In a far-off corner of India, Manipuris are fighting military rule and police brutality with a distinctly American weapon: Baseball. Left behind by GIs who fought in WWII, the game persisted in the local consciousness as an emblem of fair play. Today, the MLB and Spalding run baseball clinics in Manipur, providing instruction in coaching, training, and playing. The program provides hope, joy, and a promise of better things to come—a gift from the land of the free to the home of the brave. •Availability: On DVD, VOD, Netflix, and all direct purchase platforms. •Thanks to Anne Borin, Anne Borin PR, for arranging this interview.•
DT: The film begins with a very peaceful sequence of life in Manipur, but we find out very quickly that Manipur is riddled with violence. I was wondering about that juxtaposition.
MB: Manipur is like Lost Horizons. Because so few people know about it, my sense of how to draw viewers into the story was to do it in a way that was dreamlike and mysterious and beautiful, because in fact that’s also something that’s very deep in the history of this place. There was going to be plenty of difficult and disturbing contemporary truth coming out in this story, but this felt like a way to attach viewers to the place and to the people who live there.
DT: How did baseball—this uniquely American institution—appear in Manipur?
MB: There’s some uncertainty about exactly when baseball was first played there, but we know for sure that when American troops were there during the Second World War, they played, because American troops played baseball wherever they went. The irony here is that they were carving ballfields out of airstrips in the jungle in a place where if people played any ball and bat sport, it was cricket. But the memory of the game lingered.
Manipur began to go through a very violent and disruptive conflict with the central Indian government when it became part of India under protest . There are many people who still feel that the plebiscite that made Manipur legally part of India was not an honest one, that there were conditions that made it coercive. One of the things that surfaced was the feeling that baseball represented fairness, equality, democracy—that it was representative literally of a level playing field. And so one of the reasons that people play baseball there is that it’s the un-cricket game.
DT: That just gave me goose bumps.
MB: They see it as a game that’s not fixed, that’s not dishonest. Right now in India there are tremendous scandals around cricket, game fixing and so on. I would say that in the last twenty-five or thirty years, the sustained commitment to baseball is, as much as anything, an assertion of this unique identity that Manipuris are striving to hold on to as a culture.
DT: Did anyone object to what you were doing?
MB: People always ask if we were concerned about safety. I’m sure I’m terribly naïve, but I have never felt in danger from anyone in Manipur. I’ve felt nothing but embraced. The sense was that no matter which side of the political spectrum you were on in Manipur, everybody seemed to love the baseball program. Again, baseball is seen as something that transcends politics and is outside the political sphere. No one seemed to resent the fact that this baseball program was happening, and I will guarantee you that children of insurgents and children of people inside the political mainstream were taking part in that program. Of course there were incredible power outages, and the sort of day-to-day things we take for granted—like the Internet—were not available, but you adjust to that, you plan for it. As far as being able to freely talk to people, those who didn’t want to talk about the insurgency or didn’t want to be identified, weren’t. Those people who came forward and, some would say, put themselves at risk wanted to. Manipuris who speak about the problems there want the world to know about it, and they choose to do that. They’re very close to my heart.
DT: I was really struck by the role of women in both politics and sports in Manipur. It’s so different from my conception of the rest of India.
MB: It quickly became apparent to me that the juice, the drive, the passion were coming largely from the women to a large extent, so I clocked on that and locked on to some of the women who are principal characters in the film. In following their day-to-day lives, you also understand that women have become these very resourceful, very imaginative, nonviolent petitioners for peace in Imphal [the capital of Manipur]. In the film, the naked women you see demonstrating against rape are older women. Many of them are grandmothers. In fact they’re doing a very sophisticated level of street politics, street theater.
This derives from a tradition in Manipur that goes back to when it was a kingdom. In the tribal structure that existed then, the heads of households, certainly among the more prominent families, were required to live in the king’s court and act as part of his defense—his Round Table, if you will. That left the women to be the defenders of the home, the physical defenders, the warriors, during a time when there were constant skirmishes between what was then the Kingdom of Manipur, the Kingdom of Burma, and the tribal areas in Burma. The women were the ones who defended and kept the household. So Manipuri women, unlike more traditional Hindu women, come from a more tribal background in which the women also had a role as an armed presence within the culture and defenders of the goods and the territory.
DT: Just to clarify, the Manipuris are Hindu?
MB: They practice a form of Vaishnavism Hinduism, but it is eclectic and includes forms of worship and gods that derive from more tribal forms of worship. I’m not an expert, but in general, the Manipuris tend to have a more nature-based worship than other branches of Hinduism that I’m aware of. Sun and light and flowers and water. At the beginning of the film, you see the women doing ablutions; that tends to be part of the Manipuri practice. I think some of it goes back to much earlier forms of worship.
DT: There was also a lot of emphasis on sports, and the sportiness of Manipuri culture. Did you get any sense that that was also connected to tribal history?
