Manipur Masala

A regional film industry looks beyond its borders

Director M Eepu (right) shooting a song sequence for his feature Eigee Apyo, in the Sanjenbam area east of Imphal. Eepu’s thirty-third movie is Manipuri film’s first international collaboration; it stars a Burmese model and a Manipuri singer. KAREN DIAS
01 October, 2014

LATE THIS AUGUST, the Film Forum of Manipur made a bold announcement. The state’s apex industry guild and regulatory office, which ensures that all films abide by censorship rules imposed by local separatist groups, slapped six of the regional industry’s actors with a six-month ban. The punishment was meted out for failure to support protests for an “Inner Line Permit” system in Manipur. The ILP system, which requires outsiders to get special permits to visit a state, is in force in Nagaland, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, where tribal populations see it as a protective membrane over local ways of life.

The actors, each of whom has about ten to twenty films in the pipeline, argued that they had never received a notice to attend the protests. The Film Forum’s Executive Council refused to accept the excuse. In early September, Laimayum Surjakanta Sharma, the Forum’s chairman, told me over the phone that the ban would hold, although actors were free to act in music videos. “We will see how much they support our campaigns in the near term,” Sharma said, hinting at the possibility of a commuted sentence. “We are giving them a lesson.”

When I met Sharma in Imphal, however, just about a month before the ban was announced, he himself was on the receiving end of separatist-backed censure. We were at the Film Forum’s offices: two plainly furnished rooms inside the state capital’s Shankar Talkies cinema. There were no posters on the walls, just a large banner announcing Sharma as the winner of a local award for film-making. And although Sharma has over a hundred producer and director credits to his name, the slim 52-year-old’s desk, heaped with files, seemed better suited to a lawyer or bureaucrat than the maven of a local film industry.

Three heavyset, moustachioed men from the All-Manipur Contemporary Songs Association, a wing of the Film Forum, Sharma said, sat with us. They had come to vet songs from Sharma’s unreleased feature Chayetpa Tomnao (Vagabond Tomnao). The men sat checking printouts of lyrics as they watched, on a 21-inch television in one corner, the male and female leads joyriding through the streets and playing pranks on bystanders. Frowning and pursing their paan-stained lips, they made notes on official-looking forms. The three moral vigilantes had an unmistakable air of authority, though Sharma said that they, like himself, were technically members of a voluntary association.

The Film Forum’s Laimayum Surjakanta Sharma watches footage to assess whether it is suitable for release in Manipur. KAREN DIAS

As the refrain of the title song started, Sharma leaned over and whispered, “The song censor will catch me now.” A feeling of déjà vu settled over me as the actor whirled his arm over his head, as if swinging a whip, to a familiar, galloping beat, while mouthing the words, “Tomnao style.”

The censors’ verdict was unanimous. The song clearly had “Korean influences,” and it was “not lyrically beautiful.” They decreed it should be cut from the film. Sharma looked like he’d swallowed something unpleasant. (Later he professed surprise that the music video had found an afterlife on YouTube, insisting that it must have been leaked by someone else.)

Despite being the head of the Film Forum, at that moment Sharma was just another film-maker eager to entertain—and eager to have his talents recognised by a wider audience. In 2010, he was instrumental in getting the National Film Awards to admit digitally shot movies. This opened the door to entries from Manipur, and the next year a film from the state, Phijigi Mani (The Only Jewel), won the national award for best regional film.

Sharma seemed quite eager to bag an award himself. Punctuating his soft-spoken sentences with sporadic two-liners in Bambaiyya Hinglish, he told me about his latest directing project while peering at the rushes on the television. Thengnaramdraba (Not Together Yet) is a rural romance, in which a demure, dutiful daughter begins to suffer fits of rage, becomes hostile towards her family and grows aloof from her lover. As she wanders the fields, her hair disheveled, it emerges that she is possessed by a spirit. The affliction, Sharma said, recalled Manipur’s animist traditions, while the film retained the universal template of star-crossed lovers. “They do not marry,” Sharma said, “Par unka milan hota hai”—but they come together. Romance and drama, he explained, were key to a film’s commercial success. “Masala is a must,” he said. “Romance chahiye.” He stared inscrutably into the distance.

Thengnaramdraba, like almost all of Sharma’s films, was a love story, but it was unusual in that it had no bound script. Sharma’s friend, a producer, got the idea for it from a song. “He had a muhurat” with the lead actors, Sharma explained, to determine an auspicious time for the shoot; the astrologer told his friend to make haste.

