Where water was the star

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The theme of water and the lack of it, have been addressed rather well by filmmakers in India and Hollywood, says Shoma A. Chatterji. She writes about some of these films and their portrayal of this vital life force.

“Once Upon a time, there was water.” This is a sentence that appears in a film named Kaun Kitne Pani Mein (2015) directed by Nila Madhab Panda, that dealt with, among other things, how the scarcity of water impacts not only our lives and livelihoods, but also our relationships within the family, neighbourhood, and even neighbouring villages.

If you juxtapose two films, Deepa Mehta’s Indo-Canadian film Water, and Guillermo del Toro’s Shape of Water, you will see how cultural perceptions around water differ from one culture to another. While Deepa Mehta’s Water, located in Benares, the holy city of the Hindus and the place of salvation for widows of all ages, uses water as a physical reality, as also a metaphor for life and the cruelty that death entails when a young widow drowns in the water of the Ganges. Shape of Water is a romantic, dark, fantasy film which narrates the story that follows a mute cleaner at a high-security government laboratory, who falls in love with a captured humanoid, an amphibian creature.

Films that star water

Mehta’s Water exemplifies the oft-repeated saying about women: “Women, like water, take the shape of whatever vessel they are poured into.” Set in 1938 in the holy city of Benares, India, it focuses on the deprivations experienced by Hindu widows, still an issue today in a country with 33 million widows. When Mehta started making this film in Benares, Hindu fundamentalists protested, claiming that the film was anti-Hindu. She was forced to shut down the production and start over, a year later in Sri Lanka. (Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat in their essay- Water – Musings on Gender, Race, Class.)

Water or the crisis it creates or the life-saver it functions as, is not articulated in bold capital letters, but asserts its presence through the way it plays a strategic role in the lives of the widows in the widows’ ashram that stands on the banks of the Ganges. A little, eight-year-old widow makes the other widows begin to look differently at their own state of widowhood. Water flows quietly, like a dangerous undercurrent, waiting to swallow up young widows like Kalyani (Lisa Ray) whose long hair is not chopped off because the ashram heads use her for prostitution.

There are other Hollywood films where water plays a significant role which reflect the Western cultural perspective to water that bears no resemblance to the Indian cultural perspective towards water. Among them are some outstanding films like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) based on the famous 1970 novel by Jules Verne, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick published in 1851, and turned into a film in 1956. It comprises a story being narrated by the sole survivor of a lost whaling ship that says how the captain’s self-centred obsession for hunting the white whale, nick-named Moby Dick, led to the huge tragedy. In another film Free Willy, a young boy befriends a captive orca and tries desperately to set it free from its captive state. The underwater scenes in all these films are a water-lover’s delight, only to know the reality that this visual beauty may not last long, unless we pull up our socks and take care to save our waters.

Erin Brockovich perhaps, is the sole example from Hollywood where an unemployed single mother fights from the legal office she works in, when she discovers how a power company is by deliberate design, polluting local water sources, which is deeply affecting the local families in the area. “This film represents a very real problem in today’s world, of multinational corporations and global conglomerates extracting and polluting water unsustainably,” writes Priya Desai (in India Water Portal).

For Indians, water is considered a holy entity which is offered in prayers and in poojas, often drawn from the holy Ganges or the Triveni Sangam or Jamuna rivers. Water is a means of basic survival of everyone across the world, but we do not realise this even now. In Hinduism, the River Ganges is considered sacred, and is personified as a goddess known as Ganga. It is worshipped by Hindus who believe that bathing in the river causes the remission of sins and facilitates moksha (liberation from the cycle of life and death). Pilgrims immerse the ashes of their kin in the Ganges, which is considered by them to bring the spirits closer to moksha. Several places sacred to Hindus lie along the banks of the Ganges, including Gangotri, Haridwar, Allahabad and Varanasi.

Indian cinema however, has shown greater consciousness around water, both as a cultural signifier as well as a critical reality where shortage of water could lead to a huge threat to life itself in all its forms – forests and plantations, animals and birds, flora and fauna and last but never the least, the entire human race. Life of Pi is a truly visually rich and beautiful story set entirely on the sea, which gives us incredible views of the ocean in all its varied manifestations, through the eyes of Pi and his friend Richard Parker, the tiger who walked away as suddenly as he had arrived. The ocean in its fluid mood changes – happy, peaceful, angry, filled with fury, threatening, and then complacent, keeps the audience hooked to the screen.

