Meena Longjam: Bringing Manipur’s untold stories to the forefront

By Indira Laisram
Meena Longjam // Pic supplied

Despite the seven-month-long internet shutdown and trouble brewing all around, filmmaker Meena Longjam had almost given up hope of bringing to fruition a long labour of love. Meena is from the state of Manipur in the northeast of India.

If you ask people what they know about Manipur in the northeast of India, they will probably mention its famous classical dance or sports. However, the state has been in turmoil for the last seven months and counting, with hundreds dead and thousands displaced.

“Every day, you hear of violence, of killings… so much hatred. The hope of bringing out one positive news kept me going. It was my dream responsibility as a human being,” says Meena over Zoom from Imphal, the capital of Manipur.

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Indeed, this November marked a defining moment for Meena. Her latest work, “Andro Dreams,” made history as the first film by a Meitei woman, serving as the opening film of the Indian Panorama non-feature section at the 54th International Film Festival of India in Goa.

To further affirm its excellence, the documentary clinched the prestigious Best Documentary award at the eighth edition of the Jagran Film Festival in Mumbai in October. It was the kind of positive news that Meena hoped would bring a ray of hope to Manipur.

“Andro Dreams” tells the heartfelt love story of Laibi Phanjoubam, an elderly woman with a lively spirit, and her thirty-year-old all-girls’ football team, the Andro Mahila Mandal Association Football Club (AMMA-FC). This team bravely faces economic struggles, a patriarchal system, and traditional beliefs in their ancient village in Manipur.

The film beautifully portrays the hurdles that Laibi, the team’s manager in her sixties, and Nirmala, their most talented young football player, must overcome. Interestingly, AMMA-FC now boasts over 100 national and international football players from the state.

“I hope the news of “Andro Dreams” showcasing how girls from a small village in Manipur can dream big will serve as a ray of hope for others,” says Meena. Yet, Meena’s resilience mirrors that of her community.

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For “Andro Dreams” is truly a labour of love. Meena began her research in 2017 and finished the film in 2023, marking the longest duration for her in completing a project. She explains, “I let it take an organic shape, as documentaries don’t follow the structured timelines of fictional works.”

Just when she had reached the point of giving up, a common friend connected her to the generous Jani Viswanath from Dubai, someone Meena had apparently not met before. Thanks to this connection, she secured the funding needed to scale up her work and present it to the world.

“Andro Dreams” will now travel to the Korea International Ethnographic Film Festival (KIEFF) slated for later this month.

Meena’s decade-old career as a filmmaker is rooted in her journalistic fervour. Her first documentary, “Autodriver,” earned her India’s National Film Award in 2015.

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How “Autodriver” happened is interesting. It was 2007, and Meena had just completed her degree in Mass Communications from the Madras Christian College and was returning home to Manipur in northeast India. It was a time when the state was grappling with various issues, from economic blockades to law-and-order situations.

Meena was at a market in Pangei when her wandering eyes caught the attention of a petite woman in a khaki outfit. “Initially, I thought she was a labourer, but I literally chased her out of curiosity and found her getting onto an autorickshaw with packed passengers. She just drove off,” recalls Meena.

For a moment, Meena was stunned. This encounter ultimately inspired her to create “Autodriver”—a film vividly portraying the enterprise, grit, perseverance, and resilience of Imphal’s first woman autorickshaw driver Oinam Laibi in the male-dominated and competitive world of auto driving in bustling Imphal.

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Meena recalls literally running up a hill the day she heard the news of the National Film Award.

Another exploration of a woman’s life is “Achoubi In Love” where Meena explores the life of Achoubi and her deep affection for the endangered Manipuri ponies. Despite facing challenges such as age, health issues, financial constraints, and strained family relationships, Achoubi passionately strives to protect these threatened creatures from extinction.

Meena has moved ahead incrementally, even though, by her own account, she never envisioned herself creating films or focusing on women-oriented content.

“I am not into feminism, but somehow I get drawn to the stories of women,” says Meena when asked about her attraction to narrating the stories of these women from the periphery. “There is an emotional connection, and I am a good listener too. Also, while the world tends to focus on politics and war, I am more inclined towards human interest stories and social issues.”

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Meanwhile, as a single mother and the head of the Department of Culture Studies at Manipur University of Culture, Meena finds herself consistently juggling roles, all while enjoying the support of her “strong family.”

“If I stop telling stories, the narratives of Laibi or Achoubi would never have come to the forefront. I am content with what I am doing because humanity is everything for me.”

Despite having exciting future projects on her plate, Meena is eager to share one in particular—a personal narrative detailing her life in a conflict zone and her experiences over the past seven months. It’s a deeply personal project, and she believes the world needs to hear her story.

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Meena’s plan is more about how she tells the stories of Manipur than how others perceive them. “There is so much happening here in Manipur, and someone has to tell what is going on. Mainstream media often only scratches the surface. It’s always better to narrate your own story based on your own experiences.”

Despite challenges, including funding and occasional limitations on freedom of expression (given that documentaries are all about portraying reality without compromise), Meena is unwavering in her commitment to truthfulness. She acknowledges the difficulties and expresses a wish for more women Manipuri filmmakers, admitting, “I am quite lonely in that.”

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