Amar Maiban’s sensitive and perceptive documentary made in Manipuri, Highways Of Life, looks at the lives of truckers as they manoeuvre their vehicles through the perilous highways of Manipur. These men put their lives on the line as they ferry essential commodities through the zigzag perilous terrain to the people of the state. What results is a visceral tale of vulnerability, courage and survival of these ‘trapped souls’. It is a harrowing tale of survival of the fittest, but also an exceptionally uplifting story of surviving against unimaginable adversity.
The state of Manipur is a region that is more diverse and more nuanced than any layman could imagine. There are centuries of historical and cultural practices that form the core value of the ethnic groups residing within the region, which has also been plagued with the problem of insurgency for ages. Whenever there has been a sense that the interests of the ethnic communities are being neglected, it has given rise to violent movements. Such rebellion against the government is a common scene in the region and so Highways Of Life begins with protestors marching on the streets with firelights demanding that the inner line permit must be implemented in the state. The situation gets violent as streets are blocked, fires are ablaze, stone are pelted even as the government forces resort to firing to break up the protests. As the people run helter-skelter and attempt to hide anywhere they can to escape the wrath of the state machinery, the title card of the film appears and the viewers are informed that the film follows our protagonist from 2014-18 on the highways of Manipur. During this period, he becomes a victim of two intense public movements by two different pressure groups affiliated to various ethnic communities of Manipur.
Before the protagonist, Arunjit, embarks on one of his journeys, the viewers are briefly introduced to his family members. His caring mother gives her blessings to the bread-earning son, reminding him not to forget carrying his documents and gives him money for the journey. Arunjit expresses good wishes to his sleeping wife and child under the mosquito net before parting away for what he knows is for a good length of time. This helps us to empathize with Arunjit instantly. What follows is an arduous journey as he, along with his fellow truckers, fall prey to an economic blockade that lasted for a good 141 days from October 2016 to March 2017. They get stranded on the highway for a few days and have to rely on the camaraderie of each other to maintain their sanity as well as their struggle for their survival. However Highways Of Life is not only about the survivability of Arunjit under the adverse situation he finds himself in. The film also explores how the consequences of such economic blockades severely hamper the lives of individuals from different strata of the society for no fault of their own.
Maibam spends much time delving within Arunjit’s psyche, which helps us to go along with him on his journey. He is never up in arms and even under duress, he handles the situation with composure. He is also wise enough to understand that when the owner of the goods calls him and wants to know about Arunjit’s whereabouts after one of the trucks from the company has been vandalized, he is, in reality, worried only about the goods it is carrying. At different points in the film, the filmmaker also captures the other viewpoint – that of the supporters of the blockade, especially women, who firmly believe in the cause and won’t allow vehicles to cross through. It is a decision taken by the Tamenglong district women’s society because their leader has been arrested and not produced before the court even after fifteen days.
As the documentary ends, Arunjit returns to his family. By now, we, the viewers, having empathasized with him and his colleagues, feel a sense of much relief for them and wish them safe and happy journeys on all their future endeavors.
Maibam, who has also handled the cinematography, objectively captures the events unfolding within the film’s 52-minutes running time. The camera deviates from explicitly showing violence but it is all omnipresent. The illegal road tax collection by insurgent groups, highway robberies, petrol bombs thrown in front of the truck and instances of police corruption are all shot off-screen and help in creating a visceral impression of the events. The filmmaker is not at all interested in capturing the exotic and stunning beauty of the landscape. On the contrary, he captures reality in its purest form without any gimmickry. Biju Das, the editor, deftly condenses the strenuous chains of events as he allows the narrative to span large spatial and temporal jumps into an engaging and seamless watch. The sound design by Partha Halder goes well with the treatment of the film.
Produced by the Films Division of India, Highways Of Life has deservedly won major accolades. It won the Best Film Award (International Competition) at the 8th Liberation DocFest, Bangladesh, 2020; it was selected for the International Film Festival of India, Goa, and had was awarded the Best Indian Documentary at the 26th Kolkata International Film Festival, 2020. At the 13th Manipur State Film Awards, it picked up awards for Best Non-Feature Film, Best Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Editing.
Manipuri, Documentary, Color