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‘So many people have died’: This Indian director conquered Russia with stories from his homeland

Romi Meitei’s film covering issues of violence and displacement in India’s remote Manipur state earned him the best director award at the Kazan International Muslim Film Festival

When an insurgent group banned Bollywood films in the northeast Indian state of Manipur in 2000, it propelled the ascent of Romi Meitei. The 46-year-old regional filmmaker initially tasted success with commercial movies, but eventually gained critical and international recognition when he won a major Indian award with his first non-commercial venture, ‘Eikhoigi Yum’ (‘Our Home’).

Meitei’s work on the phenomenon of displacement also earned him the Best Director prize at the prestigious Kazan International Muslim Film Festival in Russia in September. Meitei fondly recalled the experience and recognized the award as a “responsibility” to make even better films.

“I was happy to interact with the Russian audience,” Meitei told RT over the phone about his visit to Kazan, the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan. “Russia’s active participation in promoting cinema with original stories is quite commendable. I was surprised that my movie was accepted so warmly by the country.”

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In October, Meitei, based in Manipur’s capital Imphal, was conferred with India’s National Award by President Droupadi Murmu at an official event in New Delhi. He said, however, that he is unable to celebrate his triumph “properly” as his state continues to burn due to an ethnic conflict between two major communities – the Meitei people, a majority that lives in the Imphal Valley, and the Kuki tribal community from the surrounding hills. Around 200 people have lost their lives in the fighting since May this year, and thousands displaced from their homes are now living in relief camps.

“Violence has been raging in Manipur for six long months,” he said. “So many people have died. Nothing is more precious than human lives. As such, it is my earnest hope and desire that the central government find a way to restore peace to my homeland.”

Born into a musical family – his mother was a singer who would sing traditional songs at marriages and funerals – Meitei developed an intense passion for writing at an early age. His love of expression would eventually lead to a tryst with filmmaking, arguably the most expressive of all art forms.  

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“I inculcated a love for writing in my early teens. I also had a dream to tell original stories as I felt that my state, abundantly rich in culture and tradition, had no dearth of interesting tales,” Meitei told RT. “There are tales that have been handed down from our forefathers, through oral tradition, which are extremely suitable for the film medium,” he elaborated.

Interestingly, Meitei never attended a single formal class on filmmaking, instead honing his craft while working with screenplays on the local scene.

Meitei accepts the ‘Best Director’ award at the Kazan International Muslim Film Festival in Russia.


©  Romi Meitei

In 2000, the insurgent group Revolutionary People’s Front banned Hindi movies, specifically Mumbai-made Bollywood releases, for allegedly “destroying Manipuri culture, language and local film industry.” 

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In the aftermath of the ban, Meitei emerged as a prolific commercial filmmaker on the scene, churning out one hit after another. After delivering 30 such movies, many of them major successes, Meitei finally directed his gaze away from commercialism. This shift would eventually earn him even more fame and adulation.

Meitei’s strong feeling about “displacement” taking place all over the world would determine the subject matter of his first non-commercial effort. He based ‘Eikhoigi Yum’ on the displacement in the vicinity of the Loktak, the largest freshwater lake in South Asia and a key tourist attraction in northeast India. 

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“Loktak was home to dozens of floating huts where local fishermen used to reside,” he said. “In 2011, the government served an evacuation notice to these people, who were ostensibly making a living from the lake. My film focuses on the conflict arising between the government forces and the helpless fishermen who felt they had nowhere to go.”

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Meitei’s dream project, however, almost didn’t happen as he couldn’t find backers willing to finance the film. Although his initial releases had been runaway successes, producers were hesitant to place their bets on a non-commercial project. Not to be deterred, however, Meitei eventually managed to secure the budget for the film, a sum of around $25,000, from family members, friends, and well-wishers. Therefore, Meitei lovingly refers to his 89-minute-long film as an “organic home production.”

Despite the film doing well on the festival circuit, Meitei has had a hard time securing a traditional release. “I am yet to find a good distributor for the film”, he said. Meitei remains optimistic that he will land a satisfactory deal for an OTT (online streaming services) release. The filmmaker, however, clarified that he doesn’t have any regrets as he had always aspired to touch on social issues and the complexities of human relationships through the medium of cinema.  

“Although I was quite prolific as a commercial filmmaker, sometimes directing as many as four-five movies a year, I was never satisfied with my work. This non-commercial film finally enabled me to finally express my true artistic intent,” said Meitei. In the future, he added, he intends to make more such films, not only on issues affecting Manipur but also the other northeast Indian states.

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