Had things gone according to plan, the film about water scarcity would have come from Shekhar Kapur, and it would have featured Hrithik Roshan. The director wrote on his blog, “And years ago, as I sat down to write Paani, I had one image in mind to play the male lead. Hrithik Roshan.” But the project dragged on, and Roshan was replaced by Sushant Singh Rajput. In the meantime, Nila Madhab Panda has come out with a film on the same issue, with Kunal Kapoor as his leading man. This sounds like a comedown in terms of star wattage – Roshan to Rajput to Kapoor – but it isn’t such a bad thing after all. Kapoor has a weak voice, a paper-thin persona – he isn’t hero material. But he fits well into ensembles. And Kaun Kitne Paani Mein is essentially an ensemble movie, not so much about a protagonist as the issue at hand.
Or maybe I should say issues. The film opens with a love story set in pre-Independence times – a princess falls for a Dalit. The result? The Dalits are excommunicated to Bairi Gaon (literally, the village of the enemy), while the rich continue to live in Upri Gaon (Upper Village, but given the superior airs of the royals, you could also say High Ground). So there’s the caste issue. There’s the class issue as well. We soon shift to the present day, to the abode of the current “king,” Raja Braj Kishore Singh Deo (Saurabh Shukla). The man cannot even tie his dhoti without the help of his factotum. But that’s the least of his problems. His “kingdom” – Upri Gaon – has no water. He drinks whiskey. Bairi Gaon, though, has conserved water and created a lake. Over time, thus, the rich have become poor (the land is worthless without water; no one will buy it), while the poor, the oppressed are no longer poor and oppressed. Bairi Gaon is a model of sustained economic development.
This reversal of roles is the slyest trick in Kaun Kitne Paani Mein – and it isn’t just the villages. The heads of these villages, too, aren’t what you expect. You expect the Raja to have the luxuriant moustache – but he’s clean shaven, and his moustache is a con job, a paste-on. But the headman of Bairi Gaon, Kharu Pehelwan (Gulshan Grover), sports a glorious moustache. Compared to the corpulent Raja, it’s Kharu who looks like a king. And he wants to rule. He has big political ambitions, and he’s making the right moves. His party is named Lok-hit, for the good of the people, and his ring tone is Saare jahan se achcha. The next generation, too, isn’t what you expect. The Raja’s son (Kunal Kapoor) wants to leave the country for higher studies, whereas the Dalit’s daughter (Radhika Apte, who’s apparently everywhere these days) has pursued a course in agriculture and put her education to good use. She grows organic rice. The story gets into gear when the king throws his son out and the latter falls for the Apte character.
The film grows on you slowly. I thought the early portions were dull, but then I was expecting a comedy or a satire – and it took me a while to realise that this is really a whimsical fable (which explains the once-upon-a-time quality of the opening section, with the princess and the pauper). With a touch of the absurd. Water is the currency in Upri Gaon. When a man finishes up with a prostitute, she demands not money but packets of water, which she then uses to “pay” the weaver who promises to make her a silk sari. Read that again: a silk sari in exchange for water. Elsewhere, a priest uses the water he gets for his services and tends lovingly to his marijuana crop. And the weaver, in his spare time, digs a tunnel, hoping to hit water and strike it rich. Even more absurd is the Raja’s decision to stage Ram Lila plays when others are celebrating Holi, because “Kshatriya Dussehra manate hain.”
The film is pleasantly nuts and there’s a lot to like, but it doesn’t exactly soar. For one, Shukla towers over the rest of cast – it’s like watching Federer play against ball boys. And some of the subplots (like the one with the tunnelling weaver) go nowhere. But it’s nice to see a Hindi film set in Odisha (quick quiz: how many others can you name, apart from Mrinal Sen’s Mrigaya?), and the individual scenes are shaped with care. The film takes its time – there’s no hurry to cut away to the next shot. I liked the scene where Kapoor and Apte sit by the lake and he says, “Kitna shaant hai yeh paani. Aur iske liye itni ladaaiyaan.” It’s a ten-ton line, but something about the moment makes it sound less political than personal. The film manages the tricky tightrope walk of dealing with preachy topics but getting the point across without preaching. The ending is a beauty. The goddess appears. Tridents sail through the air like javelins. The Kshatriya and the Dalit join hands. And the priest locks lips with the prostitute. This sort of utopia may be possible only in the movies these days.
- Paani = see here
- Saare jahan se achcha = see here
- Holi = see here
- Dussehra = see here
- Mrigaya = see here
- “Kitna shaant hai yeh paani. Aur iske liye itni ladaaiyaan.” = Such wars over this peaceful tract of water.
Copyright ©2015 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.