Tracing the State through two indie films: Loktak Lairembee & Soni
- Part 1 -

Rajkumar Panthoiren *

Haobam Paban's 'Loktak Lairembee (Lady of the Lake)'
Haobam Paban's 'Loktak Lairembee (Lady of the Lake)' :: Pix - TSE

Haobam Paban's "Loktak Lairembee (Lady of the Lake)" and Ivan Ayr's "Soni" are two polar opposite narratives in that the former deals with the lower rungs of society who are practically social immobiles on account of their subservient relationship with the State which has in Weberian sense the ultimate monopoly of the "legitimated" exercise of power, while the latter deals with the narrative of two agents of the State who are caught up in the functional disruptions that are part and parcel of their work of law enforcement, worsened by their character disposition of harbouring an intact conscience.

The first is based in the soil of Manipur, or rather on the floating phumdis of Loktak while the second one is based in the rugged streets and tense police stations of New Delhi—both products of feature film medium debutants. Both the films serve as a case study through which the Marxian framework of the State existing as a necessary means to facilitate and sustain the politico-economic interests of the few 'haves', resulting in the absolute denigration and alienation of the majority 'have-nots', can be utilised.

Both reveal the pathological malaise of the normalised ascendance of psychopathic elements in the ultimate echelon of power games and power consolidation, which is manifested in the excesses done by the elite political class. Their actions are in tandem with their sole aim of maintaining the capitalistic power engine that sustains not only the direct monopolisers of power but also the subsidiary and other support structures in the form of vested corporate elites.

Now, who does the State use to further the aforementioned excesses? The optimally fed, paid-for agents of the repressive state apparatus, Louis Althusser would say. In both the films, the concrete, accessible figure we see is the police while the over-lordship of their political masters casts a long, dark yet invisible shadow throughout the story lines.

In psychoanalytical terms, both the films chart the characters' internal conflict between the executive ego and the moral superego and also, the suspended cognitive dissonance they undergo. The executive ego of the State is very much active as seen in the special importance it gives to maintaining the "sanctity" of its formal, rational institutions, while its moral superego has been appropriated by the dominant elite using self-serving rationalisation mechanism.


"Loktak Lairembee" has its basic plotline based on the controversial Loktak lake phumdi (floating biomass) clearance operations by the Manipur Government in cahoots with a dubious corporate body in 2011, which resulted in displacement of several indigenous fisher-folks whose lives depend solely on fishing activities done in the lake.

Tomba and his wife Tharoshang are as deprived, if not more, as any of the rest of the phumdi-dwellers. Tomba suffers from some sort of a psychotic depression and there are visible strands of schizophrenic hallucination and paranoia, which is indicated by his occasional sighting of the mysterious lady who travels alone in her own boat.

His present condition is a result of a previous burning of their hut for which they had to relocate, and as the Government continues to burn down huts and dredge phumdis, he is still anxious of another repetition of his previous fate. A conversation between him and his wife reveal that they have a daughter studying in Imphal and arranging for her education fees is a damning task for them, which is worsened by Tomba's inability to contribute anything economically on account of his psychological condition.

Although Tharoshang rebukes him for not standing up again as any responsible man should for his family, he is indifferent but not unconscious.

A psychoanalytical understanding would point to the decimation of his masculine ego which was in a way irreparably damaged by the ultimate, supposedly invincible outlet of power-consolidation— the State. This was why he needed a push for reclamation of his protective and assertive male authority image. Yes, he is a practicing patriarch but he cannot be simplistically reduced to an oppressive character as a careless feminist misreading might do.

In his mind, he failed to "protect" and "safeguard" the interest of his family; for a man like him who has nothing more than his simple sanctum sanctorum called home where a semblance of his projected importance finds a vent, the sanctity of his living space (the phumdi hut) to be trampled upon is akin to him being reduced to impotence.

The incident of discovering the gun (the pivotal metaphoric tool) excites him as well as shakes him even though he does not have the tools to explicitly articulate so. The gun serves as a redemptive tool for him to reclaim his lost ground, in his own eyes as well as in his wife's.

It's another matter that his hopes would later turn out to be nothing more than a delusion—an act of a defeated fighter who has been pinned down and drained of any energy or will but attempts desperately to throw back a ressurective punch, only to be punched down by the dominant fighter in decisive terms.

