A series of unforeseen circumstances forced a teenage Amarjit Maibam to take up work as a bus conductor on the route from Imphal to Moreh. But that was not the direction he meant to take.
It was back in 2014 when Amarjit Maibam (Amar), a former bus conductor, began documenting the lives of the truck drivers who drive through the perilous National Highways 2 and 37, bringing essential commodities like food grains, fuel and medicine to the residents of Manipur, a landlocked state.
He followed the drivers and their families for five years with his camera, capturing their unique contribution to life in the state, and documented their trials and tribulations along the way.
What materialised was a deeply-engaging 52-minute documentary called Highways of Life. Produced by the Films Division of India, it won the Best Film Award (International Competition) at the 8th Liberation DocFest, Bangladesh, and also picked up four awards — Best Non-Feature Film, Best Direction, Best Cinematography and Best Editing — at the 13th Manipur State Film Awards.
“I am delighted at how the film has been received. But more than the awards, I am happy that a larger audience can witness the lives of these truckers through my film. This film took five years to shoot because I didn’t want to adopt the standard narrative format of documentary filmmaking. I wanted moments to present themselves naturally and waited for them instead of just shooting for two-three months and using standard voice narration,” says Amar, speaking to The Better India.
The risks these truck drivers take are very real. They battle the vagaries of nature with roads often getting washed away by rains and landslides, economic blockades imposed by civil society organisations representing certain ethnic communities living in the state, illegal road tax collection by insurgent groups, robberies and police corruption.
“The lives of truckers are very unpredictable. For example, whenever any major political organisation wants to further their agenda and put pressure on the State government, they organise economic blockades, which often means blocking these highways. Trucks cannot ply, and they will be stopped. If truckers disobey the blockade, their vehicles will be burnt, stoned, and essential supplies pulled down. They can also get looted on the highway or asked for illegal payments. Even at police checkpoints, they are asked to pay bribes. They get beaten up, and are easy targets for trouble makers,” says Sunzu Bachaspatimayum, a Manipur-based filmmaker.
In the film, Amar captures how a group of truck drivers survived the longest economic blockade in living memory in 2016-17, which lasted 141 days. The blockade was imposed by the United Naga Council, a civil society organisation, who were opposing the creation of seven new districts in the State. In the same year, on NH-37, he saw these drivers stranded on the highway following the collapse of a bridge.
“Amar is someone who wants to tell stories that are not being told in mainstream media. As someone who has witnessed the hardships and difficulties of life on the highway, he was uniquely placed to make ‘Highways of Life,’” says Sunzu.
It’s impossible to understand the choice that Amar made to become a bus conductor in his teens, without understanding the circumstances that led up to it.
His late father, MA Singh, was a renowned feature filmmaker in Manipur, who had studied film editing and direction at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, from 1969 to 1975.
At the institute, he had the likes of Danny Denzonpga as his batchmate, while Shabana Azmi was a junior. Until 1977, he worked with Doordarshan in Mumbai before returning to Manipur to fulfill his own dreams of becoming a filmmaker. In fact, on his return to Manipur, he was offered a job at the local radio station in Imphal, which he refused.
From 1977 to 1980, Singh worked on a series of short documentaries about Manipur for the state Directorate of Information and Public Relations (DIPR). In 1982, he released his first feature film called Sanakeithel, which translates into the ‘Golden Market’ in Meitei.
It won the Best Feature Film in Manipuri /Meitei Language at the 31st National Film Awards in 1983.
In the following year, he released his first colour feature film called Langlen Thadoi, which won a State-level award. This was the second Manipuri colour feature film ever made after Paokhum Ana by renowned filmmaker Aribam Syam Sharma the year before.
Fast forward to April 1989, and he began working on his next major feature film based on the Sahitya Akademi Award winning collection of short stories titled Chekla Paikhrabada.
Closely observing him on set was a young Amar, who was barely in middle school at the time. “My father taught me how to operate a still camera, although I would only practice when the camera wasn’t rolling. In the midst of this process, he inspired me to become a filmmaker although I didn’t know it at the time,” recalls Amar.
This celluloid film was almost finished, but midway through post production work Singh ran out of finances and didn’t have any producer to back him. Although he did receive some support from the National Film Development Corporation, the film went way over budget since it was shot all over the Northeast in states like Assam and Nagaland as well.
Back then, the Northeast was an even smaller market for feature films and so there was little support from producers. He had invested all the family property and money into the film.
“My family was bankrupt. My father’s dreams were shattered, and until 1993, he was caught up in a vicious cycle of alcohol abuse. Financially, it was a very difficult time for us. So after completing my matriculation in 1995, I took up work as a conductor on a bus plying between Imphal and Moreh, a town situated on the India-Myanmar border. I chose this line of work because unlike other professions, it gave me access to quick money,” he says.
“Since he has experienced this life of struggle, Amar is more empathetic to the situation of ordinary people who sometimes have to overcome remarkably difficult situations in life. While this was indeed a difficult time for him, these moments are what possibly shaped him into the kind of filmmaker he is today,” argues Sunzu.
Life as a Bus Conductor in Manipur
Amar got the job thanks to a cousin, but this wasn’t going to be a simple gig. Unlike most routes in India, the work of a bus conductor on trips to Moreh and back is fraught with risk.
