The 76th edition of the Cannes Film Festival (May 16-27) showcased the restored print of Manipuri filmmaker Aribam Syam Sharma’s 1990 film, Ishanou (The Chosen One), on May 19, in the Cannes Classics section. The film was restored in 2023 by Film Heritage Foundation. Its screening in one of the world’s most prestigious film festivals comes at a juncture when ethnic strife is ravaging the north-eastern State. The restored film not only preserves a classic from Manipuri film history but, in doing so, also harks back to the spiritual and cultural history of a people.
The film, written and scripted by the renowned Manipuri writer M.K. Binodini Devi, is about the ancient institution of maibis (shamanic priestesses) in the Meitei community. They are women believed to be chosen by god, bestowed with divinity, respected by the community, and addressed as “mother”. Saroj Nalini Parratt writes in The Pleasing of the Gods: Meitei Lai Haraoba, that maibis are “at the same time priestesses, invoking the lais (deities) and making offerings to them; mediums, receiving oracles from the lais and giving them out to the people; and, as expert singers and dances, they are the preservers of oral religious traditions.”
Ishanou is about a young homemaker named Tampha who leads a mundane life with her husband, mother, and daughter. The film begins with the couple preparing for their daughter’s ear-piercing ceremony, seeking money to meet the expenses. Next comes the husband’s desire to buy a second-hand scooter and his promotion in service. Amidst the everyday activities, Tampha suddenly undergoes a mysterious inner transformation that manifests in various ways: she begins to hear music and flowers calling her, swims ecstatically in the pond impervious to her husband’s calls, enters into a trance, and wanders outside at night. The family tries to “cure” her with “modern” medicines as well as shamanic remedies.
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One night, Tampha rushes out and finds refuge in the house of the maibis. The senior maibi mother takes her in, and later, convinced of her spiritual calling, gives her the status of a maibi. Meanwhile, Tampha’s mother, worried that her granddaughter too will become a maibi, urges her son-in-law to take the daughter to the city to live with him.
As time passes, Tampha turns into an accomplished maibi. Years later, while performing at the famed Lai Haraoba festival, celebrated to please the traditional deities of the Meitei, she chances upon her daughter and husband. Though she is shaken by the news that her husband has remarried and her daughter is unaware of her identity, Tampha restrains herself from heeding the “call of the family” or her “past life”.
““Manipuri culture is the only culture where a whole philosophy of genesis is propagated purely through the performing arts...””Aribam Syam Sharma
She resolutely walks back to the temple where the ritual dance is being performed, and to her life as a maibi. The film ends with the image of her looking back at us from the sanctum, where she is placed alongside the idols. In spite of the association with the divine, she remains all too human and deeply feminine, one who knows both the worlds: the domestic and the spiritual. Gracefully picturised, the film showcases Meitei culture through rituals, mystic songs, and graceful dance performances as it follows the inner journey of Tampha.
In the words of Aribam Syam Sharma, “This extraordinary pull or quiet inner urge of the chosen one to abandon the home and immerse oneself in the Maibi culture may seem bizarre, but it is very real. And in this tragic sacrifice lies the sublime art of performance—song and dance attuned to elevate souls beyond the mundane. A chosen one undergoes extraordinary experiences.... Perhaps, Manipuri culture is the only culture where a whole philosophy of genesis is propagated purely through the performing arts of Lai Haraoba. This unique aspect of Manipuri culture is the mystical canvas against which the human tragedy of the chosen one plays out.”
- The 76th edition of the Cannes Film Festival (May 16-27) showcased the restored print of Manipuri filmmaker Aribam Syam Sharma’s 1990 film, Ishanou (The Chosen One).
- Its screening in one of the world’s most prestigious film festivals comes at a juncture when ethnic strife is ravaging the north-eastern State.
- Ishanou is a film about the divine in the feminine and the feminine in the divine.
- Although there have been many films about the divine feminine in Indian cinema, what makes Ishanou radically different is that it does not resort to tragic, patriarchal closures usual in such films.
There have been many films about the divine feminine in Indian cinema, ranging from Satyajit Ray’s iconic film Devi (1960) to the series of popular films in various languages following the commercial success of Pratighaat (N. Chandra/1987) that conflated the avenging woman with a goddess. As embodiments of filial virtues and caste honour, women are invariably placed at the intersections of home and the world, nature and culture, tradition and modernity, private and public. Any radical shift in the status of women leads to a disruption in the social (read patriarchal) order. It is always a story of transgression and not transformation, disruption and not union. So, the narratives of women who cross the boundaries of home, family or caste, whether in pursuit of divine ecstasy or sexual pleasure, inevitably end in her death or insanity.
What makes Ishanou radically different is that its narrative does not resort to such tragic, patriarchal closures. Though Tampha crosses family boundaries and joins the maibi sisterhood, she remains sane and divine. The conflicts she faces do not result in inner alienation or outer seclusion. In the end, we find her firmly rooted to the ground, in her time and place, pensively looking at her erstwhile family walking away; it is not a look of rejection and disappointment, but one of compassion and grace.
Most importantly, unlike most other representations of the feminine divine in art and cinema, Tampha does not shun the body—her spirituality is embodied in celebrations that are sensual and worldly, as flowers talk to her, waters welcome her in, and the divine dances through her body. Moreover, it is not a femininity that posits the masculine as the other, nor are its pleasures merely sexual or its functions only reproductive. What Tampha experiences and realises is life in a different form and dimension, one freed from the man/woman binary. It is something beyond the bonds of the filial and conjugal, one that turns the body itself into the medium and expression of love and devotion. As a mother she feels the pain of loss, but as a maibi she embraces the world all the more deeply and sensually.
“Unlike most other representations of the feminine divine in art and cinema, Tampha does not shun the body—her spirituality is embodied in celebrations that are sensual and worldly, as flowers talk to her, waters welcome her in, and the divine dances through her body.”
In the last scene where she stops herself from revealing her identity and embracing her daughter, and stands watching as her husband and daughter walk away, the background song goes, “I came tracing your footsteps, but I cannot see you. Did my love go then beyond the confines of her abode, in search of fire?”
The film leaves us with no easy resolutions or closures, but at the uneasy threshold between the human and the divine. It is a state of constant prayerfulness, full of humility and love.
Maybe she is silently singing the song we heard earlier in the film: “O Lady Mother, teach me your golden language,/O father, teach me your silver language,/O Deep Earth, teach me your language of hidden depths,/O Ancients, teach me your language of power.” In Thematizations of the Goddess in South Asian Cinema, the editors Anway Mukhopadhyay and Shouvik Narayan Hore write, “The Goddess in South Asia remains a conundrum for many—she has co-optable as well as subversive potential as far as her location within South Asian patriarchies is concerned. She may sometimes facilitate and sometimes baffle feminist projects. However, the complex imaginaries of the ‘feminine’ offered by South Asian goddess traditions are often misinterpreted when one forgets that they are also equally complex imaginaries of the ‘divine’. In other words, the goddess is not just woman deified—not just divine feminine; she is also the feminine divine.”
Ishanou is one of those rare films that dwell upon these aspects—the divine feminine and the feminine divine—without positing the masculine as its opposite. Watching the film after three decades, we too are tempted to ask, along with feminist scholar Julia Kristeva, “What if the ancestral division between ‘those who give life’ (women) and ‘those who give meaning’ (men) were in the process of disappearing?”
The film and its restoration emphasise a past, not too distant, when State agencies produced films of a different kind, and a society whose spiritual traditions are liberating rather than divisive.
C.S. Venkiteswaran is a film critic and documentary filmmaker based in Thiruvananthapuram.