K Balachander's Thaneer Thaneer Saw It Coming Years Before Chennai Water Crisis
Tamil Nadu is now facing one of the worst droughts in over a hundred years, and Balachander saw this coming and worsening nearly four decades ago.
A still from Thaneer Thaneer.
The world is running out of water, but the world does not care. Despite environmentalists shouting from the rooftops that if we humans are not careful about how we use this precious life-sustaining commodity, we could all perish. Sounds like doomsday, but such a scenario may not be entirely out of the realm of possibility.
The recent Netflix drama, Leila, paints a grim picture of India in 2047, exactly a hundred years after we got our freedom from Britain. There is water famine, there are water wars with people ready to kill each other for a drop. There is an unforgettable scene of a man telling Huma Qureshi's Shalini that her rich husband had callously and unfeelingly bought water to fill up his swimming pool, for sheer pleasure, while people out there were dying of thirst.
In fact, many years ago, Shekhar Kapoor – whose Bandit Queen on the life of the Chambal dacoit, Phoolan Devi, took him to starry heights in the international arena – had planned a film and even called it Paani /Water. (I still have the pen-drive he gave me with the storyline and a few snapshots). He told me at Cannes, where he launched Paani, that the future wars would be fought for water. Unfortunately, he could not find funding, and had to shelve the project.
Indian cinema has always had an eye on water famines. After all, a lot many of the farmers' suicides can be attributed to failing monsoon and the resultant crop failures – leading to debts. Soon, the farmers find themselves in a trap, and suicide seems to the be only salvation.
The 2009 Marathi movie, Gabhricha Paus (The Damned Rain), is a painful study of how farmers in the arid, rain-starved and water scarce Vidarbha region in Maharashtra have been struggling, and how some among them kill themselves, because they cannot face the torture of money-lenders. The farmers in the face of successive crop failures cannot return loans. Nor can they pay the interest at punishing rates.
Many years before this Marathi film was made, Vijay Anand directed Guide with Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman. Based on a novel by R K Narayan, Guide has this tragic climax in which Dev's Raju dies after being mistaken for a holy man and forced to fast in order to appease the rain god. As Raju is dying, the skies open up and torrential rain falls on the parched land. Raju passes away as people sing and dance in joy.
Shyam Benegal's 2009 Well Done Abba has Boman Irani playing Armaan Ali, who wants to dig a well in his water-starved village, and his efforts hit a wall as a corrupt administration comes in his way. Benegal narrates the story with a lot of sarcasm and humour, but makes sure we never miss the point of Government apathy.
Years before Benegal's Abba arrived in his village, Tamil cinema legend, director K. Balachander, had made a prophecy through his path-breaking, National Award-winning 1981, Thaneer Thaneer (Water Water). Balachander, known for his power-punched social works, takes us to a small village in Tamil Nadu. Called Athipatti, it had not seen rain in a decade, and in a witty scene, a boy asks his schoolmaster what exactly is rain. He has never seen one.
Tamil Nadu is now facing one of the worst droughts in over a hundred years, and Balachander saw this coming and worsening nearly four decades ago. Starring Saritha, Radha Ravi and Guhan, Thaneer Thaneer was adapted from Komal Swaminathan's Play with the same title. I have also watched the play, and both the stage and screen versions run close to each other. A schoolmaster (essayed by Swaminathan) pleads with the Government and panchayat officials to address the water shortage in Athipatti.
Balachander throws in dramatic sequences: Sevanthi (Saritha) walks miles every day to fetch two pots of water, and she struggles to balance them and her new-born baby. A convict tries to engineer a solution, while villagers steal water from one another. Boys in the village do not find brides, for nobody wants their daughters to suffer. Efforts to petition the Government falls into a web of red-tape and corruption. A newspaper reporter's story on this plight never gets published.
The movie is brilliantly acted out and is cuttingly symbolic. Sevanthi points to a tree that has the flags of several political parties. Someone asks her: “So many political parties for a small village like Athipatti... Can the tree hold all of them?” “That’s why the tree is bare,” she says calmly, and giggles.
Later, the flags are transferred to a patch of water. Every inch of the water is taken up by a flag, and nothing is left for the villager.
Balachander saw it all coming, and as Tamil Nadu reels under a water famine, with many areas of its capital city, Chennai, starved of water, Thaneer Thaneer appears so relevant. The film had sounded a grim warning.
Why even in the mid-1980s, a serious attempt was made to give the city desalination plants, and a pilot project was set up on the Marina sea-front. But nothing came out of it – administrative bungling and corruption could have come in the way.
Now with ground water at almost zero levels, having been thoughtlessly plundered by those who sell water in tankers, and with reservoirs having gone dry weeks ago, Chennai and many other parts of Tamil Nadu are facing an alarming situation.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic)
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