Chills from the periphery
The poet, prone to exaggerate, thinks clearly under torture.
– Rene Char
Manipuri film-maker Sunzu Bachaspatimayum's critically acclaimed documentary Sagolgi Eigi Wari (Pony and Me) released in Dhaka (DAC) a day before its release in New Delhi un-nerves with its quality of thinking clearly under torture attributed to the poet Rene Char. Sunzu not only reverses the ethnographic gaze – the Manipuri film scene, in any case, virtually began from that point of departure, unlike its CHT counterpart, where Aung Rakhine's My Bicycle has only set a precedent – it is a gradual reversal of the camera's function as it becomes the subject of its own objectification. In one of the penultimate scenes of the film, the blood from the director's cameraman, shot while shooting yet another encounter staged by the Indian army, stains the lens – the eye and the gaze are both bloodied, for a moment; an apogee of powerlessness. 'Reality' goes from co-directing the film to taking over the show, but, only for a moment, as though the god backstage came to take a bow, well before the curtains went down. The world after the apocalypse (from the greek apocálypsis: uncovering) is, inevitably, absurd or surreal; the tragic loses its cathartic solace. The camera's gaze returns to the 'normalcy' of life under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA 1958), and, to the symbolic centre of the film, the Manipuri Pony. The pony looks the camera in the face. Its head thrusting out of a tight frame, the pony appears more absurd than pathetic, as we see its one ear shut open, then the other. It is as though to witness is to suffocate, on both sides of this gaze. The Deleuzian notion of excess of affect–enduring the unbearable–in cinema meets the excess of 'reality' that is documentary.
Sunzo's treatment of the expressive language of cinema is tacit, rather than incendiary like Ajay Bardwaj's Manipuri in the Shadow of AFSPA (2005), that burning mirror of Manorama Devi's rape and the People's Tribunals held up to 'the benign gaze of the state'. For here, the typewriter's gunshots on the silver screen (a la Stop Genocide) do not merely punctuate archival footage, they are interlaced and intercut with a symbolic thread. Sagolgi Eigi Wari translates into Being with Pony, and the interdependent, entangled destinies of the 39 tribes, 32 guerrilla outfits, and the endangered breed of horses that are the ponies of Manipur are suggested as the ontology of Manipur. 'It', the second person singular that is always the 'other', the marginalized, the animal – Pony, exists in parallel though begins perpendicular to the life in the valley of the most militarized region of India.
The ponies are first seen grazing in the mists of the mountains, invoking a lost world, the undivided Kingdom before its difficult union with India, before smog and garbage, before the pony itself became detritus, peripheral, a symbol of neglect. Preeta Verna, in Bardwaj's documentary, noted that 'In the Indian national consciousness the Northeast has always existed on the periphery, their demand for basic democratic rights has been termed subversive, something to be crushed.' From the heights of the thus deigned periphery, those hills where ethereal ponies glowed in the land's very own 'my/istque,' where Sunzo jolts the silences evoked by such space with cymbals and gongs, music that strikes a chord of the ancient, distant and the haunting, the camera beckons to an emerald daylight. Here, black-clad Kuki guerrillas lie in ambush; they respond crisply to questions of fear, ignoring the gaze directed at their youth as much as at their guns. The camera descends to the flower and fish market of the capital, Imphal, then, abruptly, blows up the casual view of the town's street, as all is flattened in the horizontal plane of the staged encounter, with its passive, disoriented witnesses. The street is suddenly cordoned, the shops are cleared in a flurry of fear, the people of the market crowd together; our gaze follows theirs fearful, helpless. Sirens signal as a dead body is carried away. Through interposed text we learn that the boy who is shot for being an ex 'radical' by the Assam Rifles is young, as young as the Kuki guerrillas, and the encounter's format, old. The unheard cries (for we see the children's faces well up like clouds but do not hear them distinctly, or, do from a distance) that are a staple of the film begin, and so too our 'seeing' the invisible hand that muffles the cry.
Juxtaposing text, marked newspaper cutouts and stills, the euphemism that is the extrajudicial killing called 'encounter' is stripped, peel by peel, to reveal an onion, that in its repetitious absurdity effects tears of rage as much as helplessness. Long lines of men, mostly youth, searched arbitrarily by the army; the images of humiliation, though varied, resemble each other. And the pony, wandering, directionless, now in an emptied street under curfew, now between lanes as the army trucks and sirens pass, now grazing in a city pasture of garbage. Sunzo's effective use of the same chords that resonated in the hills now signal an eerie degradation as the horses feed on human waste: the chiming of an hour that tells time by its absence. Absurd rituals, like the release and re-arrest of Iron Sharmilla, reveal the gestures of the octopus that is the state, sometimes manifesting as the hypocritical peace-maker, correcting 'misguided' youth from the path of violence, sometimes as the ubiquitous Assam Rifles; the gestures of the guerrillas are more covert, one sees the effect of holding their own people hostage, at times demanding money and attacking schools, as though in an imperfect imitation of the enemy's siege.
The decade-long, slow brimming pessimism (or, rather, pathos) following the unfulfilled dreams of Sharmilla and the myriad others who continue to struggle in spite of what Sunzo has called 'no end in sight' pervades the film. The narrative thread of Pony and Me meanders, travelling a disorienting route, giving a sense not only of the continued 'occupation' but the divisions between the various ethnic groups seeking autonomy, the clamour of their confrontational positions and the irony of their fastidiousness to tradition under the threat of 'extinction'. Sunzo dwells on the effect of the periphery's sense of claustrophobia vis-à-vis the centre, i e censorship and bans. Manipur is one of the Indian states whose digital film industry has ironically thrived due to a blanket ban on Bollywood films by the guerrillas. Yet, new forms of censorship by state regulatory bodies to preserve culture add a slightly comic edge to the general narrowing of space.
Some of the most haunting images of the film are the ponies: the pony as scavenger, its golden white mane still atremble, the deliberate slowing down of pace as we feel each quiver; here and there the sprawled consciousness of garbage-and-horse. The film does lose some momentum during the B-roll footage: interviews of a few of the various political groups during protests juxtaposed against each other; yet, it is only a slight impoverishment. Without going into excessive background on the colonial law that is the AFSPA, Sunzo manages to extend the metaphor of colonial icon, the Manipuri Pony as the polo Pony that featured in Aribam Syam Sharma's 2012 film, to alienation. And he does this in a language of mists and the latent cry that chills.
The Manipuri film scene has seen a rise in social documentaries: Bharitya (2007) discusses the long list of path-breaking documentaries (those on the rising AIDS epidemic and drugs, Rude Awakening (1995), Thread of life (2001)), among which Sunzo's films feature prominently (Challenge, Innocent Guns). And yet, the political impact remains marginal. The unanswered question in Pony's close-up, that absurd reversed gaze, might as well be staring at Anna Hazare, whose face fills the TV screens of India's centre. Sunzo's film, as it tours the national and international festivals, hopes to embolden that fragile regard. His film does not merely straddle his two professions, journalism and cinema; it belongs to the latter, tempering the excess of affect that Deleuze attributed to the cinema with the lucidity of one (who is most lucid) under torture.
Pony and Me was screened in DAC by the Bangladesh Documentary Council on August 28, 2014 and in the Independent Short Film Festival in Dhaka in December 2014.