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How Paani set the tone for Jal Shakti

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How Paani set the tone for Jal Shakti

Paani was based on Maude Barlow's book Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water, and was scripted by David Farr.

Besides making it abundant that scarcity of water is now a clear and present danger, Modi government's announcement of Jal Shakti Mantralaya, a ministry dedicated to resolving issues related to water in a holistic manner, brought to mind a film that never got made yet did it's fair bit to make people aware of the troubling times.

An ambitious film

Initially envisioned by Shekhar Kapur nearly two decades ago, Paani, was a futuristic take on the classic Romeo and Juliet love-story, set in a time when water scarcity in Mumbai would divide the city into two sharp halves of the haves and have-nots. The thought that drove Kapur was that just 3 per cent of the world's population constituted for the haves while the rest struggled for something as essential as water.

When Kapur had announced Paani, there was already a film on water woes in urban India called Split Wide Open (1999) directed by Dev Benegal and featuring Rahul Bose, Laila Rouass, Shivaji Satam, and Ayesha Dharker. While Benegal's narrative primarily dealt with water conflicts in the slums of Bombay, it was much layered and also peeked into morality, paedophilia, and subversive sexuality in metropolitan India. When Kapur announced Paani, Benegal threatened to sue Kapur for alleged plagiarism. Paani was based on Maude Barlow's book Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water, and was scripted by David Farr. Kapur announced the film with much fanfare at Cannes in 2010. When international plans for Paani met a dead-end, there were reports in 2012 about Hrithik Roshan playing the lead, followed by John Travolta and Emma Watson being offered a part in 2014 and, finally, Yash Raj films producing it with Sushant Singh Rajput in the lead. By December 2016, Kapur tweeted he was "devastated" that Paani didn't get made.

It would have been exciting for cinema if Kapur had managed to make Paani before water scarcity became an issue.

A failed myth

A 'Bollywood' film can push an issue amongst the young and those impacted most by any crisis and, so, Paani's setting - one of the most densely populated places in the world - would have automatically adorned a sense of urgency to both the film as well as the looming crisis. Kapur's film could have been one of the first mainstream ecological-horror films, a genre that came under the spotlight with M Night Shyamalan's The Happening (2008). In an Indian context, Paani also entered the folklore that celebrated films that never got made.

Although it might not have been on the same scale as Stanley Kubrick's Napoleon, Satyajit Ray's Alien or Sergio Leone's war epic based on Harrison E. Salisbury's book The 900 Days: The Siege Of Leningrad, Paani did, however, manage to get a few things right.

Thirst for more

It set the ball rolling when it came to pitching an idea on the environment to film executives. Recently, films like Girish Malik's Jal (2013), Nila Madhab Panda's Kaun Kitney Paani Mein (2015) and Kadvi Hawa (2017) have addressed environmental degradation. But the definitive ecological film using the standard popular Hindi film elements is still missing . Despite the looming danger, governments have rarely done enough to apply all resources at hand to resolve the water crisis. At least now, with the Jal Shakti ministry, there's some precise charting of the road ahead.

Hopefully, there might also be a great ecological masala film out there whose time has probably come.

(Gautam Chintamani is a film historian and the author of Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna and the upcoming Rajneeti: A Biography of Rajnath Singh. The views expressed are personal.)