Lady of the Lake: Intermingling Politics and Fantasy
Loktak Lairembee is the debut feature of Haobam Paban Kumar who hails from the north Eastern Indian state of Manipur. Set on a group of fishing families who live on floating islands (also known as Phumdi) on Lake Loktak, the director weaves a narrative of continuous threat, anxiety and homelessness that marginalizes this set of people. The film’s story shows stifling fear leading to mistrust, conflicts and potential violence amidst the backdrop of a serene lake. With long takes, which at times are unedited, minimal dialogues and absolute lack of music, the film creates a niche genre for itself and makes an intriguing experience. Noted film critic Manoj Barpujari reviews for Silhouette.
Desperation: “The government is campaigning on radio for self-employment. But they are trying to stop us from being self-employed…so should we break the radio?” This angry outburst comes from a man emphatically annoyed over certain action on the part of the local authority. In a scene from the acclaimed movie Loktak Lairembee (Lady of the Lake, dir: Haobam Paban Kumar, 2016), fishermen belonging to the Loktak Lake in Manipur are seen conversing, fuming at a devastating eviction drive set against them and taking potshot at the government propaganda machine. The fishing folk’s anger finds a witty and deliberate expression in another voice: “Should we break the radio or the radio station?” It explains their helplessness to the extent of finding no effective option to register their protest.
In another sequence showing a community meeting, an elderly speaker says that they have to go to the court to resist the eviction drive, and in the same breath he warns that their bid may not bother the government who are referred to as “the powerful one”. So he asks his fellow people to get prepared to face any eventuality and invites suggestions of any other action. It stands out as a question of survival of the destitute, the legitimate dwellers in their age-old habitat of ‘phumdi’, the famous floating biomass in the lake. The local authority is on an all-out operation to remove them in the name of clearing the ecosystem of pollution. The situation seems to be compelling for some in the fishing folk to resolve that if they too had guns they would have spoken in equal term with the armed police forces. As their deliberation takes place at a makeshift thatched hut at the lake, in a single-shot scene, the protagonist of the film, himself a victim, yells, “They wield power because of their uniform and weapon. Had we too had the same, would they win over us?” An answer comes from another young man who says that if they too had guns, he would shoot them (the police or para-military) down. Here the word ‘uniform’ could have a variation in meaning as insurgents too dress in camouflage and Manipur has the distinction of harboring highest number of outlawed outfits in north-east India.
Sense of power: The deliberations could have been inspired by a famous Maoist dictum that asserted: “Power comes through the barrel of the gun!” Yet the gun is not used in any known paradigm of cinematic discourses in the film, but utilized to chart meanings in a simple yet uncommon form. The gun – albeit one single revolver in the hands of the protagonist – gives a metaphor of power, a sense of empowerment it would instantly proclaim. But then the power sadly falls into the trap of abuse, all throughout the narrative: as a weapon it is subdued when it is wielded by the long arms of the oppressing state machinery. However when it lands into unprepared hands, it runs the risk of being trotted or being tracked down; thus it can bring forth anything between wish fulfillment or more trouble – the first probability getting reflected in the protagonist Tomba’s histrionics and the second getting echoed in his wife’s fear for the worst, both exposing the sublime nuances of life in a corner of the disadvantaged location, to be precise the Loktak Lake, which is situated more than 50 kilometers from Manipur’s capital city of Imphal.
Tomba is a depressed man driven by privation as he has to live in a makeshift arrangement apparently after his traditional home was burnt down. The beginning pan-shot establishes their ordeal showing burning houses in ‘phumdis’ across the lake. His wife somehow manages ends met on daily basis but incapable of meeting needs of their school-going daughter who is said to be sent to the city to stay temporarily with her grandparents. The wife tries to stir Tomba up and even threatens to leave him unless he does some work to lift them from the state of penury they are living in. But he seems to lose the urge to sustain usual life – the lake which has been providing the necessary space for life, leisure and livelihood (explicitly established at the initial stage) appears dreary, with gloomy visuals and repetitious soundtrack contributing to the overall feel. What is beneath the surface is not easily seen: inside his stressful calmness a grieving self is overpowering. But all of a sudden he discovers a revolver carefully wrapped in plastic and hidden within the biomass during his regular fishing chores and, though a little perplexed at first, Tomba is gradually recharged with a new found sense of power.
