Manipuri theatre legend Sabitri has two families. One is her own and the other is the theatre group Kalakshetra Manipur, which she founded with her husband, Heisnam Kanhailal, in 1969. In Bobo Khuraijam’s award-winning documentary Ima Sabitri (Mother Sabitri), we spend time with both.
The first encounter with Sabitri is through sound – we hear her powerful voice and then watch her perform a scene from a play that suggests gang-rape by Army personnel. The performance is an adaptation of Mahasweta Devi’s short story Draupadi, but also has tremendous local resonance. In July 2004, Thangjam Manorama was taken into custody by soldiers of the paramilitary force Assam Rifles from her home in a Manipur village and shot dead. The soldiers claimed that Manorama was a member of a separatist group and was shot while trying to escape. The bruises and bullet wounds to Manorama’s genitals told a different story, resulting in protests across the state. Five days after the incident, a group of women walked to the Assam Rifles headquarters in Imphal bearing banners that said “Indian Army rape us” and stripped themselves.
Sabitri evokes gang rape in a symbolic fashion. She is covered by a camouflage blanket and surrounded by the actors playing the soldiers. It is one of many powerful set pieces from her plays that feature in the 57-minute documentary.
“The plays of Kalakshetra Manipur have sharp political edges,” Khuraijam said. “But at the same time the group does not believe in propagandist theatre. The kind of plays staged by the troupe indicates their deep cultural and political involvement. People of Manipur have witnessed various forms of human right violations. Like many, the director Kanhailal and his creative partner Sabitri were also disturbed by what was happening around. The play is their resilient cry against the misdoings.”
Khuraijam’s documentary won the top award for the Best Documentary (under 60 minutes) in the National Competition section at the recently concluded Mumbai International Film Festival. The independent production initiated by Khuraijam benefitted greatly from the access granted by Sabitri and Kanhailal. “The film is an independent production,” the filmmaker said. “Heisnam Kanhailal was kind enough to warmly welcome us to a unique theatre family.”
Heisnam Sabitri was born in 1946, and started acting at the age of eight. In 1962, she married Kanhailal, and the theatre company followed seven years later. Ima Sabitri captures the bond between the couple, their working relationship with members of their groups, rehearsals and snippets from their performances. In between, Khuraijam throws in warm moments of domesticity – Sabitri sorting out vegetables, spending time with her son and grandchildren.
Since the film was shot over three years, Khuraijam was also at hand to witness Kanhailal’s cancer diagnosis (he died in October 2016) and the handing over of the Kalakshetra baton to their son. Throughout the film, Sabitri emerges as a constant, looming over the rehearsals and grabbing attention wherever she goes.
“Professor Richard Gough, who teaches theatre and performance in the University of Wales, mesmerised by the performance of Sabitri remarked that in Japan she would be a national treasure,” Khuraijam said. “Perhaps the answer lies in the statement itself. She is a rare gem in the theatre world. I consider it a lifetime opportunity to make a film on someone like her.”
Could the film have focused on Sabitri alone? Since the documentary is strictly observational in nature, we remain with her in the moment, and learn little about her past or her philosophy towards her acting beyond such declarations as “I want the audience to feel my heart beat as well as my pulse.”
“She is a motherly figure of the theatre group who nurtures and inspires,” Khuraijam explained. “The film is an intimate portrayal of her. And while portraying her one cannot commit the mistake of missing the group, which is her family.”