Unfazed, Sharma gathered the crew at Ngairangbam, the lead actor’s village. There, through the actor’s connections, he was granted access to homes and farms for shoots. “No sets,” Sharma said, “No need.” As for the bagatelle of having no story: no script, no problem, as Sharma might say. “We camped out there. Each morning, I would think what I do today,” he said. He scribbled scenes down and handed them over to the actors on the spot. Dispensing with a scriptwriter helped keep the total budget down to Rs 5 lakh. “It’s all in here,” Sharma said, confidently tapping his head.

As the chair of the Film Forum, Sharma is a politically important figure in Manipur, if a somewhat paradoxical one. Sharma apprenticed in Mumbai in the 1970s and 1980s (his favourite memory is assisting on Deewar), and is the flag-bearer, in Manipur, for that era’s melodramatic style. In May, he shot a song in Nepal using three powered paragliders: the hero strapped into one, the heroine into another, and Sharma, with a camera, dangling from the third. But Sharma was also once detained for two days, in 2009, for alleged links with a separatist group that believed in purging Manipuri cinema of Bollywood influences. The Film Forum functions as a buffer between separatists demanding cultural purity, the Indian state’s military presence, and an audience eager for new entertainment. Sharma’s experience as its head demonstrates both how a politically protected and isolated industry can create new artistic opportunities, and how the same restrictions that allow an artistic community to flourish can become a challenge to creative freedom. Following the six-month ban on the six actors, the release of one of Sharma’s own films, starring the actor Kaiku, is now delayed.

IN IMPHAL’S ALL-WOMAN MARKET, Ima Keithel, an elderly vegetable vendor overheard me introduce myself to someone as a Mumbaikar. She began crooning an old Hindi song from the 1960 film, Bambai Ka Babu: “Bambai se aaya hai babu chinanna” (He’s come from Bombay, that babu uncle). During my ten-day stay in and around Imphal, she wasn’t the only person to share fond memories of Bollywood films with me, and to express disappointment that these films had not been screened in the state for almost 15 years now.

In 2000, the state’s dominant separatist group, the People’s Liberation Army of Manipur, called for a ban on Hindi films. This was meant as a measure against the “cultural imperialism” of the “mainland,” and a symbol of resistance to the Indian Army, which had been occupying the state for decades and operating with near impunity. Regional films, shot guerilla-style, filled the void in entertainment in the early 2000s, drawing movie-starved Manipuris to abandoned cinema halls, and spawning a homegrown cottage industry. DVDs of Hindi films are still available at shops in Imphal, for about Rs 20 each. But at the shop tended to by Arimbam Joychandra Sharma, in Paona Bazaar, the main stock-in-trade is a wall of Manipuri DVDs, which start at Rs 35.

Joychandra, a slightly built, clean-shaven 24-year-old, told me he was an aspiring producer himself, but the increasing costs of managing his brother’s shop made chasing that dream difficult. The brothers pay local film producers for exclusive rights to copy and sell DVDs. For example, they paid about Rs 4 lakh for the rights to the recent chart-topper Tamoya Gee Ebecha, starring the big names Bonny and Bala, and burned between 50,000 and 60,000 DVDs. Joychandra estimated it would take three or four days to recover the investment through retail sales to walk-in customers, as well as wholesale ones to tiny video parlours, stalls, and vendors who operate out of steel trunks on street corners.

Arimbam Joychandra Sharma (left) and Khurajam Raju sell regional films in a DVD shop in Imphal’s Paona Bazaar. KAREN DIAS

“Five years ago, the rates were Rs 40,000,” Joychandra said, “and the profits financed the rights for three films.” Today, the average price for exclusive rights has risen to Rs 1 lakh. As the market grew, so did the number of competing wholesalers, and pirates. The Film Forum’s Surjakanta Sharma remarked that “even a rickshaw driver can become a producer here,” since the barrier to entering the industry was low, and its stars accessible. Yet the increasing costs have meant a deferral of Joychandra’s film-making dreams. “I hoped to make a movie this year, now I am not so sure,” he said. In the early days, a film could be made for as little as Rs 3 lakh; now budgets average between Rs 7 lakh and Rs 10 lakh. Surjakanta Sharma, at the top of the pile, pockets R1 lakh in director’s fees alone for each of his films. He told me that about 75 Manipuri films are made every year—if a film is one of a dozen annual hits, it could earn as much as Rs 15 lakh.

