Baseball ranks as “The Only Real Game” in Mirra Banks’ surprising documentary, which discovers this most American of pastimes in the unlikeliest of places — the small, war-torn ex-kingdom of Manipur in Northeast India. The arrival of two gung-ho Major League Baseball Envoy coaches revs up the already bubbling joy, enthusiasm and total dedication with which indigenous men, women and children dive into the game, conjuring dreams of a real baseball field, coaching jobs and even pro status. Yet ubiquitous soldiers and insurgents brandishing machine guns evoke a less inspirational scenario in Banks’ clear-eyed snapshot of sports hope struggling against socioeconomic stagnation.
The film lays out Manipur’s peculiar historical and political context with concision and clarity, including its conquest by the British; its forced inclusion as part of India in 1949; and the continuing clashes between government forces and multiple separatist groups that have led to decades of martial law and other persecutions. AIDS and drug abuse also beleaguer the region.
Baseball offers a much-needed stress reliever and, given the 25% unemployment rate, real (if improbable) job potential. The ex-monarchy boasts an excellent reputation as a sports stronghold, being known as the birthplace of modern polo, and as a worthy competitor in traditional, colonially imported games of soccer, tennis and cricket. Baseball, a bastard cousin of these officially recognized sports, entered Manipur through a WWII American airstrip via the GIs who took off and landed there while flying a supply route over the Himalayas. Several of these soldiers reminisce here, accompanied by archival footage of GIs running the bases.
But Banks most profoundly links politics and sports through Manipuri women. Indeed, the octogenarian daughter of the last king, herself now a staunch supporter of democracy — and baseball — plays a prominent role in the docu. Women are shown fearlessly facing down armed troops and patrolling the streets with torches at night to protect their children. They also prove to be among the most talented ball players and coaches, and the ones who profit most from the instruction of the two Americans who soon become emotionally caught up in the ongoing drama.
U.S. interest in Manipuri baseball — originating with a New York organization called First Pitch, and resulting in a large overseas shipment of bats, mitts and balls — stirs up enough local attention for a tennis-playing Manipuri minister to commission the design of a real ballpark (though admittedly on swampland plagued by insurgents and cobras). The American coaches, meanwhile, handpick Manipuri players for a trip to New York, where they will work with Harlem RBI. But governments — Indian and American — turn out to be more generous with promises than with results.
Banks’ focus on several fiercely dedicated Manipuri players and the two MLB coaches yields an affecting narrative around the cross-cultural exchange, benefiting greatly from the director’s avoidance of inspirational uplift, which is echoed by Melissa Leo’s dramatic but straightforward narration. Banks allows the exhilaration of the game and the exigencies of realpolitik to determine the ups and downs of her film’s sentimental journey.
Lenser Axel Baumann expertly captures the everyday exoticism of Manipur and its calm acceptance of somewhat surreal juxtapositions as cows wander through a sandlot diamond, matter-of-factly shooed away by an ex-Minnesota Twin.