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Aribam Syam Sharma: A Maestro of Manipuri Cinema and the Timeless Beauty of "Ishanou"

Mrudula Sunday July 16, 2023

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. 

Maestro of Manipuri Cinema Aribam Syam Sharma's movie "Ishanou" poster
Maestro of Manipuri Cinema Aribam Syam Sharma's movie "Ishanou" poster


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 

Talking Asian Cinema - With Aruna Vasudev

System Administrator Tuesday December 21, 2021
The seed for starting a journal on the cinemas of Asia - with contributors from the various countries like Tadao Sato from Japan, Li Cheuk to from Hong Kong, Ashley from Sri Lanka etc - was planted and became a driving passion. The information available in the pages of Cinemaya is invaluable.

Embracing the Unknowable 

System Administrator Tuesday September 7, 2021
Even for many of us who are followers of South-east Asian cinema, the terrain can still remain unfamiliar, even though well-trodden. When you encounter a film such as Anatomy of Time (World Premiere at the Venice Film Festival on Sept 9, 2021) that encompasses religion, philosophy, politics, history, cinema and more, one feels the pleasure of swimming in unknown waters yet again. Philip Cheah speaks to the film’s director, Jakrawal Nilthamrong, about his cinematic tapestry.

Buddhadeb Dasgupta - A Talented Filmmaker

System Administrator Tuesday July 6, 2021
Apart from being a highly gifted and resourceful film director, he was also a sensitive poet. Indeed, his love for poetry inflected many of his films in interesting and complex ways. In many of Dasgupta’s films there are wonderful poetic sequences. In addition, in some of his cinematic creations the basic framework has been conceived of in poetic terms.

The Work of Aruna Vasudev

System Administrator Wednesday June 30, 2021
Dr. Aruna Vasudev | source: Delhi Art Diaries
Dr. Aruna Vasudev | source: Delhi Art Diaries


Aruna Vasudev has been awarded the prestigious Satyajit Ray award. She fully deserves it. Her splendid and consequential work in the fields of national and international cinema make this recognition inevitable. As both a film critic and a promoter of Asian cinema she has, over the past half a century, performed a most valuable service in extending the discursive horizons of lovers of cinema. As a critic, through her books and numerous essays and articles she has generated a great informed interest in film as a vital cultural practice. As the Founding Editor of the influential journal Cinemaya, she sought to make vital connections between cinema and the public sphere.

Earlier I referred to her appreciation of cinema as a significant cultural practice. What I mean by this is the following: Cinema is art. It is entertainment. It is industry. It is technology. It is ideology. All these dimensions combine to form a complex and multi-faceted unity. Aruna Vasudev was of the opinion that when we discuss film as creative expression we need to pay attention simultaneously to these various interrelated dimensions. She recognized the value of considering cinema as a cultural practice from the very beginning.

Apart from being a perceptive critic of cinema, Aruna Vasudev is also an avid and influential promoter of Asian cinema throughout the world. As a central figure in the NETPC she played an invaluable role in the promotion of Asian cinema. Aruna Vasudev was also an astute intellectual. Her writings on film and her work on promoting Asian cinema come back frequently to a number of important themes. In the interests of space, I wish to focus on two of them. The first is globalization and cinema. The second is the interconnection between cinema and the public sphere. I wish to discuss briefly both of these themes.

Globalization can be profitably described as both a historical phenomenon and a way of making sense of the world. This is to underline its ontological and epistemological dimensions and how they are interconnected. It has the effect of highlighting issues of cultural modernity, secularism, ethnicity belongingness, nationhood and cosmopolitanism. Aruna Vasudev recognizes the fact that cinema arose in India, as indeed in many other Asian countries, as a consequence of the complex interplay between globalism and localism. The worldwide spread of multinational capital, the trans-nationalization of economies, the stupendous advances in communication technologies, the fall of the Soviet Union, among others, have resulted in the emergence of this historical phenomenon. The problem of comprehending this phenomenon has had the effect of giving rise to a new state of mind and a new style of thinking. These are vitally connected with the growth of cinema and the understanding of cinema. Aruna Vasudev is fully cognizant of this as evident in her writings.

Aruna Vasudev fully appreciates the fact that the complex and many-sided relationship between the global and the local is most memorably represented in cinema. Indian cinema illustrates this fact cogently. Therefore, it is Vasudev’s conviction that we need to locate cinema at the interface between the global and the local so as to understand its true dimensions. How symbolic forms and modalities linked to western capitalism are localized, transformed, legitimized in most countries including India in accordance with historical narratives and visible life worlds is at the center of the discourse referred to as ‘glocalism.’ Aruna Vasudev is of the opinion that in order to understand cinema in all its depth and multi-facetedness we should retain this focus on globalization.

The second theme in Aruna Vasudev’s writing that I wish to briefly dwell on is the idea of the public sphere. In his important book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, which has shaped the thinking of humanists and social scientists in interesting ways, Jurgen Habermas identifies a set of forces and institutions that took shape in the late seventeenth ad eighteenth century Europe and which were central to understanding the nature of the democratic polity. He termed this the bourgeois public sphere. What was significant about the public sphere from the point of view of Habermas was the possibilities it held for separating out the political discourse from both the state and civil society. It was a space in which public opinion could be generated, and in this effort, newspapers, fiction, film played an important role. Aruna Vasudev was deeply aware of the vital role that films could play in the public sphere.

In the case of Indian cinema, the nexus between cinema and the public sphere was very important from the very beginning. Dadasaheb Phalke, the father of Indian cinema, was quick to see the importance of its connection and the value of cinema in generating public opinion. It is important to remind ourselves of the fact that he was active in the Swadeshi movement challenging the dominance of the British. Similarly, when we consider the films made in the 1930s we see how the foregrounding of social issues was central to the ambitions of the Indian filmmakers. Films like Chandali, Dharmatma, Bala Yogini, Lakshmi, Thyagabhoomi testify to this fact. The relationship between cinema and the public sphere continues to be a vital linkage up until modern times. Hence it is not surprising that as a film commentator Aruna Vasudev sought to focus on this relationship.

Aruna Vasudev has left an indelible mark on the study and appreciation of Indian cinema. At the same time, she worked tirelessly to gain recognition and visibility for Asian films outside of Asia. In conclusion, let me wish Aruna Vasudev many more years of highly productive work in the domain of cinema. The Satyajit Ray award should be considered recognition of this wish.

My association with Aruna

I have known Aruna Vasudev for over fifty years. We used to meet frequently in India and we have met several times at the East West Center, Hawaii. I was initially on the advisory editorial board of the Journal Cinemaya that she edited and currently I am on the Executive Board of NETPAC (USA).


Professor Wimal Dissanayake Is a leading scholar of Asian cinema. He has published a large number of scholarly books on the subject. They have been published by leading publishing houses of the world such as Oxford, Cambridge, Duke University Press. Prof. Dissanayake was invited to co-edit the Routledge Handbook of Indian Cinema. He was the founding editor of the East-West Film Journal. He was awarded an honorary D.Ltt. by the Kelaniya University and the Lifetime Award for Literature by the state. Wimal Dissanayake is a national award-winning poet who has published poetry books in both Sinhala and English. He is currently Affiliate Professor at the University of Hawaii and an Honorary Professor at the Open University of Hong Kong.


Supriya Suri's Interview with Muhiddin Muzaffar

Director Muhiddin Muzaffar (1) 2 Min

1. I entered the cinema through the theatre. I was an actor in our local theatre called Kanibadam, named after Tuhfa Fozilova. After working for five years, I decided to do a theatre director course. I graduated with honors and became a director. We successfully staged performances at international festivals.


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