One of the major themes of the Mumbai Film Festival’s 2016 edition is the lowering of barriers between fiction and documentary. Among the selected titles are straight-up documentaries, including The Cinema Travellers and An Insignificant Man, while other films such as Autohead borrow documentary elements to make viewers question the veracity of what is being shown on the screen. Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke, who will be given the Excellence in Cinema award at the festival, has swung between the two disparate yet inter-linked forms in many of his films.
Haobam Paban Kumar’s Lady of the Lake (the original Manipuri title is Loktak Lairembee) fits snugly into the middle ground between fiction that resembles documentary and documentary that borrows narrative components from fiction. Kumar’s feature debut is one of the 11 titles that will compete for a best film award in the Indian competition section.
Lady of the Lake has had an unusual journey – its themes were intended to be explored through the prism of fiction, but first emerged through the documentary format. Fans of documentary will recognise the Loktak Lake in Manipur on which the movie is set from Kumar’s award-winning documentary Phum Shang (2014). Kumar has previously directed the acclaimed documentaries AFSPA, 58, about the repressive law, and Mr India, about bodybuilder and AIDS victim Pradeep Kumar. In Phum Shang, Kumar explores the precarious lives of fisherfolk who live on floating biomass heaps on the lake. The fisherfolk have been accused by the government of polluting the water body, and they angrily protest when government officials arrive to burn down their huts. The 52-minute documentary has won Kumar widespread festival exposure and recognition, including the Silver Lotus for Best Investigative Film at the national awards in 2014.
Lady of the Lake opens with a montage of burning huts. The troubles on the seemingly placid waters are viewed through a married couple (the real life pair Ningthoujam Sanatomba and Sagolsam Thambalsang). The wife frets about their daughter’s fate and complains about her husband’s endless brooding. She dismisses his claims that he has been seeing an old woman on the lake as a hallucination, and is alarmed when he produces a gun that he finds in the reeds.
Shehnad Jalal’s controlled camera is mostly still on land and moves along on boats while on the water. The silence of the setting is broken only by the sounds of nature and human chatter.
The 82-minute plot is loosely based on the short story Nongmei by Sudhir Naoroibam. Nongmei addresses the ongoing armed conflict in Manipur by posing a question: what if an ordinary citizen suddenly got his hands on a gun?
Films inspired by documentaries are not uncommon. For instance, Werner Herzog spun off his documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997) as Rescue Dawn (2006), while the political documentary Our Brand is Crisis (2005) inspired the Hollywood production of the same name.
Lady of the Lake was always meant to be a movie, but while Kumar waited for funds to make the film, he stumbled upon the Loktak protests and decided to make a documentary instead. “Phum Shang is different from Lady of the Lake, but the set-up and conflict in both films are about the lake,” said the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute graduate. He first visited Loktak, the largest freshwater lake in the North East, in 2011 for a recee for his feature film. “When I went there the first time, I realised that the village that we were going to was going to be destroyed,” Kumar said. “I felt I should do a documentary first.”
Phum Shang helped Kumar get comfortable with Loktak Lake as well as its doughty residents. “The story was always there in my mind, and I changed the set-up and used the conflict as the backdrop for the film,” he said.
A variation of footage of an eviction drive shown in Phum Shang is used in the film too. Other elements loaned by documentary to fictional cinema over the decades show up in Lady of the Lake, such as observational camerawork, long takes and sync sound. The conversations between the couple in the film are based on improvised dialogue. “The actors had such natural reactions that it was almost like doing a documentary – it was wonderful,” Kumar said. When he showed Lady of the Lake at the Busan International Film Festival in early October, audiences could not believe that they were watching non-professionals, the 40-year-old filmmaker said. “These are actors who had practised through the documentary,” he said. “They had gone through a crisis in real life, and I was comfortable with them.”
Kumar was thinking of the featuring film even as he made Phum Shang over a three-year period. “I don’t see much of a line between documentary and fiction,” he said. “I am trying out a mixture, and I am discovering things for myself in terms of genre.” His next project will be in the realm of fiction. Given his experience in documentary filmmaking, expect more genre bending and line erasing.