For filmmaker Haobam Paban Kumar, the deep, still waters of Manipur’s Loktak Lake, the largest freshwater lake in the Northeast, hold stories that need to be told and retold. Over the last five years, the 300-sq mt lake — considered unique for its phumdis, floating biomass, on which the local fishing community has lived for generations — has captured the filmmaker’s imagination. He was first drawn to it in November 2011, when the state authorities burnt down a large number of fishermen’s huts near the lake. “The officials started an evacuation drive against the community on the grounds that their habitation caused pollution and contamination of the lake. I started rolling the camera from the day I reached there. My idea was to do an investigative film,” says Kumar. After spending three years there, witnessing the inhabitants and their resistance against the evacuation, the 40-year-old ended up with Floating Life (Phum Shang), a 52-minute documentary that won the Best Documentary award at the Mumbai International Film Festival in 2016.
But he wasn’t done yet. Kumar returned to the lake in 2015, this time to use it as a setting for his debut feature film, Lady of the Lake, based on Sahitya Akademi awardee Sudhir Naoroibam’s short story, titled Nongmei (Gun). “The story is about a man who accidentally acquires a gun and assumes that he has found a solution to end his misery. I thought of adapting this story in the backdrop of the real-life struggle of these fishermen,” he says.
Last October, Lady of the Lake premiered at the Busan International Film Festival under its New Currents section, which is dedicated to works of new Asian directors. Since then, it has done rounds of a number of international and domestic festivals, winning multiple awards along the way, such as the Best Indian Film at the Mumbai Film Festival. Its next stop is the Berlin International Film Festival, which opens on February 9.
Lady of the Lake revisits the fishing community that had featured in the documentary, lending it a distinct air of authenticity. “Those living on the phumdis are caught in a complex struggle. Theoretically, phumdis are not land. So they can’t claim to be natives of the lake. My idea was to show their relationship with the lake and how they are a part of it. Professional actors could not have given that feel. Without being intrusive, we have tried to capture their life in Loktak,” says Kumar. Part of the story also involved going back to the people he had met for Floating Life. He cast real-life couple, Ningthoujam Sanatomba and Sagolsam Thambasang, as the lead characters of the film. “I used to explain the situation to the cast and allow them to play it out the way they wanted to. I used to take multiple takes and pick the best ones later,” says Kumar.
Trying out this kind of form and treatment required immense belief, patience and tapping into his own resources. “Though several producers had shown interest in the film when I had pitched it at the NFDC’s co-production market in 2011, they wanted me to play it safe and were not open to experiments. Since I wanted to do it my way, my family suggested that I should produce it myself,” says the Imphal-based filmmaker, who invested all the prize money that Floating Life won, for Lady of the Lake. Support also came from his fellow alumni at the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute (SRFTI), Kolkata, including Sankhajit Biswas (editor), Shehnad J Jalal (cinematography) and Sukanta Majumdar (sound designer). “They worked on the movie for free. As and when I make money, I keep paying them. Most of them have worked with me on a number of my documentaries,” says Kumar.
Notwithstanding the world-wide appreciation that the filmmaker has been winning for his work, there is an unmistakable feeling of being “cut off”. “My maternal grandfather, Thiyam Tarun Kumar, was employed at Bombay Talkies as a choreographer. He trained Devika Rani in dance and also worked with dancer Uday Shankar. He even went to Lahore to open a dance school. Today, when I talk about Film Bazaar or international festivals, they sound distant for many Manipuris. In those days, it was not a big deal,” he says. Kumar plans to make a documentary on his grandfather some day, through which he wants to understand this gap. “It is not the story of my grandfather alone. Our elders have achieved so much. Today, we have receded into a cocoon,” he says, citing Manipuri dance in mainstream films such as Kalpana (1948), Sujata (1959) and Bandini (1963).
For the computer science graduate, the inspiration to become a filmmaker and narrate the stories of his state came from his maternal uncle Ratan Thiyam, a prominent theatre director. Following Thiyam’s advice, Kumar assisted director Ariban Syam Sharma, known for his internationally acclaimed films such as Imagi Ningthem (My Son, My Precious), which received the Grand Prix at the Festival des Trois Continents in France in 1982, and Ishanou (The Chosen One), which was the Official Selection (Un Certain Regard) for the Cannes Film Festival, 1991. For formal training, Kumar joined the direction and script writing course at SRFTI in 2005. The same year his documentary, AFSPA 1958, which captured the protests against Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act following the custody death of Thangjam Manorama, was awarded at MIFF, and later travelled to international festivals. Over the decade, Kumar has made a number of documentaries, including The First Leap (2008), Mr INDIA (2009) and Ruptured Spring (2012).
Later this year, Kumar will start filming his second feature film, Joseph Ki Macha, which featured at the Co-production Market of Film Bazaar last year. This, too, is based on a short story by Naoroibam. It is set in the backdrop of the Kuki-Naga ethnic clashes in Manipur in 1992. Joseph, whose only son has been missing for years, is supposed to visit the local morgue to identify a body. But he doesn’t want to do that and wishes the time would stand still. “It would be really challenging to depict this on screen,” says Kumar, adding that he wants to bring into focus the troubles that have afflicted the Northeast for decades.
Besides narrating stories from his home state, Kumar wants to develop his treatment of films inspired by Manipuri myths, sensibilities and way of life. “While making a documentary, every subject dictates its own treatment and form. In features, people don’t play around with treatment. I am trying to do that by bringing in Manipuri elements — the way we play around with stories and tell them.”