By Mridula Chari
A still from ‘The Only Real Game’ One of the jokes about the Major League Baseball World Series is that only one country participates: the United States of America. While this is factually inaccurate, commentators might soon be able to add India to the relatively short list. The Only Real Game, a new documentary by American film-maker Mirra Bank, showcases Manipur’s unlikeliest products: young baseball enthusiasts.
America’s cricket, rather than India’s national game, captured the imagination of Manipuris during World War II. US troops posted in Manipur during the war set up makeshift pitches to pass the time between battles, and while they were at it, taught the game to Manipuri children. Today, there are about 27 teams with 300 players across the state.Muriel Peters, one of the documentary’s producers, first heard of baseball players in Manipur in 2004. “I’ve known Muriel for 25 years, and when she told me she was about to go to Manipur, and that there might be baseball there, I said, take a camera,” says Bank. “There is a film there.”
Once she reached Manipur, Peters realized that the game there was underdeveloped, and that the players relied on locally sourced equipment of questionable quality. She set up an organization, First Pitch, which promotes baseball collaboration between Manipur and the US. One of their goals, to bring Major League coaches to Imphal, is the subject of The Only Real Game.
For now, baseball aspirants in Imphal have to settle for an uneven and rocky pasture they share with football players and cows. Though promised a pitch about five years ago by Jarnail Singh, chief secretary of Manipur at the time, this is yet to materialize.
One of the aims of First Pitch is to take Manipuri children to New York to meet Major League baseball players. “We really wanted them to come to New York,” says Peters. “We even put mortgages on our own houses to stand as security for them.” Though all but one of the four or five applicants shown in the film were denied visas, Peters is still optimistic.
“We had initially wanted to take younger children to New York, but the Manipuri baseball associations selected older ones who are considered primary flight risks by visa officials.” They plan to try Bank began shooting The Only Real Game in 2006—the shooting continued intermittently for five-and-a-half years. The film, made on a budget of around $300,000 (Rs.18.3 crore), was shot at a time when foreigners were restricted from travelling to Manipur and permits were given for only 10 days at a time.
While the crew wasn’t prevented from shooting, they were accompanied at all times by armed guards. “It was almost comical at some points,” says Bank, talking of how an entire military convoy was organized to escort them to a lake in the interiors, out of the safe zone.
“It wasn’t difficult to shoot, but they were overdetermined.” The documentary is not silent about Manipur’s long-running insurgency, and intertwines depictions of a handful of sports enthusiasts being trained by two American coaches with externally-sourced footage of violence caused by insurgents and the military. “If you make a film about baseball, that’s one thing, but if you make a film about a place like Manipur, to me, it would be completely artificial and unreal to do it severed from the context,” Bank explains.
“That situation changes every day, but at the time we were there, this was the context our characters were living. We see this as necessary for people in the US as well. They know little about India, let alone about Manipur.”
The primary focus of the film-makers was to “portray an unsentimental version of India”, Bank says. “The term I use is ‘dropping down’—you don’t try to impose your vision, but you get close to people where they live emotionally, in their everyday lives, with their children, their dreams,” she says.
“As much as you can, you stay with them and you listen.” The Only Real Game, which won the award for the Best Documentary at the New York Indian Film Festival this year and was also shown at the recently held Mumbai International Film Festival, will travel to various cities in India, including Manipur where an invite-only event is being held today.
Major League coaches have visited the troubled state only twice or thrice after production finished in 2011, and the hope is that the documentary will revive interest in supporting the sport.
The film-makers hope that they will be able to use the game as a message of peace for insurgents as well. “This is a story of hope,” says Bank. “The reason the film took so long to make is that we wanted to find a story that honours the people and their spirit.
We wanted it to be about their future, their joy. In a way—and not that I would recommend this—the things they don’t have validate that they still do what they love.”
The Only Real Game will be shown on 31 October at 4pm, Classic Hotel, Imphal (011-46018541); on 5 November at 3pm, Press Club of India, Delhi (46018541); on 7 November at 6pm, Bangalore International Centre Auditorium, Teri Complex, Domlur (9886599675); and on 8 November at 7pm, Suchitra Film Society, BV Karanth Road, Banashankari, Bangalore (26711785). Click here for details.