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Bollywood movie bridges rich-poor water divide

South Korea : Growing water scarcity across parts of India and lack of clean drinking water has caught the fancy of Bollywood in recent years. Issues like water conservation and need for bringing in changes in water consumption behaviour are being touched upon by many a director in Hindi movies.

In 2014, Jal, directed by first time director Girish Malik, was released. The National Award winning film found a place among the Oscar contenders of 2014 in two categories — Best Picture and Best Original Score. A story of a young man gifted with a special ability to find water in the desert, the movie was set in the backdrop of water scarcity. It had all the usual Bollywood ingredients -- an intriguing love story, dark characters, enmity and deceit.

Acclaimed director Shekhar Kapur, known for movies like Bandit Queen and Mr India, is also working on his next big venture -- Paani, which highlights the problem of water scarcity in the country.

Director Nila Madhab Panda, who received critical acclaim with his 'I Am Kalam' in 2011, too has touched upon the issue of shortage and water politics in his recently released film - Kaun Kitne Paani Mein (In Troubled Waters).

Panda has previously touched upon the issue of water shortage, albeit briefly, in his 2012 children's movie - Jalpari: The Desert Mermaidheart, but in Kaun Kitne Paani Mein, he goes all out to weave an interesting satirical story around long-standing caste conflicts in Indian villages and how water comes to be a 'tradable' commodity.

Set in a fictional village, divided by age old caste system, in his home state Odisha, the movie has a simple message - water conservation methods like rainwater harvesting and managing demand for water is now a growing necessity.

The movie has been produced by One Drop, an international NGO set up by Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté, as part of its award-winning WASH project in Odisha.

In a free-wheeling informal conversation with India Water Review before the official release of the movie in late August, Panda talks about the experience of directing a movie that takes up a burning issue like water shortage in India.

What was the backdrop of this move and how was the experience about the entire thing? What was the mandate that was given to you and what were you supposed to create and what is the message that should go across? How convinced are you that a Bollywood film on water, talking about local issues would be the most apt thing to do and to get the message of conservation across?

There was no mandate and there were no instructions that came from One Drop. This story has not come out of any particular brief.

I would have done it with a studio but when you make a film with a studio, it’s a big budget, bigger stars & bigger things you get into. But, the reason I approached One Drop has something to do with my own story – my own emotions.

I belong to an area, and if you work on water issues then you would know this area, called Kalahandi which suffered from three decades of man-made droughts.

We have literally seen what happens when there is no water. You know the problem what you see today is what we have seen for 30 years – since my childhood. And what we have seen, the acute scarcity of water, how it has affected our economy, relationships, social values, everything.

I will give you a small example. In our villages, generally, if in the neighbourhood village, there is now water, we would not like to give our daughter in marriage to that village as the girl has to fetch water for miles. Not only that, it’s also the cleanliness. It is also the way you were treated when there was no water – everything got affected.

Now, one interesting thing which has happened over time is how one survives. Almost 50 per cent of male members in our villages used to migrate to other states. Since there was no water, there was almost no local economy, no farming, nothing. So, rest of the people who are remained back in the villages, had nothing to do – all they did was joke about each other and laugh at ourselves.

Since that time, things have changed. There was very little rain but an NGO came, Government came and we started to learn – how to save that little bit of water. Of course, things are improving a bit now but my point of doing the film was not just talking about the problem but finding some solutions for ourselves, without going to any one for help.

In the movie too, there isn't any talk that overnight you would have the solution to get access to water. The movie talks about how the community and each person can create a kind of strategy for themselves to be able to be helpful to save that little bit of water and manage their own demand.

We have seen that effect that even today if you realise, the problem is not only in Odisha, but it’s everywhere. I read this interesting news from Maharashtra, where there are men who got married to two-three women who fetch water.

In Maharashtra, there are villages which are being auctioned as there is no water.

So, the idea of the film is futuristic, where each one of us can be part of that change and you can be your own change agent to save water or manage that water and create a system. You do not have to depend on big money to come or Government or an NGO to come and give you money to save water.

In fact, while I looking for a location where I could go back to that past – 30 years – when there was no water and we didn’t know what was happening, we literally got lucky to find a location in north India itself.

This region where I shot the film is very interesting. The Government has already declared it as a Red Zone, where you can't dig water from underground.