Gender politics and fantasy: When Tomba’s wife first noticed the gun in her husband’s hand, her natural reaction is of fear. “Throw it away”, she pleads for getting rid of it and his harsh reply is that it is “not a thing for you woman”, signifying his male ego. He further tries to assert that it will save their soul rather than bringing trouble. Tomba’s wife is less convinced as she says, “Forget the soul, it is creating shiver in my body”, asserting a brewing rift in their relationship. Notwithstanding women’s proven role in fighting a cause in Manipuri society and the way its man-folk keep high esteem about their better halves, the film’s narrative is not writing off a statement of social firefight emanating from gender politics. It is best eulogized in a dialogue when a man, realizing that they are short of means to fight back, exclaims confidently, “Yet, don’t underestimate our women!” Mid and long shots of boatwomen on their own at the lake, women with all their emotions asserting not to desert Loktak at any cost, all this give the impression of that layer of meaning.
It is not without significance that the title of the film itself suggests the feminist tinge of the plot. In a blend of fable and facts, bringing a common man’s belief in spirit and fear of misery, the film dwells on the plight of the fishing community who nurture immense belief and faith that “the goddess of the lake” has always been kind and will ultimately save them from present turmoil. Hence a brief ritual of offering to the lake goddess commences at Tomba’s hut. It gains a two dimensional significance as Tomba senses the spirit of evil around when he notices an old lady mysteriously wandering in the lake and even thinks that the lady nearly knocks at his door in the midnight. In one spur of the moment, the revolver in his custody becomes a weapon to chase the old lady. The incident offers simplification of a reality that arms can do wrong: a wrong person can be caught in the crossfire between the state power and rogue elements which often get enrolled in the insurgent activities. The film however refuses to succumb to this generalized notion. The lady is seen fleeing from a fast approaching Tomba in his boat, he shoots at her twice, the lady drops dead in her boat, but moments after he returns to the hut the lady also comes back to his doorstep and hands him over two live cartridges. Interestingly at that moment Tomba responds with little hesitation or fear and his wife surprisingly is unaware of this whole episode which suggests that it could be a mere fantasy on his part.
Subtle narrative: But has the plot simply given in to an idea that there is some inexplicable mystery represented by a speechless old lady? There is room for fantasizing Tomba’s state of mind. Yet there could be more than that. A reading through the images of Loktak Lairembee evokes a feeling that the lady is fully in human flesh and blood. She is seen several times at a distance looking for something, not for fishing may be, and her first distinct appearance in front of Tomba is eloquent enough to disclose her radical stance. It can be interpreted as an invitation to commit something with the two live bullets she offered. In any of earlier scenes there were no hints of whether the revolver was loaded or not. Probably something tragic, or something daring, is to happen that may give rise to skepticism; and it is left entirely to the informed viewers. The end sequence consisting of a long take, the camera moving over heaps of underwater materials, with palpable human noises from close distance, comes to halt over a revolver resting in a mass of wastes. It reveals an unpredictable culmination in human tragedy. The semiotics of the abandoned revolver may engineer a different debate, as it is likely to indicate a submissive mind-set, bending radicalism too. With the issues involved, the film’s director weaves a tense but subtle narrative, daring the accustomed viewers to empathize with the problems thereto.
