Where Cricket Rules, a Passion for Baseball

Mirra Bank has fashioned a portrait of the past and present of a complex but little-known society
Envoy coaches from the U.S. pose with Manipuri baseball enthusiasts in Mirra Bank’s documentary “The Only Real Game.”

    A Google search of “athletics in India” reveals the not surprising fact that cricket is the most popular sport in the country. Chess, hockey, soccer, and tennis are also widespread. On Wikipedia’s “Sports in India” page, one must scroll past 26 other pastimes before arriving at baseball. Curiosity is naturally piqued by the knowledge that Mirra Bank’s new documentary film, “The Only Real Game,” is not only about baseball in India, but about the sport’s popularity in Manipur, a remote, isolated state on the Burmese border that is virtually closed to foreigners.

    By the end of “The Only Real Game,” Ms. Bank has fashioned a portrait of the past and present of a complex but little-known society and the engagement with baseball of a group of characters ranging from M.K. Binodini Devi, the octogenarian writer, cultural leader, and daughter of the last king of Manipur to Jeff Brueggemann and David Palese, envoy coaches for Major League Baseball who have led clinics throughout Asia.

    The through-line of the film follows closely the instructional clinics in which the American coaches teach the game and encourage the progress of already-skillful players as well as children and other novices. One of the coaches, Mr. Brueggermann, was a pitcher in the Minnesota Twins organization until an off-season injury ended his career. Each takes to Manipur both enthusiasm for, and knowledge of the game. For many of the Manipuri, baseball is an obsession. For the more talented players, it is a hoped-for way out of a troubled society.

    Interwoven with the clinic material are archival photographs and film footage that fill in the history of Manipur; background material about the efforts of First Pitch USA, which organized the clinics, to develop a complex of playing fields there; conversations with community members about their lives, ambitions, and feelings about their country, and footage of life in Manipur, itself ranging from scenes of daily life — bathing, cooking, weaving, the market — to images of the omnipresent soldiers, visible evidence of 50 years of martial law.

    Manipur has a long history of independence and is renowned for its performers and athletes. It is the birthplace of polo, and its warrior culture has produced five forms of martial arts. After the country came under British rule in 1891, a rebellion was crushed and the royal palace destroyed by British troops. Manipur became part of India in 1949.

    Separatist groups arose as a result, and today there are some 30 armed insurgent militias and a visible militarization of the country. Scenes of violence captured by the film crew as well as testimony by Manipuri create a portrait of a violent, fractured society, to which the stately movement of cows throughout the city and the enthusiasm of players on the ball field provide stark contrast.

    The viewer learns that Manipur was a staging area for American troops during World War II for supply flights over the Himalayas, and archival film shows the G.I.s playing baseball, which two veterans recall was their primary release from the stress of those missions. The games, which were attended by the local community, are most likely the source of the region’s obsession with baseball. 

    The story of baseball and Manipur is a complicated one. Mirra Bank and her crew obviously earned the trust of the community. The uplifting baseball scenes and the reflections of the players on their love of the game and hopes for a future in it are offset by the failure of some of those dreams to materialize. The film engages the viewer, and twines his or her emotions with those of the Manipuri, so that one emerges from it inspired by the spirit of both the players and the coaches, but saddened by the overwhelming obstacles in their paths. Ms. Bank has woven an artful tapestry of a faraway culture and thereby breached the distance between it and the audience. The Manipuri become familiar, and their spirit and determination are unforgettable.

    “The Only Real Game” was shown at the Hamptons Take 2 Film Festival earlier this month. Information about future screenings can be found on the website onlyrealgamemovie.com.