pursuing MA Sociology in the University of Hyderabad
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?
In “Soni”, we follow the story of two policewomen in Delhi passionate about fighting crimes against women, but that doesn’t mean they are to be bracketed as gender-specific police as they are efficient police officers in all aspects. Being women gives them the extra edge in comprehending certain nuances involving crimes related to women. Their job involves decoy operations at night while being undercover in the streets of the capital city. The title character Soni is the junior of her Superintendent rank boss Kalpana Ummat, and both share a warm, sisterly bond that cuts through the formal hierarchy. Both are passionately devoted to their job of fighting crimes but their temperament is diametrically opposite— Soni is the hot-headed, righteous rebel while Kalpana is the balanced and well-meaning officer who gives importance to protocol. This film is a character study of these policewomen done in very realistic terms. The rational bureaucratic structure is being scrutinized by questioning its efficacy on the ground level (policy output vs. policy outcome). Several questions can be framed through the film: what is the root of crimes such as drugs-related, kidnapping, extortion, political and bureaucratic embezzlement of funds etc. and gender-related crimes? Does one reinforce the other, or are they complementary? How does the perversion of economic base structure come into the picture while looking at the dysfunction of the politico-ideological superstructure?
On top of the gritty law enforcement work they do, Soni and Kalpana also have to fit in the gender roles expected of them at home, more so in Kalpana’s case who is constantly reminded by her mother-in-law of her wifely obligations such as bearing a child. Kalpana’s more practical husband Sandeep who is also an IPS officer, with a higher rank than her, berates her for not being authoritative enough while dealing with subordinates (referring to her empathetic support of the “problematic” Soni). Now, there are certain important moments in the film which shape the characters’ assertion of their organismic selves (Carl Rogers), each time being cornered by the State’s vested check and balances system (to maintain the anomic status quo, a false sense of societal equilibrium).
At a checkpoint, Soni slaps an uncooperative and misbehaving drunk Naval officer after several of her warnings were retorted by patronising threats. In the beginning scene, while undercover in a night decoy operation to check crimes in the streets, she beats up a molester chasing after her who also didn’t relent despite being ignored initially. The checkpoint incident induces an institutional enquiry on her and she gets transferred to a desk job in the police control room. She gets reinstated to her normal post shortly after Kalpana bats for her. In the third instance, while she and her supportive boss Kalpana were in a restaurant having a quiet time, she again gets into a major fight when she found some pampered hooligans holed up in the ladies’ toilet and consuming some Class A drug, thus causing public nuisance; in this case too, her reasoning attempts were futile and she was provoked to physical action when one of the hooligans breached the sexual lines (the provocateur being a corporate honcho’s ward). As expected, the police unit’s head (Sandeep) is pressurised by the corporate honcho, an influential election funder, using his political links. Sandeep, the practical officer that he is, considers the consequences and relents and the hooligan is made to go scot-free, which is resented by his wife Kalpana. Soni is put in the dock again.
So, it can be clearly seen how the very concept of law enforcement entails dysfunctional adjustments and accommodations that are concretised through the strict hierarchical set-up. And the Weberian rationalisation of bureaucracy prescribing one-fits-all framework is demonstrated by the inter-institutional consensus (the police and the Navy, in this case) on what is within bounds and what is not. The Naval officer’s drunk misdemeanour is sidelined as a stray and excusable thing while Soni slapping him for the very act of disruption of police work is seen as an act of excess; would this have been the case if in the place of the Naval officer was a civilian having no political or otherwise backing? Or rather, would a simple civilian have the motivation or nerve to display such privileged misuse of authority even in place where their authority, if any, is not in force? Highly unlikely, except in rare cases of psychological deviance. This exposes the beautiful lie of the so-called equalising effect of law enforcement (all equal before the law) because at the end of the day, the law enforcers are more like authority posers than anything else who are constantly kept in check by the State’s various vested requirements. And all of these institutions are subservient to the State and its constant will to the maintenance of its power concentration.
