As a child, Sonia Nepram had learnt that the most elegant attire for a Manipuri woman is the phanek, a traditional sarong-like garment that is striped and usually in shades of pink. Nepram remembers the first time she wore a phanek. It was at the age of 10, and the feeling was “overwhelming”, she recalls.

However, what Nepram also remembers is her mother’s instructions after she wore the phanek: never to wash it along with her brother’s clothes and never to hang it outside, especially when her father is about to leave for work. A worn phanek is considered “impure” and will bring bad luck, she was taught.

Nepram couldn’t wrap her head around how one garment could simultaneously be so desired and reviled. Her confusion was exacerbated as she grew older and discovered the more complicated ways in which the garment was perceived in Manipuri society. The phanek, she realised, was many things: beautiful, yet intimidating, powerful, yet controlled, and popular, yet barely understood.

After completing her post-graduate degree in Mass Communication in Jamia Milia Islamia in Delhi, Nepram returned to Manipur and decided to delve deeper into the story of the garment. The result is a 47-minute documentary called Bloody Phanek, which will be screened at the Alternative Law Forum in Bengaluru on August 24.

“This is a very personal film,” Nepram told over the phone from Imphal. “It started with that early memory of my mother telling me that phanek is impure. When I reached class 12, the same phanek was imposed on us, it became the dress code for girls in schools and colleges. In present-day Manipur, women use phanek in protests and bandhs as a symbol of their power. There are so many aspects to this one piece of cloth – taboo, ambiguity, a kind of sacred power and perhaps something beyond all of these too. I felt a film on the phanek had to be made.”

Bloody Phanek (2017). Courtesy Yelhoumee Pictures.

This is Nepram’s second film. She made her debut with A God And A Gun, a documentary about the struggles of a woman who is a former insurgent. The film, released online, won the jury choice award at the Mumbai International Film Festival in 2013.

Nepram began work on Bloody Phanek in 2014 and completed it three years later. “The entire process was really tough because I had no money or camera to shoot something to send to potential funders,” she said. “So, I began by pitching the film at various places with just photographs from my childhood, of me wearing phanek for the first time – of that little moment when I was feeling really proud. Some people liked the fact that it was a personal story.”

The script was mentored at a workshop in Imphal organised by DocEdge Kolkata, where Nepram said she got some clarity about how to make a film about such a complex subject. It was eventually pitched at DocEdge Kolkata, where it was picked up for funding by DNP South Korea.

“It was at the Imphal workshop that I realised that since the phanek is not a living being and cannot speak for itself, I will have to make a tapestry that revolves around people’s experiences with phanek,” Nepram said.

This is just what Bloody Phanek successfully manages to be: a chronicle of people’s varied experiences with a unique garment. In the film, Nepram interviews a range of Manipuris, including women at Imphal’s Mother’s Market and in the fields in rural parts of the state and young men in cities and villages. She also talks to historians about Meitei philosophy, whose symbols adorn the borders of the phanek and to folk artists who flaunt the garment in their performances.

She asks each of them about what the phanek means to them and probes the notion of impurity that the garment supposedly embodies. Nepram’s questions are received with a variety of responses – from “Why are you asking about this” to “Thank you for asking, I have so many things to say about this”. Nepram patiently listens to each of her subjects without championing one myth or explanation over another.

“I wanted us Manipuris to hear each other out on this subject,” Nepram explained. “Not just women, but also men – I wanted to hear what they think about phanek and whether they too consider it to be impure. In this process, what I also realised is that I had to unlearn a lot of things and go back to the basics, to the very roots of our culture and society. For many of them, these are questions they have thought about but never articulated.”

Sonia Nepram.

Nepram is present in the frame along with her interviewees: an important aspect of her process for her. “The entire film starts with my personal experience and childhood stories,” she said. “So, when I’m out searching for the answers, I have to be there as well. If I’m not there, who will join the narrative? I’m the one who is questioning the myths and at times, my subjects are challenging me back with their questions.”

An important theme is the use of phanek as a symbol of resistance in Manipur. “Where would Manipur be without its phanek-wearing women?” asks a female phanek seller in the film. She then reminds Nepram of Nupi Lal, the two wars waged by women against British imperialists in 1904 and 1939.

Nepram finds interesting parallels between the anti-imperialist uprisings and that of the present-day agitations in the state. School girls and women leading struggles for the rights of indigenous people have picked up the phanek as their attire for their protest.

“I think phanek isn’t a mere attire,” Nepram said. “It can be a weapon for women, it can even symbolically be used to forgive someone and also equally to punish someone. Above all, it remains a symbol of protection, a mother. I named the film ‘Bloody Phanek’ because I wanted to make people to feel the nuances that phanek carries through many generations. Our grandmothers’ stories of struggle are all imprinted in our consciousness. It is that energy that is present in all the girls out here.”

A Gun And A God (2013).