Culture //

Chennai’s Water Crisis: A perspective through film

Insights from family and film

A gaunt young boy wearing only a loincloth walks barefoot in the scraggly foreground, carrying a pot of water on his head. He sees a note nestled in the sand. On one side is a photo of Rajnikanth, a famous Indian actor. He bends down precariously but carefully to inspect it. A gust of wind blows the paper out of his hand, causing him to stumble. The water on his head crashes to the ground and is rapidly swallowed by the parched clay ground. The boy crawls desperately towards the soaked dirt, frantically digging with his bare fingers to recapture what is now the uncapturable. 

A still from the opening scene of Thaneer Thaneer.

This is the opening scene of the film Thaneer Thaneer (“Water, Water” in Tamil) released in 1981, which depicts life in a village in Tamil Nadu, India, affected by severe water shortages. The plot follows the desperate attempts of the villagers to improve their water supply and highlights the apathy and corruption of politicians and broader society towards their plight. It was directed by K Balachander and produced by my maternal grandfather PR Govindarajan, a man I never met. It won two National Film Awards and a Filmfare Award South for its empathetic depiction of rural India and its scathing portrait of the political elite.

I recently watched it, as part of a holiday goal to see all my grandfather’s movies: a flailing attempt to improve my comprehension of my mother tongue, Tamil, and to contextualise the stories I had heard about my Thatha. Our family’s claim to fame was that my grandfather introduced Rajnikanth into movies, who started off as a bus conductor and is now one of the most iconic Indian actors of his age: an ironic allusion to the opening scene of Thaneer Thaneer, where Rajnikanth’s fame sits heavy against the gravity of the water shortage. 

What struck me about Thaneer Thaneer was its parallels to life today. But with research I realised that these parallels were not unique, but rather indicative of a cycle of exploitation, greed and political dislocation in the southern Indian state. 

Tamil Nadu’s capital, Chennai, now approaches Day Zero, where demand for water will outstrip supply, threatening the lives of millions of people in India’s 6th largest city. 

Chennai was originally a rich network of wetlands, which have since been polluted or paved over by overdevelopment and an expansion of the automotive industries which hub the city. The four main catchment areas which supply the city’s water have shrunk dramatically to less than 1% of their capacity.

In part this was due to dryer monsoon seasons, but largely, it is a story of government mismanagement.

Lax regulations on groundwater drilling has seen an 85% decline in Chennai’s bore water levels over the last decade. India’s use of groundwater exceeds that of both China and the US combined. Whole new sections of Chennai like the “IT corridor” are not even connected to the main water grid, relying instead on expensive private tankers to deliver water.

Yet for the poorest areas of the city, the price of private water deliveries is out of reach. People have to travel tens of kilometers for wells and line up for days to receive a measly supply from municipal lorries. The ability to drink, bathe, cook and clean is now a luxury for some families. Coextensively with climate change, this will only worsen.

Water scarcity has never seemed like something that could threaten my life in Sydney. But watching Warragamba Dam fall to its lowest levels in 15 years over the most recent catastrophic summer reminded me of the preeminence of water to human existence.

Water in the motherland has always been precious, contested, scarce. A site of much political energy. Norms around water use are different: in knowing that you cannot drink tap water, people are generally more discerning in how they use water, you’ll likely have a bucket bath instead of a shower. Yet in writing this, the salience of my outsider’s gaze becomes clear. I have only ever experienced these things as a visitor, from the perspective of an upper middle class Tamil Brahmin family. 

A still from Thaneer Thaneer.

Thaneer Thaneer aptly mocks this profound caste and class divide, through the arms-length way in which journalists and politicians interact with the most vulnerable in such crises. In one scene, a city-slicker in all-white, speaking a more “polished” Tamil hitches a ride into the remote town, Achipati, on the back of a bullock cart which the locals had built in order to collect water. The journalist asks the villagers why they chose to boycott the last political elections. The villagers explain how the wealthy politicians always promise they will give them water. They never do. Another scene illustrates this through a comedic visual metaphor where a request from a villager given to the local politician is passed off down a line of bureaucrats.  

This indifferent approach of politicians, where villagers are left to fend for themselves, derided in the movie is reproduced in Chennai’s political scene today, which has been criticised by activists, NGOs and the scientific community. It is clear that the loyalties of the political class are contained to each other; the villagers have only themselves to rely upon.

Further, the actress Saritha’s character in the film embodies a markedly feminine and nourishing figure: a symbol of a divine Mother Earth. A scene shows her character swiftly but strongly juggling three pots of water and an infant child, as she crosses kilometres of barren land in search of water. The use of the ghatam, a Carnatic instrument made of an earthen pot in the score produces a rhythmic, guttural sound matched only by her quiet intensity. The way her character’s needs are deprioritised, despite carrying the stresses of the village, are a metaphor for the treatment of the Earth: an enlightening comment on both the gendered divisions of labour in India and the state of its environmental conservation.

A still from Thaneer Thaneer.

Like many diaspora, I must consume my culture through things like movies, language, family and music against the overwhelming Western hegemony which permeates all other inputs in my life. But this deepens on a personal level where my grandpa’s movies not only serve as a conduit into village life (a life familiar to my grandparents), but also between the space I inhabit and the imagined space which I reconstruct from my family’s (hi)stories.

The movies my grandpa produced often had transgressive political themes: I wonder was this just expediency or did they speak to his political persuasions? What would he think of me or this article? The Tollywood of today is commercialised, slick and sanitised, like most modern mainstream cultural industries. To enjoy the caliber of his movies is also to appreciate a different era of filmmaking. When he passed away, my mum had just married and migrated to Australia at age 20. I think of another possible world in which my Thatha hadn’t died so young, where my family had stayed in Chennai.

Climate change exists in this liminal state in our collective consciousness — happening around us, hurtling towards a point of no return. Yet, Thaneer Thaneer focalised an experience of disparity that left my throat dry. Rich people are bathing in swimming pools while the poorest die from deprivation. India’s reliance on, and exploitation of, groundwater is unsustainable. Until this baseline stress is addressed with sustainable management, rather than a feckless race for growth, people will continue to suffer. As regenerative as it has been for me, personally, to explore my grandpa’s film, I do not want Thaneer Thaneer to remain a relevant reflection of the world we live in.