Ms Mollywood : The male-dominated Manipuri film industry is in the throes of change — more and more women are producing films

Posted on: December 5, 2011

Urikhinbam Devita Devi is home after a week-long shoot in Tripura. But the Manipuri superstar can’t put her feet up yet. She has to get up at the crack of dawn for another bout of filming at Kakching, 60 kilometres from Imphal. Devita, 25, is racing against time to finish work on her second home production — Gobrindage Sarikmakhal (Sound of Bells).

There is a reason Devita would rather make her own films than work in others’ productions. “I want to make meaningful cinema with women-centric roles,” says Devita who shot into fame as an actor in the 2008 film Lakhipurgee Lakhipyari(Lakhipyari of Lakhipur).

Like Devita, more and more Manipuri women are producing films. The Manipuri film industry — locally known as Mollywood — has so far been dominated by men. But in recent times, women have been seeking a toehold — and they are doing so by becoming producers.

“In most of our films, the protagonist is a man,” says Devita. As a film producer, she feels she can change that. Her 2008 hit Echan, produced by her banner, Ibhudhou Thangjing Film Productions, also had a woman lead.

More than 20 of the 65 producers registered with the All Manipur Video Film Makers and Producers Association (AMVFMPA) — a federation of filmmakers — are women. And most of them are also successful actors.

Some of the actors believe that film production is financially more viable than acting. “New faces pop up every day and the bitter truth is that lead roles don’t come after a point of time,” says actor-producer Saikham Kamla, 24. “The best option is to become a producer to keep the cash registers ringing,” says Kamla, who formed her production house — Sai Media Productions — two years ago after starring in over 120 films in five years. Her debut production — Nagsu Mouni (You are a Woman too) collected Rs 6 lakh — almost double the sum she invested.

In some cases though, production is the way to finding fame as an actor. Marina Laihingbam was only 20 when she borrowed Rs 4 lakh from her father to produce Radha Rani, six years ago. “The film was a big hit and I earned six times the sum I had invested,” says Laihingbam, who has played the lead in eight other films she has produced so far.

Another reason women are turning producers is that it doesn’t take much to fund a film. Compared to the big brothers — Tollywood or the much bigger Bollywood — the Rs 4-crore Manipuri film industry runs on a small scale.

Local film production picked up after the outlawed Revolutionary People’s Front banned the screening of Bollywood films in 2001 by branding them “obscene”. More than 150 Manipuri films are released every year. Most are shot on digital tapes with budgets as low as Rs 3-6 lakh.

In the initial years after the ban, Manipuris focused on producing music albums. “But in 2004, a similar ban was imposed on music albums. Since then, film production has boomed,” says cinematographer L. Surjakanta. “Though a large number of movies flop, youngsters still want to try their luck as even a moderately successful film can fetch them a profit of 20 to 30 per cent. In this poverty stricken state, filmmaking has become an option for earning quick fame and easy money.”

But not everyone is in it for a quick buck. Six women producers — Saroja, Shantibala, Sunitibala, Victoria, Survi and Umarani — are funding films because they want to focus on serious issues. In 2008, they producedYenning Amadi Likla (Spring and Dew), a film that dealt with the life of a poor child and a well-to-do childless couple. “The film attempts to understand the mind of a child and underlines the importance of foster care,” says Umarani, also a social worker.

The Rs 18-lakh film was critically acclaimed but a commercial dud. “We couldn’t earn more than Rs 1.5 lakh,” sighs Saroja.

Many of the women producers deal with issues that trouble Manipuri society. Sunitibala points out that the six producers’ future projects include films on issues such as militancy, drug abuse among youngsters and AIDS.

Devita is planning a film on Manipuri activist Irom Sharmila, who has been on a fast for the past 10 years demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. But the Film Forum, a regulatory body that vets every project, has not given her permission yet for the film, she says.

Another woman producer, Bandana, complains that the state doesn’t encourage filmmakers to focus on “real” issues. “I wanted to make a film on growing prostitution in Manipur but I didn’t get permission to shoot in the red light area,” she says.

While film production has become a career for young women in a state plagued by unrest and unemployment, the government has not been of much help to the industry. The 30-year-old Manipuri film industry, which has produced such gems as Matam Gee Manipur, supports at least 10,000 families. But the film sector has been striving for a studio, film laboratory and post-production equipment. “The lack of support from the government has led to a fall in the quality of films. More than 58 cinema halls are defunct now,” says filmmaker Salam Birendra.

The women filmmakers also complain of gender bias. “In this male dominated and conservative film industry, the sudden surge of women filmmakers is not welcomed,” says Diana Potsangbam, a producer and the sole woman director in Mollywood.

“Male filmmakers used to discourage me saying that this profession was not meant for us,” says the producer of the critically acclaimed Ahing Amadi Houkhrei (Night Has Gone) and Kubiba (Blessings). “I have also received threat calls asking me to leave the industry.”

Some men, of course, are moving with the times. “Working with women producers is enriching and exciting,” says Makhonmani Mongsaba, the award-winning director of Yenning Amadi Likla. The six women producers of the film, he says, were very disciplined and focused. “Their approach towards filmmaking was personal and not commercial.”

Sociologists say it will be a while before female producers are accepted by their male counterparts as able professionals. “Even though women from all economic strata step out of their homes to earn a livelihood, there is barely any respect for them in our society. The film industry is no exception,” says N. Vijaylakshmi Brara of the Centre for Manipur Studies at Manipur University.

AMVFMPA chief Ningthouja Lancha says steps are being taken to encourage participation of women in filmmaking. “We are organising special workshops. We would also like to propose to the state government that it provide them financial aid,” he says.

For the present, the women are happy with the promises — and hope that they will lead to bigger dreams. “I want to produce a Bollywood film one day and get national recognition,” says Devita.

Bollywood had better look out. In Manipur, dreams often merge with reality.

BELLE POTENT: Devita, seen here with co-star Gokul.

Picture credit: Sonia Sarkar



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