Film Review: The Only Real Game

'The Only Real Game' tells the unexpected and hopeful story of the love of baseball in Manipur, a far-flung and unlikely outpost for the sport in northeast India.
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Evidently, baseball is not only America’s favorite pastime. To judge by Mirra Bank’s wholly surprising documentary The Only Real Game, it’s also a much-beloved sport in Manipur, an impoverished and war-torn state in northeast India that was conquered by the British in 1891, annexed to India in 1949, and is to this day a culture awash in cricket and soccer.

But for complex reasons, baseball—as literal game and metaphor—hits a special emotional chord among the indigenous people, including a large number of women who are at the forefront of virtually every social and political struggle. They are also baseball players.

As told here, baseball was introduced to the country during World War II when American GIs, who were flying across the Himalayas to bring supplies to the allies, spent their downtime playing the game on American airstrips in Manipur. The sport captured the imagination of the locals and its appeal has only grown over the decades. The enthusiasm among contemporary players in Manipur practicing at bat and/or pitching in dirt fields in the middle of nowhere is palpable. In one of the more surreal scenes, a cow wanders onto the playing field and has to be shooed away.

But then, everything about this story is slightly surreal, not least the pure love of the sport in a factionalized region that is dominated by a militarized, brutal and corrupt government in ongoing combat with dozens of equally violent insurgent groups. The presence of armed militia is constant. Shots of burnt-out and collapsed buildings are equally vivid. Cinematographer Axel Baumann captures Manipur’s variegated texture.

Among the large number of interviewees, reflecting a social and economic spectrum, many say the country suffers from 25% unemployment in addition to high rates of HIV, AIDS and drug abuse. They view baseball as a potential stepping stone to a better life. Some dream of playing professionally.

Devika is a wife, mother and nurse who treats drug addicts. At the age of 17, she was an international softball player. She still trains the baseball players informally, but in the best of all possible worlds she’d be a paid coach, she says. Likewise, Manipur’s most promising baseball player, Lalit, fantasizes about coming to the United States to play in the major leagues. MK Binodini Devi, the youngest daughter of the former King of Manipur and a cultural leader in her own right (who was in her 80s at the time of the filming and is now deceased), was baseball’s greatest supporter. She saw the game as the way to revive the long-suppressed sportsmen-like spirit of the country and perhaps even a way to bring together the warring factions.

Enter the United States. When First Pitch, a New York-based charitable organization, learned about the baseball players of Manipur, it shipped them balls and mitts and, far more significant, sent Major League Baseball envoys Jeff Brueggman and Dave Palese to Manipur to train the local players. Much of the film deals with the strong emotional bond that is forged between the Americans instructors and native students.

But unlike Million Dollar Arm, The Only Real Game does not have a happy or pat ending. Brueggman reluctantly admits the athletes have a long way to go to be professional; several players who were promised trips to Yankee Stadium don’t get visas; and a real baseball field that was in the works for Manipur athletes doesn’t materialize either, at least not yet.

Thanks to Bank—who is perhaps best known for her affecting film Last DanceThe Only Real Game is refreshingly devoid of sentimentality, yet despite itself oddly affirmative. At moments the film feels a tad diffuse—with too many stories being told—but it resonates long after the final credits have come and gone.

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