Indian documentary director Haobam Paban Kumar makes a promising transition to narrative features with the fantasy-tinged “Lady of the Lake.” Returning to the locale of his 2014 film “Floating Life,” Kumar charts the strained marriage of a middle-aged couple living on the extraordinary phumdis (masses of floating vegetation) in Loktak Lake in northeastern Manipur State. Unfolding against the backdrop of forced evictions and house burnings carried out by government forces since 2011, “Lady of the Lake” is light on plot but makes strong statements about human rights and the corrosive effects of living in a constant state of fear. Though commercial prospects appear slim, festivals with appropriate slots should take a look.
Adapting a short story by co-writer Sudhir Naoroibam, Kumar Kumar sets the scene with images of shacks burning on the phumdis of Loktak Lake while a fisherman watches helplessly from his boat. This arresting sequence is followed by text information about the lake’s unique environmental qualities and how it has provided fishing folk with a livelihood for many centuries. In 2011, authorities blamed fishers for polluting the lake and began forcing families from their homes.
The film’s early segments are much more in keeping with documentary than drama. A camera gliding slowly around the lake shows the unhurried pace of life in a strangely beautiful place. One of the most memorable sights is massive clumps of phumdi being stitched together to form “land” upon which a simple dwelling is raised by the collective effort of community members.
Kumar switches to scripted mode with the appearance of Tamo (Ningthoujam Sanatomba), a fisherman languishing at home with an unspecified illness and berated by wife Tharoshang (Sagolsam Thambalsang) for not working hard enough to provide for their daughter’s education in the big city. Fed up with being stuck at home and fearful of joining the long list of evictees, Tharoshang is threatening to leave Tamo unless things change in a hurry.
Although the couple’s deteriorating relationship is played in a key that’s rather too low given the gravity of the situation, Kumar keeps things moving with incidents showing the severe pressure they’re under. Arriving in their vicinity are soldiers, police and gigantic lake-clearing cranes that appear like predatory amphibious monsters. Despite claims of legal protection, houses are destroyed and families left destitute. As with “AFSPA, 1958” (2006), Kumar’s incendiary documentary about extreme civil disobedience in his home state of Manipur, it is fearless women leading the fight here against injustice while men mainly look on from the sidelines.
The film’s title refers to Tamo’s visions of a strange woman who seems to be floating around the lake and haunting him at night. Her arrival coincides with Tamo finding a gun in the phumdi and contemplating whether he will use it against authorities. The intriguing connection between Tamo’s troubles, local spiritual beliefs and the mysterious woman reaches a conclusion that’s satisfying enough but might have been truly memorable had tighter editing been applied when pieces in the puzzle finally fall into place. That said, there’s sufficient evidence in “Lady of the Lake” to suggest Kumar could have a bright future in narrative drama.
Comprised of long takes with very little dialogue and no music score, “Lady of the Lake” is elegantly filmed by DP Shehnad Jalal and expertly sound designed by Sukanta Majumdar. All other technical aspects are solid in a small budget.