forms such as Kathak or Bharatnatyam, for instance. In Manipuri Raas Leela, the dancers’ faces are covered with the Meikhumbi (a transparent veil, which is a signification of the Bhakti Raas). Due to this absence of facial expressions, the use of the close-up in the dance’s cinematic depiction (or adaptation) becomes unnecessary. That is why Aribam Syam Sharma has always tried to avoid using close-ups in his films as much as possible, focusing more on the other physical aspects of human expression. For him, capturing the personality is more important than capturing just an “image.” The close-up has a very strong political use, as it serves as a means of familiarizing the spectator with the on-screen character(s). But when it comes to the filmic adaptation of the Raas Leela, the face itself becomes unimportant. Syam Sharma, however, suggests an interesting exception in his opinion on the use of the close-up.
While the face loses its importance in the Vaishnava/Raas film, rendering the close-up unfit, when it comes to documenting reality or a non-fictional subject, the close-up retains its value as an important method of establishing the subjectivity of a character. Following this line of thought, Syam Sharma supports the exceptional use of close-up in only one case – while filming the Iron Lady of Manipur, Irom Chanu Sharmila. In order to faithfully capture moments that could represent parts of the essence of her being – what she put herself through, the nature of her protest, and its importance in the state’s history – and in order to make a political statement using the camera and the cinematic screen, the close-up becomes important. Filming Chanu Sharmila’s eyes is important, because according to Syam Sharma, her expression gets its power through her eyes. He believes that for documenting the powerful personality of the Iron Lady, the close-up has to be used, and it has to be done meticulously. A vapid, “ugly” image would never suffice; her image would have to carry the traces of her energy, of her revolutionary spirit. And these could only be witnessed in her eyes. Here lies the “close-up conundrum,” where Syam Sharma’s disinclination towards using the close-up finds an exception. Joshy Joseph comments on this in his documentary, saying: “Syam Sharma... avoided more close-ups in his films, because Syam Sharma believed in the body of the actor who expressed through the entire body. And the same Syam Sharma is now seeing not only a close-up, but a macro close-up of Sharmila.”
Syam Sharma makes a statement on finding one’s own way of expressing ideas in cinema, which is not only an important advice for aspiring filmmakers, but also a political way of using cinema. The Classical Hollywood film form has become so standardized that the same old filmmaking techniques continue to be used by filmmakers all around the world, regardless of their own geographical or cultural identities. Any kind of deflection from the norm as standardized by Hollywood gets under the umbrella of “counter cinema” – as something revolutionary. But every film has the opportunity to be revolutionary if it does not abide strictly by the rules set by the traditional narrative film form, and finds its own ways of expressing ideas. According to Syam Sharma, the age-old “tools” of filmmaking that have been passed on from generation to generation can never suffice to explain what an artist wishes to articulate. His call for a cinema with a unique identity of its own resonates with Satyajit Ray’s idea of a “truly Indian” cinema (in his 1948 essay “What’s Wrong with Indians Films”) – a cinema different from that of Hollywood and the mainstream – a cinema that does not necessarily have to be regarded as counter cinema or just an alternative to the Classical Hollywood form, but rather a cinema having its own unique identity. In Syam Sharma’s case, it was the Manipuri cinema, which, through the employment of Manipuri Vaishnava philosophy, led to the development of the Vaishnava cinema – a cinema that is inherently Manipuri in essence, with a kind of “dusty cinematography” that signifies Manipur's environs. A good film does not necessarily have to be a good-looking film, with impeccable cinematography and grand images. The out-of-focus images, the shaky camera movements, the dusty landscapes, the unexpressed outbursts of emotions – all these could actually make the experience of film-watching feel more intimate. According to Syam Sharma, as it was to Pier Paolo Pasolini, cinema has the potential of being similar to poetry.
Laparoscopic Cinemascapes works as not only a testimonial to Aribam Syam Sharma’s brilliance as a filmmaker, but it could also be considered as a manifesto of the Manipuri Vaishnava cinema. As an experimental filmmaker from the Northeast, one of my major projects has been to figure out all the radical ways in which cinema can transgress its formal boundaries. Aribam Syam Sharma has opened up more avenues to explore this area by considering the possibilities of cinema as a participatory medium. He attempts to theorize it through the Maha Raas, an event where both the performers and the audience participate. According to him, the only proper way of depicting or even shooting the Maha Raas would be through such a mutual participation – something that he admits he has been unable to do. The question, whether this kind of an interactive cinema (akin, perhaps, to the interactive theatre) could exist, is raised by him, and its answer is yet to be found. Whenever the answer does get found, and when it gets practically employed, it could bring a revolution in the world of cinema.
Recently, at the Northeast Film Festival 2023 held at NFDC, an attendee raised the question of Aribam Syam Sharma not receiving the Dadasaheb Phalke Award during an interactive session. Although the discussions moved on to other topics, this question struck me as an important query, which could not really produce a simple answer. According to the official website of the Directorate of Film Festivals, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award is conferred on artists in recognition of their “outstanding contribution to the growth and development of Indian cinema.” It goes without saying that Aribam Syam Sharma’s legendary career fulfils, and even exceeds, this criterion. With the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting’s continuous efforts to promote the cinema of the Northeast, it is only viable to expect the Government of India to felicitate one of the pioneers of Manipuri cinema, who not only shaped the Manipuri art film industry, but also provided the framework for making films which would be “intimately” Indian. Aribam Syam Sharma has inspired generations of filmmakers to follow their creative instincts, and his name will always shine bright in the glorious history of Indian cinema. The Dadasaheb Phalke Award would only be a small token of appreciation for all his efforts, but it would be a priceless token, nonetheless.