As in any film industry, the higher the returns, the greater the vested interests. Manipur’s scriptwriters and producers keep a firm eye on the till, and most movies follow romantic boilerplate. A handful of films address the conflict between the army and militants directly, but this grim subject seems largely to yield to comedies and love stories. Yet even these innocuous mass-market films are subjected to the Film Forum’s strict censorship code, which is as binding as it is, technically, unofficial. According to separatist announcements, the code is designed to “safeguard” Manipur from corrupting “outside” elements—notwithstanding the fact that Manipuri culture, like any other, is a composite blend of influences. On the street, people wear Western clothes—the young have adopted the low-crotch pants and natty T-shirts of the hip-hop generation. At least two channels from South Korea are available on cable television, and hairstylists refer to Korean cuts. Pirated copies of Hindi and English films are readily available.

Film-makers in Manipur have to perform a delicate balancing act. They must stay on the right side of Indian soldiers, who have carte blanche to shoot suspected militants; violent separatist groups, who keep a tight rein on actors and forbid them from working in Bollywood; and the self-appointed guardians at the Film Forum, whose censorship supersedes the last official authority—the Central Board of Film Certification’s regional office in Guwahati, Assam. Still, actors, directors and producers have found creative ways to engage with a pan-Indian regional cinema network, and to look beyond India as they respond to changing tastes and seek to extend their reach.

SINCE THE 1970S, Manipur produced about one or two films each year, all shot on celluloid. After the ban on Hindi films, in the early 2000s, digital film-makers, who were involved in making music videos for popular songs, saw an opportunity to expand their repertoire. Romi Meitei, a mainstream director whose art-house films have been shown at festivals in India and abroad, is one of these mostly self-taught professionals. Sitting across from me at a roadside tea shop near Imphal’s Kangla Fort, dressed in a white chikankari kurta-pyjama, Meitei described how, for a couple of years immediately following the ban, there was a “rain of music video albums. … It was like a wildfire.”

These video albums were screened in theatres and sold on discs. A playback industry emerged, with singers like Sophia Salam, Ranbir Thouna and Sadananda becoming household names for their folk-filmy style (today songs often have Western or Korean influences). “Many singers and actors came up from the music videos,” Meitei said. Eventually, an entire infrastructure for film-making, including institutes and schools, emerged. Before 2000, celluloid Manipuri films were processed and edited in Kolkata or Chennai. By 2003, there were digital processing studios popping up all over Imphal.

Chaoba Thiyam, a musician in Imphal Talkies, a rock band whose name was inspired by the movie industry, worked as a sound engineer and assistant cinematographer during the early days of the digital era. “At first there were one or two studios,” for dubbing and recording, “then five, six came up,” he told me. Technicians installed pirated copies of editing software, and learnt how to use it from the internet or from printed manuals. Cameramen, directors, make-up artists—almost everyone was trained themselves. Some of the actors came from traditional Manipuri theatre, the Shumang Leela, but most were untrained. Imphal still does not have a formal acting institute, and a do-it-yourself tradition persists.

Actors play an army officer and a shady politician in a Shumang Leela production. Some film actors started in the traditional theatre. KAREN DIAS

Industry veterans generally agree that the first feature to use digital footage was 2002’s Lammei (Forest Fire), which was screened in Imphal’s Friends theatre. Two of its song sequences were shot digitally, while the dialogues were shot on film. Screening the movie was a challenge—both in terms of getting official sanction from the government, and dealing with threats of violence by separatists. There were technical problems, too, Meitei told me, since the theatre had no provision for digital projection. Meitei and the producer, Premjit Naoroibam, scrambled to get a digital projector, and eventually managed to borrow one—meant for holding screenings in villages—from a senior police officer.

The first screening of Lammei took place in the afternoon, and was attended mostly by women. The theatre was full to its capacity of seven hundred people. Meitei gesticulated, his close-cropped goatee quivering, as he described how the projector turned on and the film started. “It goes—boom! The people were crazed to see, after starving for a long time,” he said. There were three shows that day, and screenings in several other theatres followed, all using the same projector.

As films like Lammei sold, and kept on selling, cinematographers, directors and other technicians formed about twenty specialist guilds. Early on, Surjakanta Sharma and other film-makers tried unsuccessfully to cobble together a super-guild, in part to resist pressure to stop producing from the People’s Liberation Army and roughly thirty other separatist groups. In 2005, however, the burgeoning but disparate industry was forced to come together when, according to Sharma, separatists began to ask for money from directors and producers. When film-makers refused to submit to extortion, the Kangleipak Communist Party, vying with the PLA for greater Manipuri-nationalist credit, announced a ban on all films in the state for a year. When we spoke, Sharma played up the contribution of the Film Forum, which was constituted to combat this ban by lobbying the state government, to the decline of the KCP. The party was ultimately decimated—either due to competition from the PLA, or focused assault by the state security forces, or both. “Today,” Sharma said, a bit darkly, “there is no sign of them anywhere.”