“The bus conductor plays a very important role on the Moreh road. We don’t merely ferry passengers, but transport a lot of goods from across the border in Myanmar to Imphal and thus have to deal with a lot of people in between — from the police to insurgents. So, I sat and learnt the art of bus conducting from other more experienced pros and drivers,” he recalls.
Until 2000, he worked as an assistant conductor before taking charge. He knew everyone who traveled on this road. Also, it was on the road where he would finish his studies.
“We would stay in Imphal for about three days at a stretch, where my cousin would deliver the goods and collect the fare, while I would study. I somehow managed to finish high school and college this way,” he says.
Thanks to this five-year stint, he had saved up enough money to purchase his own two buses. While this meant that his family now had a steady stream of income, he had no desire to stay in the transport business. Despite life on the road, films always resided in his heart.
“It was my burning desire to get back to films that drove this decision to purchase these buses and earn additional income,” notes Amar.
In 2005, Amar and his father began working on commissioned programmes by Doordarshan for the Northeast. Despite rediscovering the joy of working with his father for a few years, he wasn’t happy because his skill levels weren’t up to it.
Finally, in 2008, he went to Kolkata and enrolled in the Kolkata Film and Television Institute to learn cinematography.
Capturing Manipur Through His Lens
Amar made his first documentary film in 2009 called City of Victims documenting the public response to extra-judicial killings in Manipur.
The film was triggered by the fake encounter of 22-year-old Chungkham Sanjit in Imphal by the Manipur Police on 23 July, 2009. During the encounter, Thockchom Rabina, a pregnant woman, who happened to be a bystander, was also shot dead in the crossfire. After these killings, there was a three-month bandh and massive protests on the streets.
For Amar, this wasn’t an investigative documentary piecing together the events that led to Sanjit’s death, but capturing the public outrage. He believes that filmmaking is all about capturing the lives of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances.
Nonetheless, besides documentary films, he also made a 10 episode tele-play for Doordarshan in 2012, while assisting a lot of other directors there in their feature films. While shooting for Highways of Life, he also managed to make two more shorter documentaries. The first of the two was called My Generous Village, which follows the life of an arms smuggler Danny Jajo who after his arrest and incarceration became a farmer in the remote border village of Sibung.
Financed by the Films Division of India, it won the Special Jury Award and Best Music Award in the Manipur State Film Awards 2019. His third documentary film titled NAWA – Spirit of Atey in 2019 was about a 13-year-old Meitei transperson, Nupamacha Atey, and how he navigates society. The film was co-directed with Santa Khurai, and bagged the Best Documentary Award in the 2nd Nagaland Film Festival 2019.
“Through his documentaries, Amar is presenting the different colours of Manipur. In the state we have tribal communities like the Nagas, Kukis and Meiteis, who are always at loggerheads politically at least. Through his films, however, he depicts what they share rather than what makes them different from their struggles to joys and their love for family,” notes Sunzu.
How Does Amar Find These Very Fascinating Subjects?
“For My Generous Village, I had travelled all through the interiors with my truckers along the Myanmar border. During my travels, I found Danny’s family, which runs a tea shop for truckers passing-by or others involved in the local timber business. The fascinating aspect about this family was that apart from Danny and one of his siblings, the other four all worked in different cities across mainland India like Chennai and Mumbai. I first met Danny sometime in 2015/16, and over the course of two years we had developed a good relationship as he opened up about his story. This film was shot in Tangkhul with English subtitles,” he notes.
Meanwhile, it was Santa Khurai who had heard Atey’s story from his mother. Atey had reportedly stopped going to school when asked to wear a girl’s uniform, and only went back after the school headmaster issued him a boy’s uniform.
For his most recent documentary film titled All For My Sister, which is in post-production currently, he reached out weightlifter Khumukcham Sanjita Chanu, who had suffered disgrace and social boycott following allegations of doping in 2018 after she won the gold in the Commonwealth Games.
“After the doping scandal, Sanjita suffered a social boycott because everyone thought she had cheated. So, when I approached her and told her about my desire to tell her story, she was very accommodating. She saw me as someone who wanted to tell her story,” he notes.
It was only earlier this month that the International Weightlifting Federation dropped the doping charge against Sanjita due to “non-conformities” in the handling of her sample. However, for the two years, she was kept under suspension and had to quit weightlifting. During this time, it was her brother who constantly fought for justice.
If it wasn’t for the doping scandal, she would have won the Arjuna Award in 2018. However, the government recently announced that she will win it soon after it was withheld following the doping scandal. “I would like to end the documentary with her receiving the award. Final edits will be made after she wins the Arjuna Award,” he says.
Nonetheless, making these films has hardly been a cakewalk for Amar. He was arrested by the police while shooting for Highways of Life, on trumped up charges that were later dropped. Also, not every subject is as responsive or accommodating to being documented on camera like Sanjita.
“Some don’t want their stories told. It’s a truly heartbreaking process to follow certain subjects for months and maybe a year, before they realise that they don’t want the camera around anymore. They’re not comfortable with their stories being shared and the possible risks associated with it,” he says.
But in his moments of distress, he remembers his father, who passed away in 2013.
“After all that suffering, he was very happy seeing me make films. He hasn’t seen me earn recognition I have today, but I remember the delight on his face when I came back to filmmaking. Even till his last years, we worked on a couple of projects. Like him, I want to continue documenting the lives of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. It’s what gives me joy,” he concludes.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)