In order to maintain this happy nexus, the State has to make several “small adjustments” such as the case of Soni’s temporary transfer to a desk job to satisfy the inter-institutional equilibrium and also reinforce intra-institutional hierarchical role allocation’s strict adherence. Also, in the case of the restaurant hooligan, Soni was supposedly at fault just because she responded physically to a serious nuisance causer, while the nuisance causing hooligan’s ticket to exoneration from lawful persecution was not legal defence but extra-legal “adjustments”. Police brutality, even to the extent of death, done on weaker sections of society rarely invites recall and reprimanding of the personnel(s) involved but even non-deadly physical escalation in cases involving the privileged sections results in consequences for the personnel(s) involved. This is the dangerous dichotomy that the State promotes.
In an interesting turn of events, in the penultimate scene, we see that Kalpana goes ahead and brings in the already let off restaurant hooligan and this time, frames several charges on him (drug trafficking, criminal trespassing, attempt to kidnap and assaulting an officer on duty), to the utter shock of the hooligan who still threatens her by invoking his privilege. It’s a redemptive and cathartic act on her part and her own kind of rebelling within the bounds of the system (set protocol). Despite the potentially aversive consequences involved, she doesn’t relent which is sort of an act of reclamation of her conscience. It can also be read as a reassertion of her “position” of an IPS officer that she had achieved through her own struggles which carried genuine meanings for her (righteousness, sense of duty, sensitivity for the less fortunate and so on).
In the final scene, Soni is back in the police control room with a book in her hand which was gifted by Kalpana: ‘Raseedi Ticket’ written by the acclaimed Punjabi writer Amrtia Pritam. It’s a symbolic gesture because the book is the autobiography of a non-conformist of a different era who lived her life on her terms and so in a way, the solidarity and solace that Soni and Kalpana shared between them is solidified by the historical link of another person they mutually admire. They trace their own turmoil and inner dissonance arising out of their being in acute contact with harsh social realities to an identifiable figure who, to them, sort of lived through similar turmoils in her life.
In “Loktak Lairembee”, the State manages to subdue Tomba and his nascent rebellion which anyway was borne out of his psychological disturbance rather than a real, concerted will on his part to better his life chances. His inability is not something personal to him because like him, his phumdi dweller ilk does not have the intellectual and physical resources to match up to the State. Their material conditions bring them down, the reversal of which they attempt through investment in their children’s education. But then, they are unable to ensure top-notch education for their children because education is also a pricey commodified enterprise meant for the well off and the burgeoning middle class. Tomba’s attempt to reclaim his lost ground through the discovered gun results in cognitive dissonance, which gets resolved through his act of abandoning the gun, out of his view and reach, deep in the lake’s waters. And so, the meek resolution seals his fate and we are not given any hopes of betterment of Tomba’s life condition. Tomba’s story is just the tip of the iceberg.
On the other hand, Kalpana and Soni, even though they are bound by the dysfunctional and self-serving diktats of the State, are better off as they still have a scope to right things in areas they can to compensate for the areas they cannot. The State’s bureaucratic machinery intends to make and expects of one to become depersonalised, efficient work cogs. The invisible hand that sustains the iron cage of capitalism doesn’t allow for conscience to function. This way, many young and bright people who initially were principled and optimistic get absorbed into the system’s tentacles and become either psychopathic converts or regress back to the unconscious realm of void, with no personal stand or opinion on anything. In “Soni”, we see the struggles of Kalpana and Soni to remain sane and maintain their integrity while bearing the onslaughts of the State’s dysfunctional adjustments. Their triumph lies in the fact that they do not relent as easily as the State might want them to. And maybe, it is because of the existence of many actual Kalpanas and Sonis in the real world that the State has a slight semblance of humanity.
All in all, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the State as we know is a repository for potential and actual criminalities, with its existence necessitated by the human need for a representative and symbolic consciousness, and sustained by absence of fairer, viable alternatives.
“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.