In conversation with Amar Maibam, Director of "Highways of Life"
By Dipankar Sarkar | GUWAHATI:
Amar Maibam’s documentary ‘Highways of Life’ narrates the impact of public movements in Manipur and, its subsequent effect on the lives of the truckers as they manoeuvre through the perilous highways of North East India, putting their lives on the frontline, ferrying essential commodities to serve the three million people of the state.
Produced by the Films Division of India, it won the Best Film Award at the 8th Liberation DocFest, Bangladesh. It was selected at the International Film Festival of India, Goa, and had won the Best Indian Documentary at the 26th Kolkata International Film Festival, 2020.
At the 13th Manipur State Film Awards, it picked up the award for Best Non-Feature Film, Best Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Editing.
Here is a conversation between Dipankar Sarkar and filmmaker Amar Maibam:
Dipankar: How has your journey been as a filmmaker?
Amar Maibam: My father was one of the first generation filmmakers in Manipur and one of the few from the country to receive a double diploma in Editing, Direction & Screenplay from Film & Television Institute of India, Pune (1969-75). So, I believe a bit of Cinema is in my gene.
In 1984, the first Manipuri State Film Festival was held at Imphal and my father took our entire family to the screening and award ceremony.
I vividly remember one of my summer vacations when I got the opportunity to accompany my father during the shoot of his third feature film. He gave me a small automatic still camera with few film rolls and told me to shoot whatever I saw on the set. I believe this was my first lesson in Cinema that I received from my father.
After spending more than a decade on the highways supporting my family I returned to the film industry to assist my father in a Doordarshan commissioned program in 2006. Since then I never stopped. I started assisting some of the finest filmmakers of Manipur. To acquire more knowledge and experience, I went to Kolkata Film & Television Institute for a digital cinematography course, FTII Pune for film appreciation, and also did several short-term courses and attended workshops that included scriptwriting, editing, theatre, and documentary Workshops. I was also associated with Doordarshan, Films Division, and other independent producers.
Dipankar: How did you get interested in the idea of making a documentary that follows trucker as the main character/protagonist and his colleagues as they manoeuvre through the perilous highways of North East India, putting their lives on the frontline, ferrying essential commodities?
Amar Maibam: Manipur is a landlocked state, where the two highways are our only lifeline and these are vulnerable for the motor workers. But because of extortions and kidnappings, it is also used as a protest tool against the Government. As I was on the highways for more than a decade, I experienced several incidents and stories of the people on the highway who were unattended. Therefore, I wanted these stories of our highway to be witnessed and discussed by a wider audience.
Dipankar: What kind of research did you do for the film?
Amar Maibam: A decade on the highway itself was research for me. But I had also spoken to other people related to the highways and spent a lot of time with the drivers.
Dipankar: How long did it take you to complete the documentary?
Amar Maibam: It all started in a documentary workshop in 2014 called Imphal Documentor, which was organised by Documentary Resource Initiative Kolkata, Manipur State Film Development Society, and Television Cine foundation Manipur and the entire project took five years to complete.
Dipankar: What were the hurdles you had to overcome to shoot the documentary?
Amar Maibam: I always try to convert hurdles into enjoyment. So I did not encounter any problem during the shoot, but finding the right character was time-consuming. I had spent almost one year and a half on the highways and sadly, I did not use even three per cent of those moments I had shot during that period.
Dipankar: What was the process of editing and giving a final shape to the documentary?
Amar Maibam: I had more than 2 terabytes of high-definition footage, which is almost 1500 hours. I presumed that the amount of footage would be very difficult for the editor, so I decided to do the first cut by myself. Later, I shared the rough cut with my editor, mentors, filmmaker friends and few ordinary people around me for their feedback. Finally, my editor and I took the final call.
Dipankar: What is the significance of the song ‘Bandh’ by Tapta within the narrative?
Amar Maibam: This song is representing the overall masses of Manipur as we have already witnessed several marathon bandhs and blockades earlier. This song is played by most of the truckers because they are the first line of people who are affected by the bandh. Their sorrows of bandh are lamented through this song, which is also sung by the protagonist in the film when he was stuck on the highway.
Dipankar: Did such an economic blockade ever affect your personal life?
Amar Maibam: It had affected me very much. We purchased one litre of petrol for Rs. 300 when the price of petrol was Rs. 60 at that time. One can only imagine how expensive the other essential items must have been.
Dipankar: What are your further plans with the documentary?
Amar Maibam: I am currently working on post-production for my fifth documentary ‘All for my Sister’ which will be releasing later this year.
Dipankar: According to you how is the current scenario of filmmaking in the state of Manipur?
Amar Maibam: Manipuri films are doing very well in our state and are also a source of employment for film enthusiasts in the state. But we need to find more avenues to tell our stories and reach out to an international audience so that our Cinema booms.
Dipankar: Is the government supporting the budding filmmakers from Manipur?
Amar Maibam: Yes, the government of Manipur has been supportive of the filmmakers of Manipur. They have been supporting us for years,
Dipankar: What advice would you like to give to independent filmmakers from the region?
Amar Maibam: Watch more film, have the determination and do not hesitate to follow your dreams to tell the stories which are needed to be told.