A fable about the merits of water conservation can make for dry viewing. Fortunately, Nila Madhab Panda goes down the well-trodden path of the rural satire in Kaun Kitney Paani Mein.

Panda’s quest to address pressing social problems through a populist filmmaking idiom has resulted in NGO-funded movies about child labour (I Am Kalam) and female infanticide (Jalpari). For his latest film, which has been produced by the French foundation One Drop, Panda shifts his attention to grown-ups, the most interesting of them being a corpulent former royal who is so pampered by his loyal manservant that he can barely get out of bed on his own.

We are in a representative corner of rural India, which for the purposes of this production is Odisha. Brij Singh Deo (Saurabh Shukla) is still venerated as a king in his village, but of what use is his position when he cannot ensure even a drop of water for his people? An old spat over caste has not only caused a rift with a neighbouring village, but has resulted in the water supply being diverted there. Water has become currency, and even the local prostitute measures her professional moans in packets of the precious life-sustaining liquid. Strangely, except for one resourceful weaver, not a single villager thinks of the most obvious solution of digging a well.

A drought also grips Singh Deo’s coffers, and when his son Raj (Kunaal Kapoor) begs him to fund his flight to London, the canny ex-royal comes up with a scheme that involves Raj seducing Paro (Radhika Apte), the daughter of the headman and aspiring politician (Gulshan Grover) from the more prosperous neighbouring village.

The suggested romance, which blooms into an actual one, is a mere excuse to insert a couple of unnecessary songs and add glamour to the movie. The passion between Raj and Paro is barely convincing, especially since their characters are underdeveloped, but the movie’s heart beats out loud from beneath Singh Deo’s folds of fat. Beautifully played by Shukla, the character proves to be the last word in wiliness. Deepak Venkateshan’s screenplay cleverly up-ends the usual uplifting ending by suggesting that while the villagers win the day, it’s the feudal lord who walks away with the prize.

The 111-minute satire isn’t sharp enough to adequately dissect the social divisions that have made life miserable for Singh Deo’s people, and some of the acting is too broad to leave its desired impact. Shulka towers over the performances, and he is especially effective in a sequence in which he implores Raj to be a pragmatist rather than a romantic. Events prove the former royal to be absolutely right.