On one hand, the Film Forum took it upon itself to continue elbowing out Hindi films; on the other, it formulated a moral code to placate separatist concerns and preempt run-ins with violent groups. Everyone who makes films in Manipur must register with the Film Forum and submit to its censorship. The group now has more than six hundred producers registered, Sharma told me, including those that have little more than a small editing station at home. Any film-maker who doesn’t cooperate finds himself without a theatre to show in, and only after approval from the Film Forum can a Manipuri film be sent to the official censor in Guwahati.

The rules, uncodified but widely known, are a direct response (and Sharma claims an independent one) to the separatist diktat about preserving cultural purity. Song videos must not be lewd, and lyrics must be in pure Meiteilon or another ethnic language of Manipur. Films may not include any words in Hindi or other non-Manipuri languages.

Lyrics and music videos must also be “aesthetically pleasing.” The prevailing idea of aesthetic appeal is closely related to ideas of what constitutes Manipuri tradition. In every song with multiple costume changes, there must be at least one Manipuri ethnic dress. (“Not easy to do if you’re shooting someone eating in a restaurant,” Sharma whispered to me in his office, during the song censors’ visit.) The custom of taking one’s shoes off at the door when entering a house must be followed on screen. Women shown cooking must be traditionally dressed: saris are OK, as is the Manipuri phanek, a wrap-around worn with a blouse. Costumes must not be too revealing. Physical intimacy is not allowed, though hugging is. Rape and murder may not occur on camera. No themes showing the “colonising mindset” of the mainland in a favourable light will be entertained.

IN 2006, Rajkumar Somendro, better known by the screen name Kaiku, was shooting for the gritty realist film Mami Sami (Murkiness). The shoot took place at the picturesque Loktak Lake, a top tourist attraction. Kaiku was playing one of two competing separatist leaders, and was dressed in camouflage (in those days, he often bought his own outfits in second-hand shops). The cameras were rolling. As Kaiku raised his prop gun, he suddenly noticed, out of the corner of his eye, a pack of soldiers approaching, possibly from the nearby Assam Rifles base, kitted out with submachine guns and bulletproof vests.

Sitting with me in his well-appointed home in Imphal years later, the memory of those soldiers drawing near, with their guns levelled at him, brought a grim smile to Kaiku’s face. “I thought, I am dead,” he said. He froze up. “I just cried. I was holding a fake pistol also. I wondered whether I should throw it or not.”

The soldiers halted at a distance, while their commanding officer assessed the situation. A brief conversation took place. “We said, ‘Brother, we are shooting.’ They said, ‘You should have taken permission,’” Kaiku told me. Apparently the producer had forgotten this technicality, and the sight of what looked like a pistol-brandishing separatist had prompted the sortie. The soldiers finally left, but Kaiku was badly shaken and refused to shoot anymore that day. Mami Sami was eventually completed and released in 2008, to critical acclaim.

Kaiku is one of Manipur’s triumvirate of leading men, and a bankable star who makes at least R70,000 per film. Currently at the pinnacle of his success, Kaiku shoots two to three films, taking just one day off, per month. I interviewed the fit forty-year-old in his study—he was dressed casually, in blue jeans and a body-hugging T-shirt that exposed his clavicles and a tattoo of a crested snake—an important Meitei symbol.

Kaiku, one of Manipuri cinema’s three top leading men, shoots two to three films per month, earning about Rs. 70,000 per film. KAREN DIAS

Over cups of green tea, Kaiku described how he had had to return home from college in Chandigarh in 2004 after the death of his father, a prosperous government contractor. Without control of his father’s business, Kaiku supported his family by managing a food stall. “But I always wanted to act,” he said, “and my mother encouraged me.” In 2005, he travelled to Mumbai to sign up for a course at the Zee Institute, a film-making school, but returned, he said, due to a lack of funds. He began to work as a veejay for local singing programmes, and finally got a break when his uncle opened a production house.

