Director-producer Mirra Bank has always been interested in artists. Her last film, 2002’s Last Dance, which was shortlisted for an Academy Award, documented a creative, sometimes stormy collaboration between Pilobolus, a modern performance company, and Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are. Her work took a somewhat different turn in 2007, when she and her husband, Richard Brockman, a physician and writer, heard about the people of Manipur and decided to get involved. The film that resulted—a documentary called "The Only Real Game," narrated by Academy Award winner Melissa Leo—debuted at the New York Indian Film Festival on May 1 and won the prize for best documentary. The film tells the story of the embattled, impoverished people of Manipur and how a group of Americans are trying to help them through an unlikely route: baseball.
Formerly an independent kingdom bordering Burma, Manipur was forcibly annexed by India in 1949 in a plebiscite that was hotly contested. After 10 years of quarreling, an insurgency opposed to the annexation sprang up and martial law was imposed, a situation that continues to this day and places the people of Manipur in the crossfire between government soldiers and the various guerrilla forces—some of them bandits rather than patriots—that have evolved.
Today the state of Manipur is a place of guns, violence, drugs, HIV, and almost no economic opportunity for its citizens. Under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act passed in 1958, the Manipuris are deprived of their civil rights and have no recourse if they are stopped or arrested. Living in a war zone, they have little chance of getting jobs or experiencing joy—which is where baseball comes in.
The sport was introduced in Manipur during World War II by American soldiers stationed there. A people known for their athleticism, the Manipuris fell in love with the game, which was almost unknown in their country. They still love it today, and a group of Manipuri players, with the help of an American nonprofit group called First Pitch, are trying to turn baseball into a way out of their dire economic situation and also to make baseball a positive counterforce to the violence and chaos of their environment. Here, Mirra Bank explains how she hopes her film will help.
More: How did you get started on this film?
Mirra Bank: Muriel Peters, a producer I know in New York, went to Manipur as part of a cultural delegation arranged by a colleague of ours, Somi Roy, who grew up there. Muriel—"Mike"—is a big baseball fan and she heard about the baseball scene. When she told me, before she left, that she intended to see Manipuri baseball for herself, I said, "Take a camera! This is a film."
When they returned, Mike created First Pitch and my husband, Richard Brockman, joined the board. He and the other members saw that baseball in Manipur—which attracts not just men but also women, who play and coach—was a wonderful antidote to the destructive, depressing, dehumanizing aspects of life there. My husband was particularly interested in the women, as a vector for helping to stanch the HIV epidemic there. It was First Pitch that asked me to make a film.
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?
MB: On my last trip, I was walking on a slippery floor, carrying something heavy, and I started to fall. If I’d just fallen I might’ve been OK, but in catching my balance, I torqued my back. I thought I’d just pulled a muscle very badly, but I later learned that I had actually broken a disc in my back. Because of that I was in agony and partly lost the use of my right leg. I had no real medication in India, just ibuprofen. I didn’t go to the hospital—partly because I didn't know how badly hurt I was, and partly because hospitals in Manipur have to deal with regular power outages, and they also have different approaches to dealing with serious medical situations. So I opted to just work through the pain for almost two weeks. Back in New York, I found out I needed surgery to remove a centimeter of disc from the nerve shaft that runs up and down the spine. And then there was a long recovery.
More: How did you keep going in the face of all that? How did you keep up your passion, your determination?
MB: It’s a kind of stubborn pride. I didn’t want to let the people in Manipur down. I felt a tremendous commitment not to be yet another person who would disappoint them. They’ve already had too much disappointment and psychic abuse; I was damned if I was going to be part of that list. And I cared too much about the work that had gone into the film; I couldn’t quit working on it without reaching my own standard of how the film should be, and that took a long time.
More: What’s the situation in Manipur now?
MB: Something called The Disturbed Area Permit Requirement has been lifted, so once you have a visa for India, you can go to Manipur without a special permit. As a result, there is beginning to be more tourism and Indians can go there without restriction, which brings some money into Manipur. And that’s great, but the state is still under martial law, which means businesses stay away. So in that sense the situation has changed very little.
More: What do you hope will happen next?
MB: My intention is to show the film in India, with the hope that the film will show India the courage and spirit of the people in Manipur and create an upwelling of support for the lifting of martial law.
We also hope that the U.S. embassy and consulates in India will continue to facilitate sports projects and other exchanges, thereby making Manipur more open and more of a center for baseball and sports activity. That's another way of helping the people.
More: What can More readers do?
MB: The ultimate solution is a political one, but in the meantime, there a couple of ways to get involved. First Pitch is raising money to supply baseball equipment (the Manipuris have very little and a lot of it is old and worn; one kid I met, for example, had a hand-me-down glove with no leather left in the palm) and build a regulation baseball field for them complete with a diamond and the necessary safety features. Instructions how to donate are on the website, firstpitchusa.org. To help women widowed by the violence, you could consider making a donation to Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network. This NGO, founded by Binalakshmi Nepram, who in 2011 received a "Real Heroes" award from the CNN-Indian Broadcasting Network, is a women’s empowerment group that helps women whose husbands have been killed in the conflict to make a living. Some of these women are not only widows, they are also shut out by their late husband’s family and left entirely on their own to support their children.