The world premiere of “The Only Real Game” was at the New York Indian Film Festival (NYIFF) on Wednesday, May 1, 2013 at the Tribeca Cinemas in New York City, NY. It was followed by a Q&A with Director Mirra Banks, narrator Melissa Leo, producer Muriel “Mike” Peters and cast member Jeff Brueggemann.
“Baseball is a microcosm of the world; the decisions, struggles, things that aren’t fair.” – Quote from “The Only Real Game”
Even in times of plenty or times without devastation or sacrifice, certain elements of society have the tendency to function as binding elements, a social glue, and an escape from the realities of life and the everyday routine, regardless of how hectic or monotonous. These can range from music, to dance, to culinary exploration. To some, sports are the epitome of this departure from the world around us. From the unwavering adulation of your favorite baseball player, pretending to be him while throwing around in the yard, to emulating his stance and routine batting at home plate during your high school Varsity season, to the feeling of putting on his jersey and heading down to the local pub to catch the Sunday afternoon game, these are times when the rest of life comes to a standstill and those around you become a makeshift family, sharing an unusually strong bond between strangers.
The state of Manipur, in eastern India bordering Burma, has been experiencing a separatist movement for the last several decades and has escalated into a landscape of constant militarization with no clear end in sight. The state of the country has pushed the majority of its inhabitants into a corner with few options than to comply with the circumstances surrounding them. It has relied on its strong history and culture to provide its people with the pride and resilience to endure the hardships that have come with the times. However, one of the unexpected sources of strength an unity has been found not in soccer or cricket, but in the “All-American” game of baseball, brought over by World War II soldiers from the US. The country has only watched it flourish since then.
Mirra Bank, in making the film “The Only Real Game”, has struck an exquisite balance in telling two interweaving, but related, stories of Manipur as it stands today and baseball’s presence in the country by using one as a vehicle to introduce and sustain the other. The film provides a clear, yet concise, historical context using visuals and historical and present day film of everyday happenings with the precise and soothing narration of Melissa Leo to elaborate. Several important activists, including Binalakshmi Nepram and MK Binodini, offer their commentary on the state of affairs.
The movie then begins to explore the element of baseball, how it has grown to the prominence it has, and the efforts of the First Pitch organization to support the interests of the people of Manipur in baseball and how it impacts their society. Members of local communities become characters who the viewer grows respect, feel for, and love. Their stories of their lives, largely told by them in Manipuri, are a window into the heart of the Manipuri people; it is difficult to not sympathize with their struggles. They tell of their experiences with baseball from early in their childhood. Baseball has been a cornerstone of life for many of these young adults, becoming their reprieve from life and for some, the object of their aspirations. Recollections of years spent playing amidst the chaos of the insurgency are enough to drive many to tears. Some of the stories told are of women who have similarly devoted their lives to the sport, many as coaches, for the benefit of not only their own children and the children of society.
First Pitch is an organization founded by Muriel Peters whose mission it is to further the awareness and proficiency of baseball coaches and players of the game of baseball. Jeff Brueggeman and David Palese, two MLB Envoy coaches, accompanied First Pitch to travel to Manipur to put on baseball and coaching clinics, and are the main subjects of the film. One can see their true love for the game melding with their kindhearted nature to provide an incredible experience for all they come in contact with. Players and coaches alike respect them, and come time to part ways, a lifelong bond is forged, truly touching the viewers.
By using the game and story of baseball, Mirra Bank and her crew have managed to tell a truly gripping and compassionate story of the struggles of a people who choose not to stand down, not to give up in times of desperation. Having played competitive baseball for over 10 years, I can attest to the power of the game of baseball as both a departure from my reality, as well as a source of community within a heterogeneous group of people, bonding over our love for a game which instills in us the core values of leadership, teamwork, and dedication to our cause. These are the values with the Manipuri people hold so dear. and “The Only Real Game” is proof that, not just for the Manipuri, but for people all over the world, there is yet hope to overcome their own struggles.