They do not have ground beneath their feet. All they have is phumdi, the floating biomass on the Loktak Lake, the largest natural freshwater lake in the country. But that too is slipping away from the Meitei-speaking fishing community of Manipur, thanks to the state’s high-handedness.
Haobam Paban Kumar’s 2016 feature film, Loktak Lairembee (Lady of the Lake), which had followed his award-winning documentary on the lake (Phum Shang, or Floating Life) and the people dwelling on it, created waves in national and international festivals alike.
Watching the film on a popular OTT platform five years after its release (access to regional art-house films is limited to the commons) is an experience in itself, especially when the long wait has been rightly awarded.
As fire blazes engulfing a bamboo hut on a phumdi, a fisherman, perched on the stern of his canoe (or he in Meitei), watches the spectre. His despondency reflects in the vast waters of the Loktak.
The lady, however, remains calm. She knows life has to go on despite the undercurrent. So, she does her daily chores without much ado, not even about the indolence of her husband Tamba.
But the undercurrent finally disturbs the calmness on the surface. Fear and frustration spread like the fire that destroyed numerous houses on phumdis during an eviction drive by the state government in the pretext of saving the lake from destruction.
As a giant machine’s hand uproots life and livelihood of the community, women take the forefront in protesting against such injustice. Even during a meeting of the residents of the floating village, it is a woman who gives expression to the anger and despair at the uncertainty.
The phumdis are these people’s ‘piece of land’ and they are refusing to give up an inch of it. They structure the phumdis together, fish in the lake and fight the inclement weather and their penury. How can they think about leaving their birthplace? How can they fight the state’s arrogant forces? Will the lady of the lake save them?
Tamba hallucinates. He sees the lady rowing her canoe around his. He hears footsteps at night and lives in constant fear of losing his house and identity. He gets a revolver, a source of mental peace for him amid the growing tension on the Loktak. There is no room for innocence in his small hut on a phumdi that has been forced to drift towards a dystopian world of politics and power.
The revolver comes alive when Tamba again hallucinates (or is it real?), this time prepared to end the unknown woman who is keeping a watch on him every time he is out on the waters. Two bullets and the ‘enemy’ is overpowered.
But the lady of the lake does not want Tamba to stoop to violence. She comes back at night to return the bullets. After all, she was no enemy but a figment of imagination of a man who feels insecure in his own house.
“I started working on the story in 2011, and for several reasons, the project was delayed. When I reached the place, trouble was already brewing. I needed to study the people and know the place better. Hence, I decided to make a documentary first… During my interaction with the people, I would often hear them talk about guns and taking up arms to resist the eviction. I incorporated it in my story,” said Paban Kumar, who is a documentary filmmaker, on phone from Manipur.
The film, based on a Sahitya Akademi Award-winning short story by Sudhir Naoroibam, features real characters, bringing alive the tribulations on the phumdis.
Tamba’s wife wants him to throw the deadly machine away. She is more concerned about the daily drudgery and the daughter who is away. But she feels that the eviction drive is the worst thing to happen in her lifetime.
The Lokatak is intrinsically associated with Meitei culture and folklores. The mythical Poubi Lai resides in the heart of the lake. The vast stretches of water are more than a natural splendour to the community. The Loktak is their lairembi (goddess), the mother who protects her children from all adversities on the lake. There is no need for a revolver.
~ Team Sunday Monitor