The long takes are the mainstay of the film craft. The script relies on very little dialogue and no music score is felt essential to highlight the inherent tensions of the drama. It is made to be like that because the director strongly favoured characterization over others – and what a conviction, Haobam had so succinctly extended it from the human cast to the natural setting. Only blot in the scheme of things is the ambience sound which is laden with a birds’ chirping throughout daytime scenes, the birds hardly seen though, but then it gives the monotony of life of fisher-folk in the given environment. Night and indoor scenes in controlled lights and deft cinematography by Shehnad Jalal are no less praiseworthy. Illuminated indoor scenes are justified by one inadvertent looking daytime mid long shot of solar-power plate hanging outside the crappy hut, though in the scene in which men talk about their grievances and yearn for a change by subversive means the camera is kept in a stationary position and it implies that scope for the Point-of-View shot even to focus on the speakers’ faces is ignored. Loktak Lairembee was shot entirely in and around the famous lake, the camera gliding along as smooth and gentle like the boats on the static water as it captures the unhurried pace of life. The tight screenplay refused to move out of the single location, although there was enough scope for doing so, as the couple’s school-going daughter is said to be at the city and the entire government machinery on the pretext of clearing the lake comes from outside – not to mention about leaving aside a scope to follow any member of the fishing community to and fro the specific locale. The minimalist language, in a way, found a new outlet in Haobam’s film.
Local ethos: The director proves again that to ascertain aesthetic beauty and to achieve philosophical depth one does not require a big budget or a star cast, sometimes, neither it is required to have an exotic set design. The coincidental connection between politics and fantasy is supplemented by ongoing conflict and local belief system respectively – in sheer stoicism; and it is appropriately carried forth by the government’s boat-mounted and gigantic dredging machine on one hand and the stray metal weapon at Tomba’s hands on the other. The cranes are reduced to a symbol of oppression, not economic progress, and the gun represents illogical violence in spite of being at the centre of a justified demand of resistance.
Another striking aspect of the film is its total dependence on local ethos. However the way the roles were enacted may not find ready acceptance from those viewers who feed on the melodramatic appeasement of the mainstream. The marital blues in the couple’s life is painted low compared to their filmy counterparts elsewhere in India. Even when Tomba’s wife saw the gun in his hands her reactions were in subdued panic. Given the gravity of the situation, their emotions are somewhat downplayed. Haobam must have deliberately avoided the melodramatic form where the unfolding and spread of action is usually given more importance to. Rather, he preferred a depth in terms of content whereby he made a profound statement on everything concerned in the narrative, be it the tragedy of the situation or the cultural mores. That way the film takes recourse to the epic form. In that reflection, the performers’ act is so natural that it evokes a feel of the docu-feature format. It may be noted that the main characters who are at the receiving end are actual people from the location. Ningthoujam Sanatomba and Sagolsam Thambalsang played their roles to the heart’s content. There is nothing un-cinematic about keeping the acting part low-key as because it tells about local habits. That is the way common people in Manipur talk or behave: this is one subtle trait of a major Northeastern ethnic group that some people who always look for melodrama fail to understand. (The leading film personality from Manipur Aribam Syam Sharma had good explanations about it in his autobiography Living Shadows.)
Transition: The film marks an exciting transition in Haobam Paban Kumar’s directorial style. Mostly known for his epoch-making long take on the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act – in force in Jammu and Kashmir and the North-east India to contain secessionist violence – titled AFSPA 1958 (2005), the documentary filmmaker in him creatively shifted focus on a crucial issue in his debut as a feature film director here.
Loktak Lairembee in fact can be termed as extension of Haobam’s recent acclaimed documentary Phum Shang (Floating Life, 2014) that dwelt on Loktak Lake’s fishing folk who were forced out of their homes by the all powerful authorities in 2011. By an uncanny knack of weaving suggestive political narratives, he unquestionably proves his mettle in this feature of deceptively dark cinematic tale of people living on the edge of the society. It became one of the most outstanding Indian films made last year having won major awards at leading film festivals in the country (Indian Gold at MAMI, Film Critics award for best Indian film at Bengaluru, NETPAC award for the Asian best at Kolkata, Aravindan Puraskaram for best debutant director, to recall a few), besides being selected for competition and screening at high ranking festivals of Busan and Berlin among others. Its cogent structure and overall excellence in every department of filmmaking are so compelling that the film merits engrossing discussion, a quality which makes for exceptions in cinematic discourse. Well Haobam, be sure that from now onwards, the world of cinema will be closely watching any venture you step on!
Loktak Lairambee Trailer
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