Thus, Tomba, the defeated fighter, is a non-entity to the State, the dominant fighter, with no potential for threat either physically or ideologically. In Marxian terms, Tomba is partly out of the false consciousness loop but doesn't have the requisite resources and environs to attain/induce any semblance of class consciousness.

His repressed anger only cripples him psychosocially. This is representative of his equally subdued phumdi dweller compatriots. The gun that he planned to use to "defend" (thawai kanba) his family ultimately pricks his superego and unsettles his executive ego, which shows that even though helpless, his conscience is very much alive.

Or, to restate as a question, is his conscience alive because he is helplessly subdued by the State? Contrast this with the mechanical, oppressive nature of the State which is driven by few vested individuals and which has no remorse in destroying the phumdi dwellers' lifestyle and also falsely pinning the blame on them for the lake's pollution.

To contextualise, it is pertinent to remember that a company which existed only on paper, K-Pro Infra Works Limited, was selected for the Rs 224 crore-worth phumdis clearance work, flouting the norms of CPWD requiring at least three bidders for the award of work. The company was the lone bidder and came into existence only (on 22 June 2009) after the tender notice was given (on 4 June 2009) by the Loktak Development Authority (LDA).

The proliferation of phumdis has several artificial causes such as construction of the Ithai Barrage dam, rapid urbanisation of Imphal, unchecked sewerage discharge from nearby satellite towns, etc. In earlier times, the excessive phumdis were discharged through the Manipur River which is not possible now as the river has been perennially blocked by the Ithai Barrage.

The Loktak Multipurpose Hydroelectric project is also another factor hugely impacting the ecosystem of the lake. So, instead of tracing the root causes borne out of careless planning, absence of impact assessment and furtherance of corporate interests, rather the government had the audacity to blame the phumdi dwellers, who share a symbiotic relationship with the lake, for pollution and thus exonerating itself of its grave missteps which caused the problem in the first place.

Coming back to the plot narrative, the last scenes show that Tomba finally gets to use his gun on that mysterious lady one late night (most probably in a psychotic hallucination episode). Just after the lady was done in, she miraculously comes back knocking on Tomba's door to give him the two used bullet casings from the two "fatal" shots fired by Tomba. The closing shot shows the camera manoeuvring underwater in the lake to finally fixate on the gun lying enmeshed in organic matter.

The gun's fate can be interpreted as Tomba coming to terms (assuming he, not his wife, threw the gun in the lake) with the fact that his helplessness and "impotence" cannot be redeemed by confronting the infinitely more powerful State by violence (his lingering, not acted upon fantasy). The State thrives on the proliferation of such helplessness and mental bondage.

Also, the metaphorical image of the haunting Lairembee of the lake, who doesn't die even after being gunned down, represents the invincibility of the State as an overarching structure which transcends even the impositions of time (constantly churning, death-less). It's interesting that the mythical Lairembee's invincibility somehow impinges upon Tomba's attempts, howsoever naive, to secure justice, which ironically places the Lairembee on the side of the State.

This can be interpreted as power colluding with power (the Lairembee and the State), while indicting the powerless under them for being powerless. This appropriation of transcendental power by the capitalists gives scant space for the building up of 'class for itself' consciousness of the proletariats.

Stray and individual attempts to reclaim a sense of power is thus, by the very configuration of the power structure, reduced to delusional and, even if real, non-threatening abortive attempts, amply illustrated by Tomba's meek coming to terms. The film indicates that the capitalistic tendencies function very efficiently because the State and all its bureaucratic paraphernalia exist majorly for these interests, not for the overstated welfare functions of all.

And these tendencies are always consolidated by none other than the high functioning psychopathic elements who come in the form of political leaders and their corporate backers, begging a disturbing question: is psychopathy an absolutely needed qualifier in the matrix of functional prerequisites to attain power?

"Loktak Lairembee" won the National Film Award for Best Film on Environment Conservation/Preservation at the 64th National Film Awards in 2016, among many other accolades. "Soni" won an award in debut category at the Pingyao International Film Festival, 2018. Both the films were received positively in various international film festivals.

To be continued...

Read Part 2 here

* Rajkumar Panthoiren wrote this article for
The writer is pursuing MA Sociology in the University of Hyderabad and can be contacted at panthoirk94(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on 22 February, 2019.

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