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Pitching for Manipur: Documentary Sheds New Light on Northeast India Through Baseball

03/20/2014 11:31 am ET | Updated May 20, 2014

I often write about fantasies, but the dreams and nightmares depicted in Mirra Bank's The Only Real Game are astoundingly, heartrendingly real. Since 2006, the critically acclaimed director (Last Dance, Nobody's Girls) has labored to complete this illuminating film, the first feature-length documentary ever made about Manipur, a remote state in northeast India that is one of the most heavily militarized areas in the world.

Narrated by Academy Award winner Melissa Leo, The Only Real Game follows a community of passionate Manipuri baseball players fighting for happiness amid the daily chaos and poverty that threatens their lives. When American envoys from Major League Baseball arrive to tutor Manipuri coaches, the love of a game shared by two disparate cultures becomes a powerful force for change and hope. As the movie's tagline reads, "Can major-league dreams defy martial law?"

In many ways, the documentary serves as Manipur's grand debut on the world stage. Annexed to the Indian nation in 1949, it's a region perpetually plagued by violent disputes between government forces and various insurgent groups that leave at least four Manipuris dead every day. (One woman says in the film that now she doesn't "even look to see where the bullets are coming from.") Manipur is also the third highest Indian state for drug abuse and drug trafficking, and nearly a third of its population suffers from HIV/AIDS. Yet the wider Indian government virtually ignores the state, miring its people and economy in a "forgotten crisis."

"Our part of India is never featured anywhere," said Manipuri activist Binalakshmi Nepram, Secretary General for the Control Arms Foundation of India. "We are not considered newsworthy; we are not considered equal citizens. So when a group of Americans came and actually took the courage to [make the film] in spite of all challenges, we couldn't believe it."

In The Only Real Game we learn the unusual history of Manipuri baseball, which was adopted during World War II from American Army Air Corps pilots who flew the Himalayas out of Manipur to support the Allies in China. But as the tale unfolds in the present day, intercut with Axel Baumann and Bona Meisnam's gorgeous slice-of-life shots, we realize the game isn't just a borrowed pastime, but a way for Manipuris to redefine themselves, to reclaim joy and a brighter future from the jaws of political darkness.

Watch the film's trailer:

The Only Real Game - Two Minute Trailer from Mirra Bank on Vimeo.

The movie's journey began when producer Muriel "Mike" Peters visited Manipur with the Asian Cultural Council and was thrilled to discover its dedicated baseball community:

I'm a big baseball fan, and I was very excited to see it. Before I left I had a sort of formal visit from two of the women players and they said, "We've come to ask you if you could help us. We love baseball and it's our lives, but we have nothing, no equipment." I was so moved by their intensity, I said, "I promise you I'll try."

Peters did much more than try. Upon returning to the U.S., she formed a nonprofit group called First Pitch to support and develop Manipuri baseball. Through fundraisers and a large donation from Spalding Baseball, the organization started shipping the longed-for bats and gloves overseas. But First Pitch's most ambitious project -- arranging to send MLB Envoy Coaches Jeff Brueggemann and David Palese to teach coaching clinics in Manipur -- would prove the most life-altering for Americans and Manipuris alike.

These training sessions provide the main plotline for Bank's film because, as Brueggemann observeed, "Baseball is a microcosm of life."

It can be the most simple game, but it really touches people. If you work together in strength and rituals, you'll learn how to focus on something other than crime or drugs. These coaches in Manipur were looking to help their kids have a better life through a sport they love ... This is a beauty within a remote area, and those coaches should be rewarded for it. They're the MVPs in my mind, the 'perfect' individuals who give of themselves in many ways. It's something I'll never forget.

Director Bank believed Manipuris value baseball for several reasons:

Manipur has an incredible tradition with athleticism, a very high level of accomplishment in the physical arts. And while cricket is the principal game in India, in Manipur where people are so sensitive to the degree of which their culture has been affected by corruption, they almost hold baseball up as a counter force. The minute there's something that is fair and life affirming, people are very eager to have their children benefit from it.

Nepram added, "For us this is a journey of identity, of letting India and the rest of the world know that there is a beautiful area which is still not recognized. I hope this film is a harbinger for change. We are yearning for normalcy. We are fighting for that."

The film does a spectacular job showcasing the amazing spirit of Manipur's people, especially its women. Their resilience, commitment and grace under the most dire circumstances are immensely admirable. According to Nepram, the women's movement in Manipur is over 100-years-old. From a short tour of the women's market to glimpses of female-run protests to the coaches standing indomitable on the field, every second of The Only Real Game is suffused with their beauty and strength, their silk hiding steel.

Brueggemann admitted the women were unquestionably the best coaches:

That was pretty obvious to me. You'd see these women not say a word and practice hard, go sliding onto this hard surface and just be tearing up the skin on their legs, you know they are, and then at night when we had an event they'd come in with their formal ethnic dress and you'd go, "That's the girl that's been abusing her body on this hard field?" But the women are so strong, as coaches and as people.

"They're tough ladies," Peters noted. "They pursue what must be pursued that comes from within them. They're not going to let it die."

Still, as India has so discounted Manipur, many men there continue to discount the women. The state has high rates of domestic violence and rape, and even in progressive movements, men splinter and fragment the women's groups to push their own political agendas.

"Our whole society is in siege," Nepram reported. "Right now, Manipuris are trying to ensure livelihood for women so we can earn our own income and autonomy, so that no one can trick us." (Nepram's own organization, the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network, is at the forefront of helping widowed Manipuris provide for their families as leaders and entrepreneurs.)

Undoubtedly, there are many problems yet to solve, but there is hope shining in the eyes of the Manipuri people and on each frame of The Only Real Game. While the film never shies away from the challenges of everyday life in the state (including often-fatal street violence), it leaves the viewer with a sense of uplift. You walk away from this movie believing that, hard as it may be now, change will come.

Peters agreed, "It's my feeling that, little by little, things are going to improve in that area, that the central government out of Delhi will become more sensitive to this. The awareness is extremely important."

Bruggemann is already looking toward the next generation: "I'd like to see these kids playing baseball grow up to be the future leaders. They're the ones who know what hard work has done for the community."

Nepram wants Manipuri baseball to grow with interstate tournaments, and perhaps a book to document the sport's history in the region. Even more importantly, she hopes Americans will care to learn about her homeland.

"We want them to know, if they are interested in international friendship, Manipur is waiting to receive that," she said. "When Americans think about India, please think about Manipur too."

As for Bank, she asked simply that as many people see the film as possible.

"There's an underlying poetry in this culture. It's very easy for Americans to feel utterly self-sufficient culturally," she said, "but there's a lot that cultures like Manipur have to teach us, and I think it's worthwhile to open yourself up to that, let yourself go there."

The Only Real Game has begun to move mountains, winning 2013 Best Documentary at the New York Indian Film Festival and the Sedona International Film Festival's 2014 American Spirit Award. But this lovely window to the other side of the world could be so much more. Let's make The Only Real Game the little movie that could, about the little state that can.

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Those who are interested in helping the citizens of Manipur can donate to First Pitch for the baseball project and the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network to aid Manipuri widows.

Check here for theatrical screenings of The Only Real Game scheduled for selected U.S. cities.