Reclaiming Time with Aribam Syam Sharma’s Imagi Ningthem and Ishanou

This year’s March did not begin right. The familiar incongruous blend of Yaosang and board exams was tinged with the growing fear of a disease that was almost visible at the horizon. Till then, it had mostly existed in news reports and memes featuring Mexican beer and aeroplanes with masks. I went out to see a concert on the fourth day of Yaosang. Later, after shaking hands with someone I was meeting for the first time, I cleaned my hands with a sanitiser. That night, I read a status update on Facebook that roundly abused the fools celebrating the festival in groups and crowds.  There were no reported victims yet. People were still flying in with only a thermal scan waiting to check if they were infected. All shops were open. We discussed the disease unhappily, but not with that massive shadow of fear and suspicion that would soon take hold once the lockdown was imposed, and the first victim identified.

When I returned home in the first week of April after my stay at RIMS, most leikai clubs had removed the fences they’d put up to prevent outsiders from entering the area. There were two confirmed victims by then. All the stuff we’d brought from the hospital—the Horlicks bottles, the utensils, the meds—were stored in a separate room for the time being. I washed myself and the clothes I’d worn recently, feeling extraordinarily dirty. As I went out into the terrace to dry the clothes, I inhaled with deliberation. For twelve days, I’d been breathing through masks. I did not come close to touching anybody else’s skin on those twelve days. The pharmacy wouldn’t take back unused meds anymore for refund. There was a slight shift in our way of life. It hadn’t changed completely; we were in a Green Zone, and our well-established acquaintance with shutdowns and curfews meant we weren’t exactly fish out of water. It was like how Google’s page changes when you search “askew”. The text tilts downwards, still readable but uncomfortably so. Unlike in the past, the curfew was more or less self-imposed now. You couldn’t go to a social media platform without seeing the hashtags: #stayhome #staysafe.

An unusual time, indeed. Suitably unusual for watching the cinema of Aribam Syam Sharma at home. His films aren’t commercially available. You won’t even find torrents in the innermost recesses of the internet. You’d have to wait for special screenings, and I could never attend whenever they were held. The timing was never right. As each screening passed, I’d let the opportunity go with regret. To watch them on your smartphone’s six inch display screen as you lie on your bed is a bizarre, albeit fitting, event.

That afternoon when Imagi Ningthem unfolded softly in black and white, the world outside my window was washed in mustard yellow. It was, as afternoons went, quiet. I listened to Dhani mull over her posting at a faraway village. I didn’t remember her. In fact, I didn’t remember most of the movie at all. The sole memory I had of Imagi Ningthem was the mother’s utterance of that line, “Imagi Ningthem”, in the final scene. That, too, I had remembered incorrectly. In my memory, Ekashini’s voice was raised; it was almost a shout, a desperate plea. Ekashini and Ningthem were faceless. The fact that I referred to the child as “Ningthem” instead of “Thoithoi” should show how many times my imprint of the movie had been smudged. I waited for the scene with hundreds of viewers, unaware of the shock that awaited me in turn. In the last scene, Ekashini, now alive in flesh and bone in the form of Kshetrimayum Rashi Devi, is grateful for the son who has chosen her. Her voice is molten with love as she christens him “Ningthem”. She sees only him. Ekashini’s rapturous claim of Thoithoi as her precious son is a quietly explosive testament to a mother’s love, just as Dhani remaining single to the end, devoted to her job and her students, is a decision that contemporary writers perhaps wouldn’t make.

Rashi & Master Leikhendra in Imagi Ninghtem

Imagi Ningthem stayed with me long after the screening had ended. I kept thinking of the strength shown by Dhani and Ekashini, not because they are strong women with agencies, but for the way they’re portrayed through the script, the direction, and the acting. Dhani is solid and righteous, while Ekashini, for all her exuberance and impulsiveness, is utterly fearless. Their compassion can be identified as the crux of the story. It is painted in strokes that are vividly alive 40 years later. But I was still not prepared for how Ishanou would affect me.

Time shapes and reshapes memory. Some places grow beyond their actual proportions, while others shrink. Sometimes, all you remember is the mood, separate from its visual and aural settings. Ishanou was one such mood. While time had eroded the memory of Imagi Ningthem, it had miraculously preserved my original impression of Ishanou. How young was I when I watched it? It’s hard to estimate the exact figure, but I can assign an adverb to it: very. A very young me saw in Ishanou a doomed love story, and I was, at least to myself, right. I watched it again as an adult and was touched by how the natural intimacy between two people in love was so beautifully rendered. It is tragic all the more so because the forces that draw them apart cannot be fought. The loss of Tampha is undoable, and Tampha’s own loss cannot be undone. The pain of those losses traumatised me as a child and wrecked me all over again this April.

I felt oddly cleansed after watching Ishanou.

Kiranmala in Ishanou (6) copy

Kiranmala in Ishanou

I make this statement, which is in danger of being read as a hyperbole, in a specific context. Aribam Syam Sharma’s films hold a special significance in Manipuri cinema. Combined with M K Binodini Devi’s writing and the actors’ excellence at their craft, they planted seeds for future filmmakers to nurture. Whether we have managed to achieve that feat with contemporary Maniwood productions is a topic that should provoke further discussion. From what I’ve seen, I can only think of Nobap (2009) and Thoicha (2010) as examples that come close to capturing our ethos with originality; the rest is a confusion of middle-class aspirations, song and dance routines in exotic locales, moral chastisement, and martial arts. To watch Imagi Ningthem and Ishanou is to remind ourselves that we are capable of creating cinema that can stay relevant and move you decades later.

The initiative taken by Aribam Syam Sharma Archives therefore came at an appropriate juncture. As I’ve said, these are films that you cannot rent or download whenever you please. Though that can be inconvenient for anybody who wishes to watch them at a timing of their own preference, this absence of ready availability has also preserved them intact. We experienced them together during an extended moment that allowed us plenty of hours to reflect. Were they as good as they were in our memory, or better? Did they fall short? What did we remember along with them, or because of them? I was transported to parts of myself that I couldn’t claw my way back to otherwise. For me, the participation in the screening of Imagi Ningthem and Ishanou—the only two I got to watch fully—thus assumed the role of a spiritual ritual. Apart from the pleasure of seeing real talents at work, we received the chance to recall fragments of the past, shared or discrete. For those who were watching them for the first time, the impact might have been different but poignant all the same.

The streams continued. After Olangthagee Wangmadasoo, I could no longer commit to the screening slots. The mustard yellow retreated into steel grey as though someone had pushed the saturation bar all the way to -100. Outside the gates of so many homes, vibrant flowers began to bloom along with the rain. May ended, indistinguishable, but if you drive around, you can see these flowers with their faces still open in colourful glory.

This afternoon is more filled with sound than yesterday’s. The birds are out. Uripok-Kangchup road is graced by an increasing number of vehicles. I fumble for my face mask, suddenly having remembered I must go out. Within me, the rare episode of reconnecting with two cinematic masterpieces during a stunted limb of time glows like a treasured dream.

yaosang – Holi as celebrated in Manipur, India

leikai – locality

Olangthagee Wangmadasoo (1980), Imagi Ningthem (1981), and Ishanou (1990) were written by M K Binodini Devi and directed by Aribam Syam Sharma.

Photographs courtesy of Aribam Shyam Sharma Archives