Visual pollution riles Manipuri film-maker Haobam Paban Kumar

Haobam Paban Kumar on his award-winning fiction feature debut, ‘Lady of the Lake’

Haobam Paban Kumar.
Haobam Paban Kumar.

Manipuri film-maker Haobam Paban Kumar’s Lady of the Lake (Loktak Lairembee) had its world premiere at the Busan International Film Festival. This was followed by a screening at the Mumbai Film Festival, where Lady of the Lake, which features non-professional artistes from around Loktak lake, won the top Golden Gateway prize. Kumar, 40, graduated in computer science, but found his interest in film-making and storytelling growing. He joined the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute (SRFTI) and went on to make accomplished, award-winning documentaries. Lady of the Lake is his first feature film. Edited excerpts from a conversation:

What scope is there for regional language independent cinema? Are you hoping for Lady of the Lake to get a theatrical release?

We are trying to tell our stories through our films and through film festivals. The problem with regional language cinema is that it’s very difficult to get theatrical releases outside the home state. I am not expecting a pan-India release, but I will try to release it in Manipur. Unfortunately, the condition of our theatres is really bad. Multiplexes have not yet to come to Imphal and only two old single screens are surviving . People mostly watch content on cable, digital and mobiles. Plus, ever since Hindi films were banned in Manipur, even the number of Hollywood films releasing here has declined. Only Manipuri films release here, and mostly for the local video market. Fortunately, documentary film-making is very much alive.

How much do film festivals help?

Lady of the Lake was first in NFDC’s Film Bazaar Co-Production Market and then in the Work in Progress Lab. It took five years to make the feature because of the lack of funds and also because I was making the documentary. The Work in Progress Lab is an amazing platform for indie film-makers like us. It’s the only way for people like me to reach out to a wider audience and get attention.

Was your documentary Floating Life the starting point for Lady of the Lake?

Actually, Lady of the Lake was the starting point. I had gone for a recce for another feature when I saw the state of this village. It was so cinematic. But I also thought that before I make a film about these people I should first get to know them. At that time I did not know how to go about the fiction narrative. So I did the documentary first. In many ways, Lady of the Lake is the second film for all the actors, who are all natives of that area, because they first appeared in the documentary.

What are you planning on making next?

I want to do a documentary on my teacher, film director Aribam Syam Sharma, whom I assisted for several years. I also have a project, Josephki Macha (Joseph’s Son), at Film Bazaar this year. It explores issues of tribal politics and ethnic identity. In Lady of the Lake I looked at the fear psychosis that is a result of insurgency. I am also concerned with finding solutions, which I think rest in our cultural values. Only when we are in pain can we empathize with another’s pain. I am looking at that in Josephki Macha.

How did you get interested in filmmaking?

Maybe because of my family. My great-grandfather was working in Bombay Talkies in the 1940s as a dance director. The chairman of the National School of Drama, Ratan Thiyam, is my maternal uncle. I would see the kind of respect my uncle got when he would visit Mysore, where I attended university. Being from this part of the country I felt the urge to tell our stories to mainland India. And it was easier through films. We still feel that a lot of people don’t know about us. My uncle advised me to go to film school but it took me six more years to get to there. I got through to SRFTI on my third attempt.

Which filmmakers have influenced you most?

Over the years I have watched a lot of movies, but since making my last film I feel there is a lot of visual pollution. So that this doesn’t influence my work, I was not watching films at all. Being a student of cinema, I want to try and do something different. But I am a big fan of Andrei Tarkovsky, Wong Kar-Wai, Yasujiro Ozu and Krzysztof Kieślowski.

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