In their unique way, movies are like windows to the world. Cinema allows us to visualise the world across time and space, and increasingly it imagines the possibility of what might lie beyond. “It is also a means of reaching out to people,” says filmmaker Haobam Paban Kumar.
Over 15 years, Paban has made award-winning films and used the cinematic medium to narrate the stories of Manipur and its people.
The filmmaker is currently in the news for his new film Lady of the Lake. The movie narrates the story of the fishing community that lives around the state’s iconic Loktak lake, and their trials and tribulations in the face of political apathy, conflicts and rapidly changing ways of life.
In the film, loosely based on real events and a short story by Sudhir Naoroibam, tensions are mounting around the Loktak as the fishing community is resisting the authorities’ attempts of uprooting them. In the midst of it, protagonist Tamo (Ningthoujam Sanatomba) suddenly stumbles upon a gun even as he sees visions of a strange woman on the water.
Along with the magic-realist narrative, Paban’s ability to blend fiction and documentary has been applauded by critics. “The film is about mixing fiction with non-fiction. As a film student myself, I have always wanted to try such techniques out for myself and I am happy with how it has turned out.”
The festival circuit has been abuzz with admiration for the movie, which has been screened at Berlinale and Busan’s New Currents Competition. Reviewers have also noted the fact that Paban chose to cast members of Loktak’s fishing community as actors in the film.
Loktak is a subject of interest for Paban who also made his award-winning documentary movie Phum Sang about the community around the lake.
In fact, Lady of the Lake was conceptualised before Phum Sang, which released in 2014 and went on to win a plethora of awards, including a National Award for Best Investigative film.
“I saw the lake in 2011 during a recce and found the community’s home burnt down,” says Paban. “I slowly moulded my script around these people who live there. I have used some real footage as well. I did not even give the actors any dialogues. I just explained the scenes to them and let them act on it — after all, they have lived through such situations.”
Paban studied computer engineering before he made his way to Kolkata’s Satyajit Ray Film & Television Institute to study filmmaking. Since his graduation in 2005, he has earned a name for himself as a documentary filmmaker. His films have been centred strongly around the people and issues of Manipur.
“Coming from the northeast, we always try to connect to mainland India,” he says. “When I started, I thought few would be interested in knowing about Manipur. But people have seen and appreciated the film around the country.”
Lady of the Lake will release in Manipur theatres, and the movie is currently doing the round of festivals. It has won the Golden Gateway award at Jio MAMI Mumbai International Film Festival 2016 and Paban himself clinched the 2016 Aravindan Puraskaran for Best Debutant Director by the Chalachitra Film Society. A commercial release may be difficult, but the movie may be later made available through alternate mediums.
An independent filmmaker, Paban feels like the emergence of festivals and alternate screening mediums is making a real difference in Indian cinema.
Paban at Berlinale. Image source: Facebook
Independent filmmaking is a challenging journey, often devoid of funds and resources. One expects that the popularity of Hindi movies chiefly overshadows regional cinema, but Paban begs to differ. “I think it is about independent cinema rather than just regional language movies. Even independent Hindi movies struggle for release.”
Citing examples like Netflix and Amazon Video, film festivals and TV releases, Paban says that these things have opened new horizons for the film industry and allowed them to reach out to new viewers. Optimistic for the future of cinema, he is now planning his next feature film on the ethnic crisis brewing in Manipur.
“I am lucky to be making films at a time when things are really opening up for Indian cinema,” Paban says. “It is important that we make films without worrying about whether audiences will like it. There is an audience for every film.”