Mirra Banks begins her documentary with pristine and picturesque images of life in Manipur, that remote state near Burma that India only forgetfully remembers. In fact, it remembers the place mostly when stories of rebellion/ the separatists appear in the Press. Banks assumes nothing, introducing the place, the images and the people. With Melissa Leo’s voice-over, Manipur’s history unfolds with clips of newsreels and television footage. With these elements in place, the film firmly establishes itself in the classical canon. Manipur is only a tapestry behind the narrative, the real story about something entirely different. It is about baseball, about the genesis of a game that takes root in a land so far from its main stage in the U.S.
Aided by an organization in New York, First Pitch, two baseball coaches from MLB arrive in Manipur to train the locals in baseball. Supplies arrive from various manufacturers. The idea is to tap into the enthusiasm of youngsters who want to play baseball. Banks introduces each character, with their tales anchored in the hardships and small victories of everyday life. Their stories unfold while the training for baseball goes on the grounds of Manipur that are hardly prepped for the game. It is evident that their threshold for happiness is set low as it is for all the poor anywhere.
Dreams of individuals become the dreams of the community as they seek better conditions for life as much as for the game. For over 70 minutes, the documentary brings to us tale of an alien sports game implanting itself in a foreign land, without little of its cultural framework. The two coaches wearing MLB clothing reinforce how odd this arrival of baseball is in that part of the world. They are able to achieve a great deal in their filmed visit. The younger residents have developed a deep attachment to the game but even more so to each other, to the idea of pursuing something in the native intensity that the film captures well.
Women’s role is striking in this effort. Then have taken greater interest in the game than men. MK Binodini, the Princess of the land, the daughter of the last, functions as a spokesperson for postcolonial aspirations of women. Her once-royal presence is felt only in the background, but her role as a woman comes forth. The transformation in Devika, propelled by her gutsy vision of women’s role in life, is one of the delightful discoveries of the film. The visiting coaches and those who they trained reach an emotional peak of achievement in the film, certainly a brighter feature of the portrait that Bank has prepared. There is a terrible isolation to this life. The benevolent incompetence of the Secretary, administrator, likely an IAS officer who enjoys his perks exacerbates that isolation. The State of India seems to have little stakes in this part of the country.
Underneath the baseball narrative, with its little triumphs, dreams and the generosity of Americans, there lurks an insight in the film. It is couched subtly in the moment of genesis of the game in that North-Eastern part of India. If cricket rules India, how is it that Manipuri’s aspire to baseball? Is this a subterranean expression of resistance to the mainland? A gesture of allegiance to something different, in defiance of how India neglects Manipur? A question that holds you with curiosity is met with a casual revelation that the American soldiers camped in Manipur during World War II and brought with them Babe Ruth’s “only real game!” A mere matter of accident it turns out, as there are many in the histories of sports. There is nothing of the colonialist move that one would suspect. But its survival raises questions. From another world, the thoughts of CLR James on the import of cricket and its power relationships come to mind. The shadow of the rebels lurks in the background, a reminder of the uneasy bond that Manipur has with India. There are moments in the film that raise hopes that baseball may provide a respite from conflicts in this land.
This could well be a film with anthropological curiosity. Instead, Banks weaves a narrative that is without judgments but a deeply impassioned portrait of land and its people. All participants, including the American baseball come off as gentle souls. Beneath their innocence and goodwill, there is a narrative of questions to be explored. To a discerning viewer, this film opens up such questions, about postcolonialism as much about humanism.