Language: Manipuri / Meitei
Starring: RK Surchandra, Salam Birendra
Director: Aribam Syam Sharma
When young Sanathoi plays the role of of a Sangai fawn in a dance drama, he discovers the world of this rare, endemic deer species in Manipur.
Manipur’s Keibul Lamjao National Park is truly unique. It is the only natural floating park in the world, and it is home to the famed Sangai — the once endangered subspecies of brow-antlered deer endemic to the state.
A medium-sized deer with great antlers, the Sangai walks deftly on the marshy wetlands, earning the appellation ‘the Dancing Deer’. It is intrinsic to Manipuri culture and folklore and is considered the hallowed connection between man and nature. In its more than 200 years of known history, Sangai was assumed to be almost extinct by 1950. In 1953, six deers were spotted in its natural habitat and since then the state government, wildlife bodies and locals have taken extraordinary measures for its conservation. In the 2016 census, the Sangai population stands at 260. Wildlife filmmaker George Thengummoottil’s short documentary The Return of Sangai gives an excellent rundown on the issue.
A unique combination of aquatic, marshland and terrestrial, Keibul Lamjao is home to a variety of flora and fauna. Even as the authorities work aggressively to sustain this fragile ecosystem, they are constantly presented with threats — both natural and man-made — against their conservation efforts. The park is facing twin challenges of poaching and habitat degradation. The constant flooding of the Loktak river on which the national park stands, caused due to the artificial reservoir, results in steady habitat degeneration. With Paari, veteran filmmaker Aribam Syam Sharma highlights these threats and their repercussions for Keibul Lamjao’s inhabitants, especially the Sangai.
In Syam Sharma’s story, to prepare for a dance drama on the wildlife of Keibul Lamjao, Sanathoi (Surchandra) and his friends join their teacher on a trip to the park. The young boy is deeply impacted when they come across an injured Sangai fawn, and later shares his concern with his grandfather (Birendra). With Idhou’s (grandfather) fascinating stories about Sangai and new learnings about the species, Sanathoi starts imagining himself as Paari, the fawn he plays in the drama.
As a filmmaker, Aribam Syam Sharma has continuously focused on Manipur’s environmental issues. In Paari, he uses a young boy’s heartwarming guilelessness to make a passionate appeal against man’s interference in nature’s balance. As Sanathoi believes the Sangai he plays in the drama is the same injured fawn who was separated from his parents, he sets out for an audience with the Sangai king in the jungle. The film captures the interplay of imagination and consciousness in a child’s mind beautifully. How folklore and bedtime stories inspire the young to empathise with other beings. For example,when Sanathoi hears the story of the ancient connection between Sangai and Keibul Lamjao, the gravity of their habitat displacement hits him harder.
Aribam Syam Sharma is a pioneering figure of Manipuri cinema credited for placing this fledgling film industry on the world map. Manipuri cinema began in the Seventies and Syam Sharma is one of its founding fathers. His directorial debut Lamja Parshuram (1974) is considered a classic. In a career spanning four decades, this octogenarian has directed 13 features films and several shorts and documentaries. He shot into international recognition with his 1981 film Imagi Ningthem (My Son, My Precious) that received the grand prix at Festival des Trios Continents, Nantes, France. The biggest highlight of his career would be Ishanou (The Chosen One) screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival. A son of the soil, Syam Sharma’s films are evocative, deeply embedded in the Manipuri socio-cultural milieu and emotionally rich. Most of his non features (Indigenous Games of Manipur/1990, Meitei Pung/ 1991) are based on subjects inherent to the hill state but have remained largely undiscovered in the mainstream.
Having studied at Santiniketan in his youth, Syam Sharma would have a lifelong association with classical music, theatre and dance. It influenced his career trajectory as a filmmaker, actor and music composer. Paari is a story largely dependent on music and dance forms, and under Syam Sharma’s expert understanding of the subject, it soars. The message — children as the sentinels of nature — is neither didactic nor does it require sloganeering. A simple collaborative art form does the trick.