The North East region of India is renowned for its rich cultural heritage and artistic contributions, and the veteran film maker Aribam Syam Sharma stands as a prominent figure in the realm of Manipuri cinema. With a celebrated career spanning several decades, Sharma has made invaluable contributions to the world of filmmaking, capturing the essence of Manipuri culture and presenting it to a global audience. One of his seminal works, Ishanou, recently garnered international recognition when a restored print of the film was screened at the illustrious 76th Cannes International Film Festival in May 2023, thanks to the efforts of the India Heritage Foundation. It however had already the honour of being screened in the Un Certain Regard section of the festival in 1991, and had the privilege of being invited to a number of International film festivals at that time of its release.
Born on July 6, 1936, in Imphal, Manipur, Aribam Syam Sharma's artistic journey began in the early 1960s. He graduated with a degree in Political Science from St. Edmund's College, Shillong, and later pursued a diploma in Film Direction from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune. Sharma's passion for storytelling and his deep rooted connection to Manipuri culture fueled his drive to bring Manipuri cinema to the forefront of the Independent Indian films of Artistic merit.
Aribam Syam Sharma's filmography boasts a diverse range of films, characterised by his distinct directorial style and a profound exploration of social and cultural issues. Some of his notable works include Imagi Ningthem (My Son, My Precious, 1981), Ishanou (The Chosen One, 1990), Sangai: The Dancing Deer of Manipur (2016), and Gun for Sale (2020). Through his films, Sharma has successfully portrayed the struggles, aspirations, and beauty of Manipuri society.
Among his numerous works, Ishanou holds a special place in Aribam Syam Sharma's filmography. Released in 1990, the film captures the essence of Manipuri society through a poignant story of love and sorrow set with a background of Manipur’s traditional Music, ethnic daily life of Maibi sect deeply rooted in faith and beliefs bordering on Occult and even some irrationalities. It is special because it not only showcases the entire spectrum of talents in the domains of Music, Song writing, Singing, Theatre Direction, Philosophical Explorations etc., of the film maker but also blends it into a holistic expression through organic imagery of ethnographic documentation.
Ishanou beautifully explores themes of tradition, social hierarchy, and also the artistic possibilities of the film medium. Sharma's masterful storytelling, coupled with a rich screenplay by the famed Manipuri writer M. K. Binodini, the vibrant performances of the lead actors, breathes life into the characters and their struggles. The film's meticulous attention to detail in depicting Manipuri cultural practices and rituals adds to its authenticity and emotional depth. Ishanou not only showcases Sharma's directorial finesse but also serves as a testament to the rich cultural heritage of Manipur.
The restoration of Ishanou by the India Heritage Foundation breathed new life into the film, ensuring its preservation for future generations. The Foundation's commitment to safeguarding India's cinematic heritage is commendable, and their collaboration with Aribam Syam Sharma allowed the film to reach a wider audience on a global platform after a gap of three decades.
The screening of the restored print of Ishanou at the 76th Cannes International Film Festival marked a momentous occasion for not only Manipuri cinema but for the entire Indian Cinema of different regions which in reality is the representative of Indian life in plurality and cultural diversity. The film's inclusion in such a prestigious event not only highlights the talent and vision of Aribam Syam Sharma but also emphasises the need to spread the range and varied canvas of Indian Cinema in such global platforms. Incidentally, it is good to remember that Film Heritage Foundation’s restored version of illustrious Malayalam film maker G. Aravindan’s 1978 film Thamp̄u was screened at the Cannes Classics section in 2022.
By N. Vidyashankar