“Today is a very special day for me. This is my first debut feature film. My mom is also here,” said Haoban Paban Kumar, director of ‘Loktak Lairembee’ (2016), before the IFFI 2016 screening of his debut feature. His comments were received with exuberant applause from the large Manipuri contingent which had turned out to cheer their friend.
“I always talk about contemporary issues in Manipur,” Kumar told The Peacock. An experienced documentary maker, his work includes ‘Phum Shang – Floating Life’ (2015) and ‘AFSPA, 1958’ (2016). ‘Loktak Lairembee’ (The Lady of the Lake) draws from his previous work with the unique fishing community that lives on islands of floating biomass called ‘phumdis’ on the Loktak lake. The director’s long association with his subjects helped. Kumar says, “I did the documentary first, spending ten years building a relationship with these people. Now my actors are from the same community.”
A graduate of the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute in Calcutta, but now based in Imphal, Kumar still hopes for a “European premiere.” On prodded for the reason, he says, “for the career. Nowadays it is necessary. Otherwise how will people know about it [the plight of the people in his film]?” The world premiere of ‘Loktai Lairembee’ was in South Korea, at Busan International Film Festival. “That was really an opening, and besides that the film was also well received at MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Image).” Also, “Kolkata was crazy man! There was no place to stand. I had to watch the film from the projection room.”
Going it alone is not easy. Kumar says “my mother, aunt, wife, I and my friends fund my films. My family supports me. Independent cinema is difficult. A documentary is a bit different, it doesn’t need a lot of money. But when you make an independent fiction film everyone expects quality – in sound, for instance – and that needs money.”
About social tensions in strife-torn Manipur, the young director thinks things have deteriorated, “individualism is creating a problem. Now it is like, ‘I want my space’. It has to do with modernization, I think, and I am trying to address this in my next project.” The director used to believe the assertion of tribal identities was a positive factor, but now it is proving problematic. These are the issues he will address in his next project, which Kumar says may be the first film in India to talk about ethnic identity and conflict.
(A version of this article was first published in The Peacock, 27 November, 2016)