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It is artistic representation of actualities: Bobo Khuraijam on his IFFI docu Ima Sabitri

Documentary filmmaking has always been the stepchild of Indian cinema. After the IFFI 2016, we sat down with Bobo Khuraijam, documentary filmmaker, whose Ima Sabitri was one of the opening films of the Indian Panorama section this year. 

Shriram Iyengar

A journalist who has been working in films for the last 7 years, Bobo Khuraijam's documentary, Ima Sabitri was a telling narrative of the struggles of Sabitri Heisnam, the wife and key member of one of North Eastern theatre's legends, Heisnam Kanhailal's theatrical troupe. The portrayal of Sabitri, who is mother, leader, teacher, and daughter was shot over a period of 3 years. Describing the productive creative partnership between Sabitri and her husband, the film was one of the shining points on the opening day of the festival. 

Here are excerpts from the interview: 

Q: The Northeast has a very rich culture of theatre, but it is kind of sidelined. What interested you in the project and how did you venture into filmmaking? 
I started my career as a journalist, and wrote columns. Writing itself took me to films. I reviewed a book written by a famous filmmaker of Manipur, Aribam Syam Sharma, Living Shadows. He liked the review, and asked me if I could help him with some research. It was a learning experience for me, and became his assistant director and scriptwriter for his Doordarshan documentary, Mr Manipur. This was in 2006-7. From then, there was no looking back. 
Till today, I have assisted him as an AD, actor, and scriptwriter. Ima Sabitri is my second film. My first was a 26-minute documentary with the Films Division of India, Life After. 

Q: What interested you in the story? 
I often organise lectures with my friends in Imphal. In one of the memorial lectures, we had invited her husband, Heisnam Kanhailal, an acclaimed theatre artiste. I had read about him, and his lectures, but not much. After hearing his lecture, I wanted to know more about him, and his work. I started observing his theatre, work from close quarters at the Kalakshetra Manipur. This was when I decided to make a documentary on the whole group, with a focus on the family, the actors, and the kind of theatre they were producing.

However, my mentor suggested that I focus on that particular lady artist, Sabitri Heisnam, who is beyond words. The kind of acting she does is something you cannot explain. It all started in 2013 November. Within these 3 years, I have become very close with this theatre group, and the artists. I followed them everywhere they went. If you have seen the movie, I followed the troupe as they staged their plays in Dhaka, Kolkata, wherever I could. I could not have made it without their cooperation and the support of my crew and producer. I am lucky to have my wife as my producer. I am an independent filmmaker. I struggle both financially, and logistically. 

Q: Documentary is a matter of trust between the filmmaker and subject. Yet, the filmmaker has to make edits to shape the story according to his narrative. How do you justify the edits? 
I made this movie using the the research I did. I discovered more things when I shot the film. There are layers of things that emerge after interacting with them, learning from them. You see that there are certain nuances that you need to touch upon. As a subplot, I included the anxiety of the husband and wife, the severe lack of women artists in Manipur and theatre (this is applicable to India as well). These are parts of the narrative in a different layer. It is really important to stress that I have become so close to the subject. The film was an intimate portrayal of Sabitri Heisnam. The kind of inspiration I have got from them will remain with me throughout my life.

Q: The most telling aspect of the documentary is the struggle of artists. Was it a conscious decision to focus on this narrative?
It is also about the financial security. As an artist, you need that. Artists are really underpaid. Theatre is a task of passion. Kanhailal passed away this October. During the last days, he shared the anxiety about serious theatre practitioners in India, and particularly Manipur. He said, with the arrival of globalisation, people are starting to package their art form for commercial purposes. He was not talking about art for art's sake, but rather about genuine pursuit of art, a genuine engagement with the form to express the anxieties of our times. It is really hard to find artists who are committed to undergo the rigorous voice training, physical, and spiritual training for their work. If you ever get a chance, do try to catch their plays. I don't think there is any other parallel theatre that hinges on profound expressions, like the Kalakshetra Manipur. 

Q: What are the major challenges for an independent filmmaker? 
I didn't have a camera of my own. I had to hire from my friends. There were logistical problems when I missed some schedules. Overall, the problem is the same as any other independent filmmaker.

Q: Is the documentary genre different or similar with feature filmmaking? 
There are similarities as well as differences. Similarities lie in telling the story. We tell stories. As far as documentaries are concerned, as someone said, it's about the artistic representation of actualities. There may be so many definitions, but this definition really strikes me. We try to tell the story of the actualities happening around you. You can't escape from the truth that Kalakshetra as a group is suffering from a lack of artists, a financial crunch. The kind of life they lead is really challenging. We can't overlook these facts, but the challenge is in deciding how much facts I should represent. 
It is here that the role of the editor becomes important. Documentaries are made in the editing room. I am grateful to my editor, Sankhajit Biswas. It is the dialectics between me and him that shaped the film. I gave him the brief idea about how I wanted to tell the story, and left it to him how to choose. It was a very important synthesis between me and him. It pays, the kind of discussions and arguments we had, now that the film has been appreciated. It is with the whole team that deserves it. We have now applied for some European festivals, and are keeping our fingers crossed. 

Q: Documentaries are a forgotten part of Indian filmmaking. Do you see Indian filmmakers getting interested in this format? 
In this last decade, there has been a massive change in this form of filmmaking. The number one reason for this is the overall change in technology, which has democratised the concept of filmmaking. The coming of digital technology has changed the scenario massively. Talking about Bombay movies, the popularity of Bombay movies is a tsunami that you can't avoid. People like to be entertained, escape from their reality. That is not just for documentaries, but even regional films have to compete against this. The idea of Indian cinema is really hard to define. Either we define through the lens of Bollywood cinema, or through the lens of regional cinema. It is dicey. The overwhelming influence of the market is really difficult to escape. However, in the backdrop of this scenario, documentary and independent filmmakers are struggling. The lack of initiative from the state and Union government adds to it.