New Film Gives Glimpse of Our Water Future in 2035

Hindi cinema has been notorious for its indifference towards socially relevant issues. A fantasy land, disconnected from reality. With Paani, Shekhar Kapur, attempts to meaningfully intervene within the space of the celluloid. The acclaimed cinema-maker, remembered for his stunningly realistic Bandit Queen and poignantly innocent Masoom, returns to his craft through a futuristic discourse. Paani is his film in the making.

Set in 2035, it portrays a dystopia when water is set to become a unicorn horn -- a non-existent and mythical commodity. How a society struggles as water disappears is the subject of Paani. Kapur narrates a scene, perhaps the most horrifying scene of the proposed movie, where thirsty mob attacks a car to steal water from its radiator.

Prabhakar Deshpande speaks with filmmaker Shekhar Kapur about his newest work.

Prabhakar Deshpande: Most of the Hindi films cinematize water-in rain songs, drought, sea shores, boat journeys. But is water so prominent an issue as to demand a full length feature film -- Paani?

Shekhar Kapur: It is. A mega-challenge. Historically water has always been a communal property even for the Kings. We had to work hard to get water from a communal facility. It is only in this century that water became a private property as it was directly piped into individual houses. It suddenly changed our psychology. Now we could get water easily. Mega cities were built as water pipes transported water to meet the needs of these newly emerging cities. This easy availability of water led to its wastage.

People are responsible for depletion of water and need to learn to behave. Government needs to act very responsibly. Hence this film.

PD: So you are constructing a hypothetical situation, a dystopia in your movie.

SK: It's not an absolute hypothesis. Water in taps can't last forever. Water is already in short supply. Global warming is already causing unpredictable monsoons. We can no longer see water as a separate resource. We need to be careful about usage of water. My grandparent's home in Nizamuddin (Delhi) had a garden watered by a hand pump. Now gardens have sprinkler systems. It has made watering easy and water gets wasted. It led to going down of the water table and there is no water in the hand pumps now.

Chennai already faces water shortage. While this is happening, people in five star hotels take shower for half an hour. Tourism in Goa is creating pressure on water in that region. So go anywhere, and you will see water as an issue.

I feel one way we should fight this issue is through children, who should be taught to become messengers of water. My daughter teaches me on usage of water.

PD: Is water tariff a way to regulate usage?

SK: I don't think that is the solution. More importantly, water tariff may be unfair, leading to injustice. Those who can afford will buy and get water. It will hit those people who can't pay.

While tariff is not the answer, hotels should be metered for their usage of water and this should get charged back to a guest.

Instead of tariff, availability and supply of water has to be more equitable.

PD: How did the idea of 'Paani' come to you?

SK: I believe it was Bansilal -- the politician -- who pointed to the disparity between the urban wastage of water and the rural scarcity of water.

One day I was waiting at a friend's home at Malabar Hill. He was taking shower for more than half an hour. So I left and on my way, at the Dharavi slums, I saw long queues for water. That prompted to reflect upon it.

PD: One understands water shortage, but does this prophecy of war over water shortage amount to overstretching the argument?

SK: Imagine if a city like Mumbai runs out of water. The problem may start with privatization of water. The Coca Cola groundwater dispute in Kerala is an example of conflict over water. If I had said in 1965 that people would bottle water and sell it at a good price, you would have considered me mad. But that's what you have today.

A war over water may sound preposterous today but you see there are conflicts over water world over.

Turkey is important because rivers run through it. The conflict over Golan Heights carries a crucial water element. Indo-Pak conflict had water disputes as India threatened to block the Sutlej. Malaysia and Singapore have had strained relations over water.

There was an interesting example in Singapore with waste water being recycled and Prime Minister drinking the purified water on a broadcasted TV program.

With water tables going down, in time to come, the scale of disputes over water will surely go up.

PD: Are there any alternatives?

SK: Ground water is not available. Sea water usage is energy inefficient. It can be expensive. Reverse Osmosis can be considered. Perhaps nanotechnology is the way out. If we have nano particles that are chemically stable, then salt crystals can be blocked. It is a frightening problem when a city can go through water shortage. All this talk of 8-9 percent growth rate is meaningless if we run out of water. Factories could get closed. There could be mass migration. There could be wars.

And hence Paani leads a discourse in water.

Paani is the story of such a city in 2035. Water wars have already begun. 15 percent of the population own water resources and the remaining 85 percent fight for it. Water has been privatized. There are international protocols that dictate that those who own water must give some amount to the rest. But there is black marketing of water with social repercussions.

There could be a situation when politicians proclaim 'Vote Dooge to Paani Milega'. Water can be used to control and exploit people.

People may not come to work. It could be a situation where people will go to companies based on the availability of water. 'Paani to milta hai peene ko!!!'

Rich will get water due to their political connections.

Slums won't have water. There could be social unrest. Paani has a scene where people attack a car to steal water from radiator.

Paani has a city with highways above highways. And there is this lady living below a highway whose water availability is decreasing day by day.

I am exploring the contours of the script.

PD: Why is Paani set in future?

SK: I was hassled by the censor board over 'Bandit Queen'. I did not want to make anything anti-establishment. Hence this movie is set in future.

Your focus is on urban cities. Are you not ignoring rural water shortage?

There have been movies depicting water shortage in rural areas -- Guide and Lagaan. But what happens when there is a water shortage in congested urban area which is a financial and administrative centre -- that is my thematic concern.

PD: But collapse of cities -- isn't it carrying the idea bit too far?

SK: Well, there could be a situation where a city like New York would get water supply only in bits and pieces.

Tuglakabad is a case in history. It was destroyed due to the water shortage. People would abandon cities due to water shortage.

Probably a public figure must stand for water.

Agree. Somebody must raise the issue of water. I am happy to lead it. You have water in Mumbai. But what about Chennai? Delhi?

We need to do something much more drastic. A city like Mumbai must reduce water usage. A penny saved is a penny earned. Water availability is not enough. There could be a disaster.

PD: Why does such a situation of water shortage arise?

SK: It's purely due to inequitable and unmindful usage of water. We have a situation where rich have water in swimming pools but farmers don't get water to irrigate their lands.

Morocco used to have water cisterns over each house. Now they have golf courses in Marrakesh to attract French tourists. But these tourists would abandon you once you run out of water.

PD: Certainly yours is an attempt of socially responsible cinema.

SK: We have had socially responsible cinema with a message. Guru Dutt and Mother India and so on. Tare Zameen Par is an interesting example.

Many people feel that only commercial cinema can succeed. You see, the audience is clever. Making an entertainment movie is easy. While Om Shaanti Om may be a bigger hit, people will remember Tare Zameen Par longer.

PD: How should socially responsible cinema be created?

SK: There is a need to address community issues. I am making a movie and lending my voice. It is a participative process. You may also involve people through internet.

PD: Can citizen involvement bring some change?

SK: Yes. You see the beach in Juhu was so bad. Now I see these college students cleaning it. It is possible. It is happening.

Read more about the film on Shekhar Kapur's website.

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