I have one scene, where there is a pond where I need water. So I don’t have that big budget to travel another 200 km to find a pond but what we did was to take Government permission to get a little bit of groundwater to fill that pond.

It was a night scene but when I got the water, the whole neighbourhood got their cows, buffaloes to use the water. So in the night, there were 5000 people standing around the pond – I couldn’t even shoot. We had to call the police to move them out.

Where was this place? Is it close to Delhi?

This was in Mahendergarh district in Haryana. This district has acute water scarcity, it's really bad. From Delhi, it’s just three-four hours away. It’s near Rewari.

So, that is the condition people are living in. And it’s not far from the national Capital – it’s right there! The problem is right here! We see that it’s visible. So the idea of a Bollywood film is – we are not nagging, we are not giving messages, we are just entertaining them – to say that it's time for us to realize the situation on the water front. We need to have a sense of urgency, we need to talk about it. We are not giving them lessons, we are not teaching them about the issue. But, we are saying that we need to be united on this issue and that it's high time we realize the problem and find solutions.

The message seems intrinsic to the film.

Yes, the way it is treated also is that each person would relate to the issue. Whether you have water or not, but you relate to those characters. Because, whether you are an urban or a rural person, you have been experiencing that with water.

Since it is a small budget film, how easy was it to mobilize the Bollywood actors to come up and work for such a cause?

Well. I have been using social media in every film of mine whether I have made documentaries, short films or Bollywood films. So there is, of course, a little recognition in Bollywood circles about my work and what I do. So, if you see Kunal Kapoor is a star, Gulshan Grover has been working for decades in the industry and Radhika Apte today is quite a big actress.

Saurabh Shukla has, of course, his own big films – has a very big repertoire. Now, why would they come - because they have been doing commercial films so far and when One Drop came into the picture and produced the film, they were also interested. An NGO was doing the funding and Madhav Panda was doing the film, so almost all of them have literally worked on just some token money.

What they got paid was not even 10 per cent of what they charge usually. It was quite interesting the kind of time they had given without money and they were all passionate about the film and the cause, which made it possible to create that piece of art.

Would this kind of a film be possible with A-Listers in Bollywood?

Yes, indeed it can if they can make a 3 Idiots or PK or Aamir Khan can agree to do films like these. Nevertheless, my approach was this because if we would have to wait for a bigger star, we would have to do so for years to get time. I mean, any big star would have agreed to the idea like this. They are doing that because today Bollywood is changing drastically, people are doing interesting films.

There is an interesting fact in Bollywood. As India is a largely cricket loving country, if any social issue needs to be talked about, the best way to do so is through cricket and through filmstars. Then you can easily reach out to the people.

That’s why the thought of having a Bollywood film on water was due in India, I think. It’s an easier way to tell the stories and talk about the issues. Even if we are not going to give the solution overnight, we can start having a dialogue with people and honestly speaking to them on issues like water scarcity and how it affects people's lives and what they can do to change that.

Well, this is a dialogue with people at a very broad -- national & international -- level. Don’t you think a movie like this one can make it into one-to-one communication because after watching the film anywhere, anyone we can become an agent of change.

I would consider myself as very lucky as this comes at a time when our Prime Minister is focussing on water & sanitation – so it is a perfect timing to have a larger impact on people.

When you look at the story behind this, it's an interesting idea that positions the difference between rich & poor. If you don’t have access to water – the rich becomes the poor & the poor becomes the rich. Also, when you look at the village – they live in harmony with water, they were able to prosper as a community.

So again, 70 per cent of people living in rural India are very poor because in their mind, they have this thought that nothing can be done. The underlying message of the movie is that it doesn't matter if you are poor, if you could live in harmony as a community with water, you will prosper.

Do you think that the actors' role is finished now after they have done the movie?

It will start, they have just finished the movie. It's not like other times when lot of actors don’t go anywhere without the money. Here, they were literally committed to the cause of water so they would go out of the way to promote and talk about the issue anywhere.

So, is there some kind of an underlying commitment that they have talked about? They would influence their circle of friends and people that they could on the issue of water conservation?

Well, the first phase is starting soon, whenever we are releasing the movie. We are trying to target all bigger stars also to talk about the issue and these actors will reach out to people.

We would very much want the whole movie industry behind the cause of water conservation just, everyone has a role to play in this.

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