PAGE 05: The Journeys of Life

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By Suyash Kamat

If one wonders what it takes or what one must do to be able to make films, filmmaker Amar Maibam’s life is the answer. Born and brought up in Manipur, Amar’s journey to making multiple award-winning fiction and non-fiction films began differently. It is a story that began at home. “My father, M.A. Singh, is one of the first FTII graduates from Manipur. That makes me a second-generation filmmaker.” Starting his career as an assistant to his late father, Amar was drawn into independent filmmaking because of the creative freedom that enabled him to tell stories of the human experience. 

But circumstances weren’t all that bright and owing to financial troubles at home, Amar had to start looking after his family, and began working as a bus conductor, doing so for close to 10 years in the late 1990s. This, he believes, is where he first really saw the life he has portrayed in his new documentary Highways of Life (2019), a story about a group of truckers who maneuver through the perilous highways of North East India, putting their lives on the line, ferrying essential commodities to serve three million people in the landlocked state of Manipur.

 “After I left the conductor work, I came into films again in 2005-2006,” Amar says, and he began working with his father again while beginning to engage in independent documentary work himself. He made his directorial documentary debut with City of Victims (2009), a film on  extra-judicial killings in Manipur. 

A few films since then, Amar began delving into the idea of making something about the universe he closely inhabited a decade ago. He began shooting his documentary in 2014 after having formulated it in a workshop conducted by the Manipur Film Development Corporation, Television and Cine Foundation Manipur, and Documentary Resource Initiative (DRI), Kolkata. The workshop, organized in Imphal, opened up Amar’s world and he went on to secure a grant by the Films Division to fund his film. 

Shooting and developing the documentary over 5 years, Amar spent endless, grueling hours to make this omnipresent yet ignored universe of highways and truckers accessible to the audience. Speaking about one of his most challenging experiences while filming, he shared, “There was a protest going on at the National Highway 37 and we went to capture the moment. Most people were pelting stones at the moment.” While Amar and his cameraman were shooting this, the police falsely accused them of instigating protestors and arrested them, confiscating their equipment, and ultimately, making them delete their footage. “Next day, we were part of the newspapers, accused of being fake journalists and imposters.” 

Manipuri cinema, initially having made its mark with filmmakers like Aribam Syam Sharma, finds itself in a phase of a minor resurgence with filmmakers, like Amar, Haobam Paban Kumar, and others, who are experimenting with the form. Amar wants to continue working with regional Manipuri cinema and make human stories that reflect our day to day reality. With traditional theatres slowly vanishing from Manipur, a younger crop of filmmakers look at OTT platforms as a possible solution for the exhibition of their films. ‘Haobam Paban’s Loktak Lairembi (2016) streamed on Netflix. Given the number of Manipuri inhabitants in Bangladesh, Myanmar, and several parts of Assam, I believe our stories can reach them through these OTT platforms” Amar stated.

While Highways of Life does the festival rounds, Amar is already working on his next documentary on the two-time Commonwealth Games gold medal-winning weightlifter K. Sanjita Chanu and the doping scandal she was part of, which he hopes to complete and release later this year. 

Highways of Life is at 20.15 at Inox Screen 2. 

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