Phum Shang: a documentary film on life in Manipur’s Loktak Lake

A 52-minute documentary film Phum Shang by Haobam Paban Kumar, touchingly captures people being uprooted from their “way of life” in Loktak Lake and its adjoining areas in south west, Manipur.   The film is nominated for Leipzig Ring Award 2015 and is currently in competition at the 34th Jean Rouch International Film Festival in Paris, India Week- Hamburg, and 10th Film South Asia in Nepal, among others.
Phum Shang, literally meaning Phum – Floating Bio Mass and  Shang  – Hut /Inn received the Cinema of Resistance Award at the 9th SIGNS Film Festival Kerala 2015 and First Bala Kailasam Memorial Award 2015 in Chennai, The Silver Lotus for the Best Investigative Film at the 62nd National Film Awards 2014.
The film, set in picturesque Loktak Lake , an unique freshwater water body, tells the tale of the  traditional fishing community inhabiting the lake and has lived for centuries on the floating Phumdis ( bio mass). The lake and its natural resources were their main source of sustenance and life.
Of late, this idyllic lake, known world-wide for its captivating beauty, scientific and environmental significance and the pride of the state of Manipur is no longer what it appears to the outside world, the tourist or the researchers. Most importantly to its own inhabitants, the lake dwellers for whom it is not only a mere livelihood but identity, tradition and most of all their way of life weaved around this very lake. Many of Manipur’s  folk-lores , tales, history revolves and  evolved around this lake.
A senior journalist, Salam Rajesh, an environmentalist who has written extensively on environment and has been observing developments in the state closely, takes you to the lake where he often visits for his research. But sadly he could not find his acquaintance and those similar faces whom he often had conversations and chats, when he came back for this film (Phum Shang) in 2011.
As he manages to meet some of the fishermen in the lake, the journalist came to realized that his “friends and their families” were among those who had left the area and had settled somewhere in the nearby hamlets and villages. Those he met here in the lake presently as shown in the documentary film were those who were fortunately left by the “Machine” – The huge hydraulic excavator that came along with Officials for eviction. Though devastated some of them re-built temporary make shift huts and asserted they are not going to leave the Phumdis.
Until the commissioning of the Loktak Project in 1983, the lake dwellers had a life of their own, non interference and un-interrupted. From morning till dusk, they would go out and fish and brought their catch to the city market. This is their everyday life.
From mid 2006 on-wards, this daily chores was interrupted by what this simple fishermen/women called “The Machine” – that would frequently come towards their huts to crush them down. The Lake dwellers also had to frequently encounter unwelcomed visitors whom they simply termed “They”– the officials who would come and order them to leave their huts. Many of the huts and settlements were raged down and burnt into ashes, which was also shown in the film.
Phum Shang also documents and captures how the fishermen and women resisted the eviction drive. Fiercely protective of their dwelling huts and the lake, these fishing communities were up in arms against the ‘Machine’ and “Them”. Their anger, fears and apprehensions were captured in the film, presenting the plights of the Loktak Lake dwellers, their stands, genuine grievances and arguments in their own words.
Not merely a documentary of people living in the periphery, Phum – Shang also brings out the complex web of development vis a vis mega projects, urbanization and its impacts. The film also captures how ‘development’ has been perceived by the state ( or few in the establishments) and how people in the periphery were at the receiving end of policies and development projects.
Phum Shang is a classic case of impact of mega development in Manipur, across India and elsewhere. The story provides a case in point of how mega projects have displaced thousands and uprooted them from their livelihood, identity and dignity. The larger context of the degrading environment and eco system was also captured in the film. Meanwhile, several fowls and other animals have also have been reported to have disappeared from the Lake. Moreover, Loktak Lake is the only natural habitat of Sangai (rucervus eldii eldii ) the endemic, rare and endangered deer species which is on the verged of extinction.
While many of the Phum dwellers in Loktak Lake have escaped for fear of their lives after their house were pulled down, burnt or destroyed, many families still stay put and are adamant. That they would not leave their huts nor the lake, which are not only a home or a livelihood but a tradition and belief too.
Many a times the Machine would come aggressively right into their huts, many a times the lake dwellers could wade off the ‘Big thing’. As it stands, presently the lake is seemingly quiet and silent, but everyone including the viewers of Phum Shang knows “they” will come back any time with the “machine”.
Uncertainty, uneasiness looms large over the idyllic Loktak Lake ; shown quite evidently in Phum Shang.The film brings the viewer into a deeper questioning of development paradigm and perspectives.
Even as the natural resources, the bio diversity and eco system of the of / in Loktak is fast degrading, and the blame being place upon the natural inhabitants. The question, as the Phum Shang shows the Dwellers asking “ are we, who has been living in this lake for centuries,  encroachers of Loktak Lake , as per the Loktak Protection Act 2006 “? Are these fishing community too on their way to disappear from the lake ?
As the Phum dwellers takes the matter to the court it only remain to seen on how the law will take its course in this complex case. Many questions linger and perhaps many will remain un-answered.
 The 1st Bala Kailasam Memorial Award has rightly awarded Phum Shang for innovative use of media towards social cause. Beside film lovers, it is a must see for concern citizens, researchers and most importantly policy framers and the state agencies.
Haobam Paban Kumar studied filmmaking at Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute Kolkata. His films that have made to festivals international events and have won several recognitions including the FIPRESCI prize at Mumbai International Film Festival 2006. He was one of the six emerging talents to represent India at Cannes film Festival 2011 supported by National Film Development Corporation India. Haobam stays in Manipur and makes film about Manipur.

 The Northeast Today - TNT 
4 November 2015

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