Kaiku is a celebrity, and was proud to demonstrate that he lives like one. He walked me through his relaxation room, complete with a wooden bridge over a pond full of mottled koi fish and a teacup-sized tortoise. There was also a jacuzzi for one, and a thatch-roofed drinks counter (with empty bottles, as Manipur is a dry state). One wall was covered with paper depicting a waterfall and bamboo shoots; others had colourful LED lights on them. A three-foot-long wooden grasshopper stood in a corner.

Parked in the driveway was Kaiku’s black Hyundai Sonata, which he takes out for drives at night, when the streets of Imphal are deserted. There’s no real need for covertness, however: though Kaiku’s popularity is widespread, actors in Manipur are close to the general population and don’t get mobbed in public. Kaiku recalled once getting stuck in a traffic jam in a village, where the local women surrounded his car and filled it with baskets of produce. Kaiku was practical about how long his career might continue. He had a business plan in mind, he said, for retirement: to open two garden restaurants, where families could eat and children could play.

IN EARLIER YEARS, films with political themes, such as Mami Sami, were fairly common. And like that story—of a regular man caught between two separatist groups—they paint a complicated picture of life under army occupation and militant insurgency. Surjakanta Sharma’s 2008 Hayengna Kanana Pan Gani (Who Will Rule Us Tomorrow?), for example, characterises Manipur as a region under perpetual colonisation. Romi Meitei’s Chumthang Makhong (Rainbow’s End), released in 2006, features a man caught between the militants and the police over a land dispute. His girlfriend’s job in the government adds a further twist. “We borrowed real guns from the police,” Meitei told me, grinning. “It was a blockbuster hit.” He added that the film ran in theatres for seventy days, and earned three times its budget through ticket and DVD sales.

As the conflict cooled from a boil to a simmer—from 285 deaths in 2006 and 485 in 2008 to 55 last year—the tenor of mainstream Manipuri films changed accordingly, with more emphasis on comedies and romances. Although some people, like Meitei, attributed the shift to the relative lull in the violence, many others told me off the record that there was also a second reason: separatists no longer wanted to be depicted in films where they inevitably ended up dead, regardless of whether they were portrayed as martyrs or villains.

Last August’s Beragee Bomb (Bizarre Bomb) demonstrated that Manipuri film-makers are now able to treat the subject of militancy with a lighter touch. Starring Tonthoi Leishangthem, who won the 2011 National Film Award for best supporting actress in Phijigi Mani, and produced by her brother, Beragee Bomb uses a scooter rigged with a bomb almost as a gag. The scooter’s unsuspecting owner—the currently banned star Bonny—tries to woo a girl who has eloped with another man. A chase scene ensues, with the bomb’s wired timer getting switched on and off as it rattles over Imphal’s bad roads.

Leishangthem, who is 25 years old, is half-jokingly called the Vidya Balan of Manipuri movies for her offbeat roles in films with edgy social commentary. She shoots about five films a year, and zips around town in a red Honda Activa. When I met her at the Tip Top Cafe in Imphal, she told me she was working on Pallepham (Destination), a surrealist comment on class difference, which features a wealthy protagonist who dreams that he has become poor.

Tonthoi Leishangthem, the “Vidya Balan” of Manipur, inaugurates the production of her next film at a restaurant in Imphal. KAREN DIAS

Leishangthem told me she wanted to help professionalise the Manipuri film scene, and that she was willing to look outside the state for roles. In 2013, she played the lead actress in an unreleased Assamese film on deforestation and the depletion of wildlife in that state. She was also approached for a part in a Hindi film, but turned it down. Whether her decision was rooted in fear of separatist retribution, which continues to cast a shadow over the industry despite the rolling-out of romances and comedies, she wouldn’t say.

Last year, another actress, who wished to remain anonymous, got a coveted break as the female lead in a commercial Hindi movie—a genre that rarely features faces from India’s north-east. The actress signed a contract and flew to Mumbai, excited to share her talents on a wider stage. She told me she was focussed on doing a professional job on the shoots. At night, she would bed down in a rented flat in the suburb of Andheri.

One night, she got a call from a member of a separatist group. He asked her if she had forgotten the rule about not working in Hindi films. She was told to give up either the role or her plans to return to Manipur after it was over. “I had almost finished shooting,” she said. Coming to Mumbai had been a calculated risk, and the actress ultimately chose her family and her hometown over her career. The film had already gone into post-production, but the producers “were really understanding” and let her go.

The actress felt the separatist restrictions were stifling Manipuri cinema. “Film-making is all about creativity, fantasy, entertainment,” she said. “We haven’t reached the limits of fantasy because of these restrictions. We can make a change in Manipuri films by breaking the rules. But we can’t.” The very forces that allowed the industry to grow are also an impediment to its imagination.