Let us take a brief look at films that have explored the question of water that would offer us a viewpoint of the cultural perspective of the oriental world. Mehboob’s Mother India (1957) had a political context in the aftermath of the Independence of India in 1947. Immediately following Independence, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru announced his idea of socialism and human resource empowerment. At the time of the First Five Year Plan (1951–1956), India was challenged by major issues such as, (a) the influx of refugees, (b) severe food shortage, and (c) mounting inflation.

The film closes on one of the major features of the Plan and that is “to build economic overheads such as roads, railways, irrigation, power, etc.” Irrigation through the construction of a canal forms the focus of the latter half of the film. The village mother, Radha is requested by the entire village to inaugurate the canal so that the “the waters may flow freely” and the farmers need not be pressurised by the fear of natural calamities or debts or both.

When the water begins to actually flow from the newly dug out canal, it is red in colour, symbolising the bloodshed that got the country its Independence, and the metaphorical ‘blood’ of farmers like Radha that went into the creation of a canal. As the water continues to flow through the rough terrains of the land, like a stream, it slowly loses its redness and turns transparent like clear, natural water, with the soil underneath showing through. The larger goal was to bring attention to New India, and to inform the world at large that the nation was now free to enlarge the concept of equality and the strategy of using agriculture as the primary way of attaining development.

In 1971, K.A. Abbas produced and directed Do Boond Pani, a moving story of how a young, newly married man leaves home and hearth to work towards the construction of a dam in an area wrought with lack of monsoon, and a dry, arid weather in some pocket of Rajasthan. Jalal Agha, a great actor who was severely under-utilised by the Hindi film industry, portrayed the role of this man, Ganga Singh. They live in a desert-like area and suffer greatly from lack of water. But as the work goes on and the dam is about to be completed, Ganga Singh slips and loses his life, keeping his wife Gauri (Simi Garewal) and the little son waiting for his return. He never returns, but the villagers remember his sacrifice and name the dam Ganga Sagar Dam.

The film did not do well commercially, but it had one of the most melodious musical scores composed by Jaidev in one of his best compositions belted out by a range of wonderful vocalists from Laxmi Shankar through Asha Bhonsale, Parveen Sultana, Minoo Purshottam, Mukesh, and Noor Jahan. The title song is especially memorable which repeats the title and says that without water, there can be no life. The film won the Nargis Dutt Award for Best Feature film on national integration.

Kaun Kitne Paani Mein (2015) is a remarkable film that uses an ingenuous blend of comedy and satire to question significant truths in the lives of people residing in two neighbouring villages. Directed by Neela Madhab Panda, the film is a satire on various social issues that are relevant in India such as water scarcity, caste discrimination, and honour killing. For a Hindi film, Kaun Kitney Paani Mein deals, perhaps for the first time, with the concept of “soil re-mineralisation.” The film shows that when water is scarce, there can be severe exploitation of those who are devoid of water by those who begin to sell water to these buyers turning water, a natural resource, into a saleable commodity. This is a very powerful reality brought to the fore perhaps for the first time in Hindi cinema. The film sets an example of how cast schism can be eliminated through very honest and dedicated hard work and also how a director can take his socially committed message across without sounding patronising or derogatory towards the audience.

Actor-producer Priyanka Chopra has recently announced a Marathi film called Paani which, against the backdrop of a love story, deals with the issue of drought in Marathwada. The film directed by Adinath Kothare stars Subodh Bhave and Kishor Kadam in prominent roles. It also stars Girish Joshi and Rajit Kapur, and is inspired by the true story of a common man and his village, Nagdarwadi, situated in the drought-prone Marathwada region of Maharashtra.


Shoma A. Chatterji

Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author. She has authored 17 published titles and won the National Award for Best Writing on Cinema, twice. She won the UNFPA-Laadli Media Award, 2010 for ‘commitment to addressing and analysing gender issues’ among many awards.

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