Two films, one not so recent, the other oven fresh, should be treated as new landmarks in the Manipuri film world’s exploration of human psychology. Both are firmly rooted in the soils of Manipur and both are multi-award winners. One is a documentary, though a peculiar one, and the other a short film, depending on wit and not the least, unique cinematic techniques of suspense building. The first is Haobam Paban’s “Loktak Lairembi” (2016) and the other Romi Meitei’s “Tainted Mirror” (2021). Here are my reviews of these exceptional films, not in any order of merit, but according to the chronology of their production, therefore in this episode I take on Haobam Paban’s 2016 film, “Loktak Lairembi” first.
Loktak Lairembi (2016)
There is always something oddly magnetic about stories with even the slightest hint of the twilight zone between the normal and the paranormal worlds. In the hands of inept story tellers, this can get kitschy and childish, but give it to a master myth weaver and even the most ordinary can begin to appear extraordinary. In the film world the creative genius of Alfred Hitchcock made this a genre to reckon with.
Haobam Paban’s award winning “Loktak Lairembi” would belong to this tradition, and as in a Hitchcock film, it too stimulates quite successfully, though expectedly lacking the unfathomable depth of mystery evoked by the mix of ambiguity and certainty of a psychological drama of a Hitchcock classic. Indeed, Hitchcock’s works are undisguised poetic interpretation of the power of Freud’s “Unconscious” mind at work, and Freud saw many abnormal behaviours in mentally disordered people, stem from this region of the human brain.
“Loktak Lairembi” is a film which is both a documentary as well as a work of fiction. The setting is Loktak Lake and the lake dwelling fisherfolks with their hutments on Loktak’s famous floating biomasses known as phumdi. The film takes an impressionist pan across their lives and times. Real time footages from one of the traumatic and much publicised evictions of sections of these fascinating villages on water, make for some of the most poignant scenes. The helplessness of these ordinary impoverished community, living off the receding bounties of the Loktak, by their traditional occupation as fisherfolks, become evident when they come to be pitted against the might of the state, its powerful mechanised dredging machines with menacing steel claws lifted high, escorted by khaki clad police forces armed with lethal automatic weapons screaming commands from their motorboats.
From the vantage of these simple fisherfolks, even the statutory idea of development and beautification, seem monstrous atrocities crashing into their traditional worlds, one in which they had a livelihood means however small, therefore felt secure and were proud of. The film is also in this sense a way of seeing the inevitable tragic circumstances which accompany the transition of any traditional world to the modern, in which the inhabitants of the former are left to make sense of and adjust to the latter. This becomes especially so when those pushing the development agenda are insensitive to the weaknesses, needs and indeed attachment the former have to their homes even if it is on the surface of a lake.
If this is the story as it unfolds at the macrocosmic level, running parallel to it there is also a microcosmic world. The two are interrelated for each contributes to the making of the other but nonetheless exist in different and independent dimensions. To take a peep into this microcosm of the Loktak lake dwellers, the camera zooms in and enters one of the hutments and into the lives of a couple, a hard-working woman and a jobless, incomeless man, on the edge of depression. The man is most of the time in the hut and in bed, while the woman is shown returning from work with some meagre provisions to keep the family hearth burning. The helpless frustration is writ large on both their faces as they trudge along their drearily harsh life each day. The women suggests they leave their lake hut and live on shore where their children are. The man gets realistic and is reluctant in anticipation of further disgrace as their poverty and joblessness would be even more acute and visible there causing more humiliation for themselves and their children.
Then one day, during one of the rare occasions the man agrees to go out to collect their fishing nets at one of the fishing sites, he discovers a handgun under a phumdi in watertight wrappings, hidden probably by some insurgent cadres. He brings back the gun to his hut and slowly but surely, the sense of power when the gun is in his hands begins to intoxicate him. However, as a psychological consequence of the stealth and danger involved in keeping a gun, he also begins to develop an uneasy sense of being under a mysterious surveillance and of someone constantly watching him. Not long after, this sense worsens and he begins to notice a stern-faced lady stranger in a dugout boat, always at a distance, watching and stalking him. His wife notices the changes in his demeanour and is worried. They engage a shaman who performs an exorcism ritual, and it was only during this that the audience get to know the man’s name is Tomba.
The exorcism obviously did not work and from the director’s point of view, was probably only meant to heighten the drama of the escalating psychological tension. One night, upon hearing a noise outside his hutment, Tomba quietly gets out of bed, picks up his gun and stealthily walks to the door and opens it slowly. Sure enough the same lady was there in a boat at a distance as in an apparition, watching him. As he steps out of his hut, she sails away. Tomba gives the lady a chase in his boat, shouting at her to tarry but she does not pay any heed and sails on. After chasing her for some distance on the isolated and eerily silent night, Tomba stands up on his boat, takes aim and fires two shots from his handgun. The lady collapses into her boat.
A stunned Tomba stands there transfixed for a while, and still in a daze returns home zombie-like. While sitting on the floor next to their bed where his wife is still sound asleep, still not out of the state of confusion and shock, he again hears someone moving outside his hut. He approaches the door and opens it. The mysterious lady who has been stalking him and who he had just shot dead, was there standing barely a few feet way facing him expressionless. They lock eyes for a while before the lady reaches out and opens her palm, and in it were two spent bullets, indicating they were the ones Tomba shot her with, offering him to take them back.
Was this spookily violent drama of encounter with Loktak Lairembi (goddess of the lake) that Tomba went through even as his wife slept through unaware, merely a product of Tomba’s psychological trouble? In the twilight zone of mental illness, the distinction between real and unreal is hazy, and both the real as well as the unreal worlds are equally capable of taking severe tolls on the life of those unfortunate to be trapped in it.
Next week review of “Tainted Mirror”
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author