There is an oft-repeated assertion by the late historian Jacques Barzun that starts, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.” Perhaps less known is the full quote, which includes the suggestion that one learn the game “by watching first some high school or small-town teams.”
This came to mind during a viewing of “The Only Real Game,” an engrossing and deeply stirring documentary depicting the popularity of our national pastime in what would seem an unlikely place: Manipur, a poor and embattled state in northeastern India.
In “The Only Real Game,” Mirra Bank, an award-winning filmmaker and resident of East Hampton and New York City, delivers a fascinating portrait of America’s enduring influence in the world, particularly its cultural impact and the emotions it stirs in people harboring big dreams but little hope.
“The Only Real Game,” as Babe Ruth called it, explains that “in the land of cricket and soccer, baseball arrived in Manipur on the wings of war.” In response to the 1942 bombing of Manipur by the Japanese — in preparation for an invasion — President Roosevelt sent air support. Some American servicemen took advantage of the downtime and warm, sunny weather to “put on an exhibition of our national pastime,” as one surviving veteran says, and a love affair was born.
Following India’s postwar independence from Britain, Manipur, which had existed as a princely state under the British Raj, was effectively annexed by India after a plebiscite was dismissed as illegal. This gave rise to a protest, which morphed into an entrenched and violent separatist movement that persists to this day. One of the most heavily militarized places in the world, more than 30 armed insurgent groups operate in Manipur, according to the film. These groups, marked by a corruption that rivals that of the government, may spend as much time smuggling drugs and guns as they do fighting for sovereignty.
The Indian government responded to the insurgency with the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, or the “black laws,” as Manipuris refer to it. “It means you have no rights,” Ms. Bank said. “You can be shot, arrested, and have no legal recourse.”
It is in this environment, “caught in a vise between two evils,” as one resident says, that young people — men and women alike — cling to an obsessive love of baseball and the potential for escape that it represents.
“I found out about it and dug into it,” said Ms. Bank, who was short-listed for an Academy Award for “Last Dance,” her previous documentary. “It’s a great human story, and with baseball as the vehicle, the metaphor, it’s an unexpected way to get into the culture and find out these very surprising things. There’s a real love story that develops between people there and two baseball coaches.”
“The Only Real Game,” which is narrated by Melissa Leo of Springs, follows the effort by L. Somi Roy, a native Manipuri living in the United States, and Muriel (Mike) Peters as they visit Mr. Roy’s childhood home and discover a rabidly enthusiastic but threadbare outpost of the American game. Back in New York, they establish the nonprofit venture First Pitch, ultimately dispatching representatives including Jeff Brueggemann, a former major league pitcher, and Dave Palese, both with Major League Baseball International, to Manipur to train players and coaches and organize the construction of infrastructure befitting a professional sport. The Spalding sporting goods company donates equipment to the fervent but poorly outfitted players.
Results were mixed. The effort produced many Manipuri coaches, including women, but promising players were denied visas for a visit to the U.S., and funding for a proper baseball complex, promised by a government official, did not materialize. The film, however, is an overwhelming success in detailing the human connection and love that develop between people from radically differing worlds.
A striking feature in “The Only Real Game” is its depiction of the almost unimaginable resilience of Manipuri women. Frustrated by decades of strife, corruption, and poverty, women emerge as the strongest force in their society, vocal in their rage against all oppressors. This strength is reflected in their participation, as equals, on the baseball field. Women both play and coach baseball, and their athletic ability, like their love of the game, rivals that of the men and boys crowding the field. “The role women play in leadership was very unexpected, certainly for me,” Ms. Bank said.
“The Only Real Game” premiered last month at Tribeca Cinemas as part of the New York Indian Film Festival, where it took Best Documentary honors. “We’re very much trying to get the film back to India,” Ms. Bank said. “We’re just now beginning to do festival submissions.”
The documentary has been submitted to the Dharamsala Film Festival in Himachal Pradesh, she said. “We’re going to try to get the film into public consciousness, first through festival exposure, and hopefully find the appropriate way to get it televised.”