'Lady of the Lake': Film Review | Busan 2016
Award-winning documentary filmmaker Haobam Paban Kumar revisits an endangered Manipur community in this BIFF New Currents entry.
After exposing the fragile state of the ecologically and socially unique Loktak Lake in northeast Manipur State in 2006’s Phum Shang, Indian filmmaker Haobam Paban Kumar returns to the floating phumdi (floating biomass) and the people who live on them, this time for his feature debut. Inspired by government action that razed a huge swath of the community to the ground in 2011 (and then blamed the residents for the pollution that compelled the clearing), Lady of the Lake is fiery but familiar. Though the film is a shoe-in for politically charged festival programs, Lady will be a hard sell, even to art houses and despite Kumar’s sparkling reputation.
Based on a short story by co-writer Sudhir Naoroibam, Lady of the Lake begins on a tranquil note, following a fisherman as he goes about his daily routine. The opening 10 minutes are arguably the film’s high point, as cinematographer Shehnad Jalal effortlessly captures the odd beauty of the phumdi and the languid pace of life on the lake. A house burns, people gather and gossip, the state’s cranes return. It’s rambling, unfussy and willfully unfocused, and it provides an almost palpable sense of place.
But there is anxiety on Loktak, stemming from the continued pressure by authorities to rid the lake of the residents and their continued resistance to being driven from their homes. On more than one occasion, community leaders and the women from each family passionately vow to fight for their livelihoods with their dying breaths. But elsewhere, Tamo (Ningthoujam Sanatomba) one day finds a pistol wrapped in the phum, just around the same time he thinks he starts seeing a mysterious woman on the water. Needless to say, possession of the gun makes him cocky, giving him a sense of power he promptly abuses. It makes him into that which the Loktak residents are fighting, until a final encounter with the lady sets him straight.
Kumar’s documentary roots are all over Lady of the Lake, which are both a strength and a weakness. There’s an undeniable urgency to the assembly sequences that comes from years of watching and shooting life in Kumar’s native Manipur (the violent civil disobedience of AFSPA, 1958, protests over the cover-up of an alleged rape-murder by police in A Cry in the Dark). But the naturalistic performances make much of the film feel like a doc — at best a docudrama — that we’ve already seen. Though the subject matter is still current and the metaphor is apt, there’s not enough narrative muscle for compelling drama, ironic in light of how compelling the nonfiction version of this story is. The film is technically strong despite what was likely a miniscule budget.
Venue: Busan International Film Festival
Production company: Oli Pictures
Cast: Ningthoujam Sanatomba, Sagolsam Thambalsang
Director: Haobam Paban Kumar
Screenwriter: Sudhir Naoroibam, Haobam Paban Kumar, based on the short story “Nongmei” by Sudhir Naoroibam
Producer: Haobam Paban Kumar
Director of photography: Shehnad Jalal
Production designer: Laishram Devakumar Meitei
Not rated, 72 minutes