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Tell that story which tugs at your heartstrings

Father used to take Amar in his shoots and gave him a hotshot camera to shoot as he pleased. This could well have sown the seeds of filmmaking in young Amar’s mind.

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If you want to be a good filmmaker, be a good person first,” was the advice a filmmaker father gave to his young son. The son, it appeared, took that advice to heart for he turned out to be a very good human being and incidentally, also a pretty good filmmaker.

The father, Maibam Amuthoi Singh, popularly known as MA Singh, a double graduate in Editing and Direction from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), was a renowned Manipuri filmmaker, and the son Amar Maibam is getting noticed and winning accolades and critical acclaim in international fora as a documentary filmmaker.

But this journey for Amar has not been easy; he had to struggle a lot to reach the point where he is now.

The childhood days went off rather well, his father, MA Singh was making much-loved films like ‘Sanakeithel’, ‘Langlen Thadoi’ besides numerous documentaries. He also passed on his knowledge of films giving lectures at various media study centres of different institutes. Over this, he started his own media centre on ‘Media & Media Personalities’ where many honed their talent in news reading, anchoring, public speaking, acting and filmmaking.

Father used to take Amar in his shoots and gave him a hotshot camera to shoot as he pleased. This could well have sown the seeds of filmmaking in young Amar’s mind. While acknowledging the contribution of other mentors to his growth as a filmmaker, his father to him “was the one who inspired me to become a filmmaker”.

Around the time MA Singh was shooting his third feature film ‘Chekla Paikharabada’, the family fell into a deep financial crisis and he could not complete the film despite many attempts. That’s when Amar decided to lend a helping hand in running the household and started working as a bus conductor on the Imphal-Moreh (a town bordering Myanmar) route immediately after his matriculation in 1995.  He continued to work off and on for 10 years as a bus conductor, taking breaks to appear for exams while continuing to study in the bus most of the time.

This experience of struggle, of hardships, of camaraderie with fellow drivers and conductors, played a significant part in shaping Amar as a person as also a documentary filmmaker.  He wanted to tell the story about this community of drivers, conductors and handymen who are at the margin of society, who are ignored, are intimidated and threatened with physical harm at times.

Thus the idea of making ‘Highways of life’ took roots in Amar’s mind. The documentary is about the truckers’ community who, at the risk of their lives, continued to ferry in essential commodities for the people of Manipur during two very intense economic blockades imposed on the Highways which are the lifeline of the state.

‘Highways of life’ won the Best Non-Feature Film, Best Direction, Best Cinematography and Best Editing at the 13th Manipur State Film Awards, 2020.  It then went on to win the Best Film Award at the 8th Liberation Docfest Bangladesh held online from June 16-20 in which eight documentary films from various countries were selected for the International Competition Section.

Around the time MA Singh was shooting his third feature film ‘Chekla Paikharabada’ , the family fell into a deep financial crisis and he could not complete the film despite many attempts. That’s when Amar decided to lend a helping hand in running the household and started working as bus conductor on the Imphal-Moreh (a town bordering Myanmar) route immediately after his matriculation in 1995. 

“The truckers community is a very neglected lot, nobody gives a hoot about them and at times they also face a lot of suppressions, I felt I should tell their story to the general public,” says Amar on the making of ‘Highways of life’. On the documentary itself, Amar says, “it is an interactive documentary, though I am not present physically, I am part of the process through my voice, also, I express myself through my camera.”

Amar began his documentary-making journey with ‘City of Victims (2009) on extra-judicial killings in Manipur, a “visual poetry” as he terms it. In between the completion of ‘Highways of Life’, Amar made two more documentaries. The first one – ‘My Generous Village’, is about a former arms smuggler who comes back to his village, sort of reforms and takes up farming. This film won the Special Jury award and Best Music Direction award at the Manipur State Film Awards 2019.

The other film – NAWA-Spirit of Atey, about a transsexual boy Atey, co-directed with Santa Khurai,  won the Best Documentary at the 2nd Nagaland Film Festival 2019. “Transsexuals, are, for the most part, not treated well in our society, they are abused and harassed but here was a very positive story where the boy gets all the support from his family,” Amar says about this documentary.

On the pipeline is a documentary on weight lifter Khumukcham Sanjita Devi who won gold in 2014 Glasgow and 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games who was banned for more than two years on charges of doping in November 2017. Her name was finally cleared in June 2020 when the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) dropped all charges in May 2020. Sanjita, all this while had maintained that she is innocent.

The documentary is about the struggle of Sanjita and her brother Bijen for justice. Now that her name has been cleared and she will eventually be awarded the Arjuna Award which was denied to her because of the doping charges, Amar says, “I will complete the film with her winning the Arjuna Award”.

Another documentary which he plans to complete this year is on the veteran actor, popularly known as Abok Pishak, the eternal grandmother of Manipuri digital cinema.

On professional hazards of documentary filmmaking, Amar is very clear that the kind of work he does, the issues he takes up, will bring him trouble. “I know I will get beaten, arrested, my camera will be snatched and broken. I am quite prepared for that”. One of the reasons why he prefers to shoot solo, “I don’t want to put any other person at risk”.

Amar Maibam did not receive any formal training on film making even though he did attend many short courses on various aspects of filmmaking and attended a number of workshops to enhance his technical knowledge. He feels it is always preferable to be technically equipped but he also firmly believes it’s not always true that merely getting trained will make one a good filmmaker. “We should never forget that one can make films without going to film schools also”.

He feels beyond technical knowledge, “it is important to be passionate about making films. One must have a story which one desperately wants to tell”.

His advice to aspiring filmmakers, in my view, sums up his notion of film making. “Never make a film with the predetermined idea of winning awards. Tell that story which tugs at your heartstrings, about your society, your community, clearly and with sincerity”. His documentaries have shown that these words are not mere platitudes but clearly laid out principles which he holds dear.

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