The actress had gone back to shooting love stories and melodramas. I met her while she was getting made up for a shoot in a public garden in Imphal. Besides three make-up artists, thecrew consisted of four operators with just one camera. The actress was filming an “awkward conversation” with another woman. The director gave out the dialogues. He had to ask for three re-takes, as the other actress kept fumbling her lines. The one who had spoken with me seemed a bit put out. She kept looking up at the mass of rainclouds gathering in the afternoon sky.

Like Leishangthem with her role in the Assamese film, other actors have also found ways to circumvent the injunction against working in Hindi films by making forays into Malayalam, Bengali, and other regional-language cinema industries. Last year, 24-year-old Surjabala “Bala” Hijam (who was also named in the Film Forum’s August ban) made her cinematic debut in the Malayali film Neelakasam Pachakadal Chuvanna Bhoomi (Blue Sky, Green Waters, Red Earth). The road movie was shot, among other places, in several locations in the north-east. “The director had seen me on YouTube,” Hijam told me. “They contacted me through my Facebook ID. I went to Kolkata to sign the contract.”

Hijam’s supporting role in Neelakasam went off without a hitch, and gave her a chance to explore Kerala’s film industry during her two months of shooting. She told me she was jealous that Bollywood and Malayalam movies were shown in the same theatres in the state. “There are no differences in the standards,” she said. When we spoke, she was in talks to star in a Malayalam music video for a piece sung by Shreya Ghoshal.

Hijam was one of two Manipuris mentioned in the online magazine Quartz India’s list of actresses who could have played the lead role instead of the Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra in the recent biopic of the Manipuri boxer Mary Kom. I asked her what she thought of Chopra getting the role. She answered diplomatically, “I am very eagerly waiting to see how Priyanka works. There are so many differences between their looks and ours.”

The question many Manipuri actors seemed to think was more interesting—and which would only be answered in practice if the ban against their working in Bollywood were lifted—is whether mainland audiences would accept actors from the north-east in mainstream roles.

Kaiku and Bala shoot in a furniture workshop for Chintheeba Chintheebi (Liar); he plays a carpenter, she a government employee. OCTOBER 2014 KAREN DIAS

ON A CLOUDY JULY AFTERNOON, a small film crew arrived at a popular shooting location thirty kilometres east of Imphal, in the range that cradles the valley. Three cinematographers set up three “prosumer”-level DSLRs on a gentle slope topped by a large tree; a helper and a couple of make-up artists constituted the rest of the crew. A love song played over and over on a loudspeaker, and two actors playing a couple slowly twirled, hand-in-hand, against a backdrop of low, pine tree-speckled hills. It was easy to forget that these same hills had also been a popular dumping ground for casualties of the conflict between separatist groups and the military.

M Eepu, the portly director, was bent over one camera. He wore cargo shorts, a T-shirt and a floppy khaki hat that said “New York.” Eigee Apyo (My Girl) was Eepu’s thirty-third film. He planned to wrap the love song that day, then move to a village nearby to shoot a scene with the supporting actress at someone’s house. The entire film would take about twenty days to complete.

Eigee Apyo, a bilingual film in both Burmese and Meiteilon, is slated to be the Manipuri film industry’s first “international” production. The 22-year-old Burmese female lead, Han Ni Ko, is a successful model in her own country. She had met Surjakanta Sharma, who is Eigee Apyo’s producer, a few months earlier in Moray, a town on the Indo-Burmese border where a group of people from the Manipuri film industry had gone to play football. Sharma was so impressed by her that he decided to cast her on the spot.

Playing opposite Han Ni Ko was Gems Chongtham, a baby-faced 24-year-old with a mop of long, feathered hair. Chongtham was a newcomer to films, but was already a well-known pop singer with three albums to his credit. Han Ni Ko, dressed improbably in a pink ballroom dress, gazed into Chongtham’s eyes as he crooned a declaration of his love. He was not just lip-synching, but actually singing as the couple circled each other. The main camera zoomed in for a close-up of their pink cheeks and pearly-toothed smiles. Lovers in idyll, they walked languorously across the green hill, ignoring the sprigs that caught the hem of her pink dress and his black trousers, their feet missing, by inches, the cow pats parting the grass. Once tweaked in post-production, the shot would look completely dreamlike—a fairytale scene on the cheap.

I asked the director what the song was about. “It’s nothing,” Eepu said, grinning beneath his slim moustache. “Very simple. A love song.”