MB: Absolutely. Every one of those sports, including the martial arts you see in the film, derive from forms of warfare. It’s the Manipuri form of kung fu or capoeira. In the case of the Manipuris, who are magnificently, physically gifted people, sport takes many forms. Indeed, they claim to be the originators of polo—as you see in the film, they’re armed with this spearlike implement. There are four or five different forms of martial arts, and some forms of Manipuri dance, also, that are tied to martial arts, which is tied to training for warfare.
Part of what that means is that they pride themselves on being good at every sport. So not only do they pride themselves on being able to take up baseball and being quite good at it without proper training but they are exponentially better represented in Indian Olympic teams than any other segment of the population. Mary Kom, from the Kom tribal community in Manipur, is a five-time World Boxing champion, and the only woman boxer to have won a medal in each one of the six world championships.
DT: Let’s get back to politics for a minute. Life in Manipur seems to be dominated by the Special Powers Act.
MB: The Special Powers Act derives from a form of British military rule in use when Manipur was essentially a protectorate. Before there was India, there were many raj holdings and principalities. The king of Manipur agreed to become a princely state under the larger British protectorate arrangement that many of these groups had with the British. A British governor worked in collaboration with the king of Manipur, but there was friction and uprisings. One was particularly bloody and disastrous—the governor was killed, and his wife escaped. It was a very big deal in England, and it was known as the Manipur Uprising of 1891. The British hung many people and killed the ones who had instigated the uprising, so Manipur lost its traditional rulers. The British agreed to let another king take the throne—I think he was six years old—but they changed the control they had over the governance. They also put in place a form of martial law that became the Special Powers Act. When India became the Indian Union, it retained many forms of the British Empire. It has a Parliament, it has a prime minister, it kept many of those forms, including the way its armed services is organized. So with some alteration, the Armed Services Special Powers Act is a means of controlling uprisings or areas that are considered disturbed areas, dating back to the British Empire.
DT: Throughout the film, you see soldiers hanging around at the edges of the ballfield. What is that about?
MB: The ratio of armed personnel to citizenry in Manipur is very high. At any given time, the armed presence in Manipur will have a base of people who are part of the army, but it will also frequently have groups that are more or less the equivalent of our state militias. There’s a group called the Assam Rifles, or the IRB, the Indian Reserve Battalion, and the Manipuri Rifles. They’re sanctioned militias that are organized at the state level rather than from the central government. They’re deployed to quell uprisings when they happen, and then they’re pulled back, but there’s always a sort of baseline presence of the Indian Army as an occupying force.
DT: Let’s talk about something happier—let’s talk about First Pitch (the US Manipur Baseball Project).
MB: First Pitch was originated by Muriel Peters, the woman you see at the beginning of the film who talks about going to Brooklyn Dodgers games when she was a kid. She loves baseball, and she’s very knowledgeable about the game. She formed First Pitch not just out of love for baseball but for love of India as well. She had lived in India for many years. She formed the film department at Asia Society many years ago and was the person who first brought Satyajit Ray to this country with the Museum of Art in collaboration with Asia Society. When she went to Manipur on an earlier trip, she saw that they were playing baseball. The women came to her, desperate, and asked, “Can you help us?”
When she came back home, she created a board with Richard Brockman, several other baseball lovers, and some people from Major League Baseball, like Randye Ringler, who’d worked with the Mets for many years. They went to Major League Baseball and enlisted them to bring Jeff Brueggemann and Dave Palese to Manipur. They also reached out to Spalding for a gift of gloves and balls. They helped organize the whole baseball program and make a bridge between assistance from this country and organizing within Manipur so that people knew what was going to happen. They’d arrange baseball clinics, and we’d come together for those.
DT: Let’s talk about the baseball program itself, which is at the heart of the film. I gather the goal is to build a permanent ballfield and train local coaches in Manipur?
DT: Let’s talk about Jeff Brueggemann and Dave Palese, the two coaches sent by the MLB to Manipur.
MB: If I had been able to “cast” two guys for a documentary, I couldn’t have done better than Jeff Brueggemann and Dave Palese. Major League Baseball International has a program called the Envoy Program, which enlists generally older people who are very knowledgeable about the game—not necessarily former pro players, as Jeff was, but people who’ve had a lifetime of coaching and have MLB certification in coaching. They volunteer to go to different parts of the world where people want baseball coaching. Jeff had not only been a Major League player but he had also worked in China. He’s fluent in Mandarin and loves Asia. As Dave mentioned in the film, he had done a lot of coaching work in Vietnam and Cambodia. So they were both people who felt comfortable being in that part of the world. One of the problems that Major League Baseball has had in the past is that their envoy coaches didn’t want to go to India. It was difficult to travel, they got sick, they didn’t feel that the spirit or collegiality or whatever it was was working well, but in our case, the Manipuri program was so well put together, and there were so many people who were already playing and coaching, that it was a home run from Major League Baseball’s point of view, in terms of that coaching program. Even after the film was finished, the coaching clinics went on for another two or three years, until the [political] situation blew up again.
