For those living in the Northeast, gun shots and bomb blasts are a way of life. It is, therefore, only befitting that a heartening story of hope should have its roots in war.
After the bombing of Manipur by the Japanese in 1944, American aircrafts flew in supplies and soldiers to the northeastern state, and also brought along their favourite sport — baseball. The Manipuris, battling conflict for close to five decades, have taken to the American sport that has, otherwise, very few followers in India.
American filmmaker Mirra Bank’s The Only Real Game documents Manipur’s enduring interest in the game. “The film is a love story, and like all classic love stories, it traces a winding path from infatuation and hope through struggle and disappointment, arriving finally at the question of whether a great passion can triumph over obstacles. In the case of Manipur though, the disappointments are daunting and many of the problems remain, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’,” says Bank, who made the movie at the behest of co-producer Muriel Peters.
Peters, now 85, first went to Manipur as part of a cultural delegation arranged by film curator Shomi Roy in 1991. Peters, an ardent baseball enthusiast, found in Manipur, a “terrific but hardscrabble league play”, says Bank. People who have been playing the game for generations, made their own rudimentary balls and mitts. A bunch of women players approached Peters for help and it led to First Pitch, an organisation to help baseball players. First Pitch enlisted the help of sports equipment manufacturer Spalding, which sent hundreds of mitts and balls for the players. They brought in Jeff Breuggmann and Dave Palese, two coaches of the Major League Baseball International, an organisation that promotes the game internationally, to coach trainers and players, and help develop the game in the state.
The 82-minute documentary, narrated by Academy Award-winning actor Melissa Leo, captures coaching sessions with various players. Thirty-five-year-old Thoibi, who’s been playing baseball since 1985, declares that the game is “more important than my husband”. For coach Bhanu, who travels to the US as part of a First Pitch exchange programme, it is a way of redeeming the legacy of his father who had been gunned down by insurgents. Lalit finds it hard to explain his passion for the game to his father and his girlfriend. For Raju, working at his sister’s tea stall, the game holds out the hope of an escape to a better life.
In a state with 25% unemployment, rampant corruption and almost no governance, women lead the fight against drugs and guns. “When we take the field to play, we are living in a different world. All that matters is the game,” says Devika, who works in an NGO that works with HIV/AIDS afflicted patients.
“We set out to make a light movie about baseball. As it was made, we realised this is the story of Manipur’s struggles,” says Peters. When they started out, foreigners needed to get special permits, each lasting 10 days, to travel to the state. “It took us an awfully long time. We had to keep going back,” she says.
“As a conflict zone, Manipur had essentially been closed to outsiders since 1958, when it was declared a ‘disturbed area’. There were daily curfews, disruptions by insurgency, days without internet and electricity. But I regularly went out without security,” says Bank.
The documentary bagged the best documentary award at this year’s New York Indian Film Festival (NYIFF) and was also screened at the Mumbai International Film Festival. “The film is a fascinating and rare look at the Manipuris’ passion and their daily struggles — political and personal. We were very proud to show the film in New York, a city where baseball gets a lot of love,” says Aseem Chhabra, programming director, NYIFF.
Closer home, the movie had two screenings in Imphal last month, organised by Binalakshmi Nepram of the Manipuri Gun Survivors Network. “It was a reunion that I had dreamed of for six years. I hope the film invigorates help for the baseball community,” says Banks. Nepram echoes the sentiment: “I hope the film helps people understand what Manipur is all about, and helps bring solutions to five decades of violence.” Amen to that.