More: The film, The Only Real Game, is wonderful—detailed and absorbing, and very inspiring without being sentimental. How do you think the film will help Manipur?
MB: It’s like many other problems in the world—shed light on it, bring attention to it, bear witness, and then there’s a chance that something will change.
More: The film depicts the political and economic situation in Manipur, but also a specific recent episode: when Major League Baseball International sent over two American representatives to train Manipuris. How did that come about, and what was the idea behind it?
MB: A First Pitch board member went to MLB International and got them involved. The idea is, if the community in Manipur can get the state government to recognize baseball as a supported sport, then the schools will teach baseball, just as they now teach cricket and soccer. Those trained by MLB as coaches will be in line to get those jobs, both in the schools and also as coaches for traveling teams. Job creation is critical because Manipur is so poor. Unemployment is at 25 percent. Apart from government positions, or working for a local utility company or a family restaurant, there are very few sources of reliable income. And if the Manipuris go to greater India [to find work], they are not looked upon as Indians. It’s a kind of apartheid.
For MLB, [sending the coaches was] a matter of market potential. India is a country of English-speaking people with an exploding middle class, some of whom study in the U.S. and learn about baseball. For MLB, India is one of the biggest potential markets in the world. But the coaching camps MLB had done there had all failed.
First Pitch said, “We’ll do a camp that will be a success, because in Manipur they know and love the game. And we’ll ensure local support that will help MLB succeed.” MLB subsidized its own part—sending the coaches, paying them and providing all the expertise. The Manipuris already knew how to play, and even to coach, but MLB would teach them higher-level skills.
In the film you meet the two wonderful American coaches, as well as the women and men of Manipur, all working together across their cultural differences to help the Manipuris achieve a professional level of coaching expertise.
More: In the film, three out of four of the Manipuris who train to be coaches are women. They are some of the best players. One of the main characters, Devika (pictured above), says, “Baseball is something essential.” Why are these women so connected to baseball in a way that American women generally aren’t?
MB: The women of Manipur have identified baseball as a route to jobs. When she was younger, Devika played for the national softball team. As a coach with MLB certification—which she now has, having passed the tests for early-level coaching administered by the two MLB coaches in the film—she’ll be eligible for new coaching jobs that may open up, and her MLB certification will be invaluable. These women also see baseball as a way to bring their kids into a healthy place. Discipline, cooperation, joy—there’s competition in baseball but it’s not a war game, it’s a peace game. It seems to them a safe haven for their kids, a way to keep them away from drugs and HIV. They find a sense of unity and hope in baseball—as well as a bridge to the wider world.
More: Given the conditions in Manipur, wasn’t it very difficult to shoot a film there?
MB: Yes, it was very hard. Just getting the visas was tough; for our last trip (I went there three times), it took eight months. Even now, Manipur is currently listed as an "area of instability" by the State Department, and U.S. government employees in India are forbidden to travel there without permission from the embassy in Kolkata. I had no idea the project would be so hard. In the end, the film took six years, about twice as long as my other films. That was partly because I was injured while making it.
More: What happened?