Jeff and Dave never met until they were assigned to this detail in Manipur. They couldn’t have been more different. Jeff is a born-again Christian from the Middle West, and Dave, who grew up in upstate New York, is almost like a John Belushi guy who works in New Jersey. Then they arrive in Manipur. As you can see, the film is a love story between these coaches and the Manipuris. Jeff and Dave are passionate about the game. They have such big hearts, both of them. They operate very differently…their energy is different, their approach to coaching is different, but it was like a kind of joyous vaudeville.
DT: Sharing the ballfield with the cows…
MB: What can I say? Everybody was just charmed by that chemistry and by what happened in the coaching program, which is an enormously hopeful story in its own right. Even though so many things didn’t have a fairy-tale ending, the door is still open. It’s still a very hopeful story.
DT: What problems does the program face in Manipur?
MB: First Pitch is doing everything it can to work with the American infrastructure in India, but it’s a very delicate issue because the US consulate in Mumbai has to work with the central Indian government, which sees Manipur as a semi-terrorist state. Making those back-and-forth initiatives between the US and Mumbai is something that has to be negotiated every time it happens. I will say that the consular people have been terrific in Calcutta, in Mumbai, in Delhi. We’ve held clinics there, we’ve traveled with our coaches there, there have been screenings of the film everywhere, the consul in Calcutta has visited Manipur. Any one of the individual Americans has been very much in favor of it. It’s the fact that they also have to interface with the central government that makes it delicate.
DT: You were hoping to be able to bring some of the Manipuris to Harlem to participate in a program called Harlem RBI. Can you tell me about Harlem RBI and what happened when you tried to bring the Manipuris over?
MB: That was another door that’s still open. When we talked about bringing kids from Manipur to the United States, I wanted to bring some girls, with women to accompany them, but the choice about who would be able to come here was not made by us, it was made by the Manipuris themselves. In their culture, it was appropriate to choose boys, and a number of those they chose were 16 to 18 years old, unmarried, no jobs. When they went in to have their visa interviews, they were considered a flight risk and got turned down. It was heartbreaking. Geet was the only one who got to come; he was one of the Manipuri coaches, he had a job, was married and had a kid, and he came from a wealthier family.
DT: They knew he would come back to India.
MB: So he was the one who got to come. Harlem RBI has exchange programs with several countries. They’re very open to bringing kids in to play and work with the people in their program and to sending their kids abroad. It’s extremely well organized on the Harlem end, and when we talked to Richard Berlin, the executive director, about bringing kids from India, it was an instant yes. He was completely for it, and it was ready to go. Unfortunately, as we mentioned earlier, we were only able to bring Geet.
Harlem RBI is a cradle-to-grave program. They’ve started their own charter school, which will soon be K–12. Of the kids who go through that program, 90 percent go to college. The rate of teen pregnancy is extremely low, while the number of kids who’ve gone through that program and come back year after year to coach the younger kids in summertime is very, very high. It’s a self-perpetuating program in term of the community.
DT: In terms of the film, why did you structure the narrative the way you did?
MB: Of course our hope was that the kids would come to New York and play at Harlem RBI, and the film ends with them building a baseball field in Manipur. But those things didn’t happen. We did get Geet to this country. We did make that bridge. And we certainly got people from the US there. But what was wonderful was that when we went back to Manipur, people were still playing. That’s the way the film ends: people find a way, through the thing they love most, to keep hope alive and to keep their sense of purpose and joy alive. For some people, for whatever reason, it’s baseball, and it’s what baseball means to them. It’s a personal metaphor of some sort. It’s a kind of specialness for them, and anything we can do to fan that flame and make something that comes to fruition, we should do. It’s our job.
DT: Is that how you saw the film?
MB: Yes. Lalit, the boy who was denied a visa to come to the US, was shamed. He was embarrassed, he was wounded in some way. They said no, they didn’t say yes. But he came back and he kept playing. That’s the message. You keep doing it. You keep believing in it. What else is there?
DT: Is there anything you’d like to add?
MB: The future depends on women. I’m now working on a project in Zambia, and I feel the same way there: that the empowerment and the education of women s a very important part of change in most areas of the world that are having trouble or emerging or whatever you want to call those economies.
I want to give a shout out to the Manipuri women, and to Binalakshmi Nepram, the woman in the film who speaks about Manipuris being lesser than other Indians. She formed the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network and does incredibly important work in Manipur as a peace activist. The network provides small-business loans, helps create cooperatives, and informs women about political and health and empowerment issues throughout northeast India. It’s a very important initiative there, and it means as much to me as baseball does.
Copyright © Director Talk 2015