“Koozhanalum kuzhithu kudi, kandaiyanalum kasakki kattu” : Even if it is just gruel, have it after a bath, even if your dress is worn out, wash it and then wear it. How do you explain the meaning of this Tamil proverb to a child who has not seen any water in his village for close to 10 years?

In his National Film Award-winning Thaneer Thaneer (1981), K Balachander poses this question in a wittily written scene. When the school master of drought-affected Athipatti tries to teach this proverb, a little boy points out its irrelevance. Athipatti has not had drinking water for a decade. The school master quickly moves on to a history lesson instead. “Repeat after me, India is an independent country.” The children promptly repeat the sentence. “How many years has it been since we got our independence?,” he asks them next. “33 years,” they shout in unison. “How many?” he asks again. “33 years.”

Like other parts of India, Tamil Nadu is facing its worst drought in 140 years. Call it Balachander’s prescience or the Indian state’s continued failure and denial (or both), Thaneer Thaneer (Water, Water) eerily resembles present-day India.

Play
Thaneer Thaneer (1981).

Starring Saritha, Radha Ravi and Guhan, Thaneer Thaneer is an adaptation of a Tamil play by Komal Swaminathan (he also stars in the movie) and revolves around three characters. A schoolmaster (Swaminathan) chairs the panchayat sessions and pleads about Athipatti’s severe water shortage problems to government and municipal functionaries; Sevanthi (Saritha) walks every day to a faraway pond outside the village, balancing two pots and her new-born; Vellaiswamy, a convict, arrives in the village seeking refuge and in turn attempts to engineer a solution for water.

The parched landscape has affected every villager’s life in one way or the other. No one is willing to marry into Athipatti’s families. Villagers do bathe, but in secret with stolen water. The amiable villagers will offer a bed to any outsider, but they get aggressive when asked for water.

Attempts to draw the government’s attention to Athipatti’s plight end up in failure. A petition to the government gets drowned in the bureaucratic swamp, a journalist’s story about the scorched village never makes it to the edition. An attempt to construct a water canal is blocked by the municipal engineer and the police.

Play
Thaneer Thaneer (1981).

Balachander makes no attempt to mislead audiences into thinking that there is light at the end of the tunnel, but he does not stint on the satire. In one of the movie’s best sequences, the villagers submit a petition to the government. The minister passes it on in front of them to his secretary, saying it is an urgent issue. The secretary immediately passes on the petition to the collector, again reminding him it is urgent. The collector passes it on to another officer, who then passes it on to the tahsildar, who in turn gives it to the guard, who puts it in his pocket.

The fabulously performed movie has a screenplay rich with symbolism. Sevanthi points Vellaiswamy to a tree that has the flags of different political parties tied to its branches. “So many political parties for a small village like Athipatti. Can the tree hold all of them?” asks Vellaiswamy. “That’s why the tree is bare,” she says calmly, and giggles.

The flags are later transferred to a patch of water. Every inch of the patch is taken up by a political flag, leaving nothing for the ordinary citizen.