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What ‘Manjhi’ And ‘Kaun Kitney Paani Mein’ Tell Us About Bollywood’s Conscience

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By Rajat Ghai

Note: This article has been republished from Down To Earth

Every Friday, the release of any new Bollywood film gives lots of goosebumps to its producers, financiers and distributors about its success, due to lots of money spent on its making. In addition to all ingredients of good story, script, star cast, director, good production values and music, they use every possible method for its success, right from the launch of the trailer, music launch, reportage of controversies during its making, publicity on social media and websites. And finally, when the film gets ready for release, its promotion is done through print media, on radio, TV channels (both Hindi and English) and through posters.

manjhi kaun kitney paani mein
If the film is a success, we hear about the lots of moolah the film has raked in and the crores club league that it has entered into as a successful commercial film. And those not doing well are given other taglines—washout, moderate or recovered cost.

On the other side, realistically-made contemporary films are also picking up in the present era of multiplexes. With less budgets and all the tricks used for its success as done by commercial films stated above, realistic contemporary films have catapulted into the same bracket as commercial films. Good production values, decent star cast, intelligent directors add to their success. Though not entering 100 crore clubs, many films have done well in the recent past. ‘Vicky Donor’, ‘Kahani’, ‘Lunch Box’, ‘Piku’ are some of them. All of them have conveyed their message very ably and succinctly. Multiplex audiences have good appetite for decent films and that is why contemporary film makers are coming out with realistic films.

In the end of August, 2015, two new Hindi films were released. On the surface, they seem to be entirely dissimilar. But peer a little closer and you will find that both movies have an uncanny similarity. Both have serious national topics of concern as their central themes. Both are concerned with the past, present as well as future of India’s populace, especially the rural one.

‘Manjhi-The Mountain Man’, released on August 21, is a biopic of an extraordinary individual, Dasrath Manjhi (1934-2007), a poor Dalit man who lived in a remote village Gehlaur in Bihar’s Gaya district. Gehlaur was separated from the nearest town by a forbidding hill. The film talks about Manjhi (played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and his life in the village where he lives as a landless labourer, works in the brick kilns of the local landlord. He and his wife, Phaguniya (played by Radhika Apte), have a son and are expecting their second child. But one day, tragedy strikes as a heavily-pregnant Phaguniya trips down the hill while climbing it and gets seriously injured. Since his village does not have a hospital, Manjhi treks over the hill with his injured wife to the nearest town, Wazirgunj. However, she breathes her last at the hospital, with doctors able to save the child, a daughter. An enraged and bereaved Manjhi now has only one mission in life—to carve out a path from the mountain, a shortcut, which could have saved his beloved wife and with which others, may benefit. He sets out to do this, armed with only a sledgehammer and a chisel.

Also read: An interview with Ketan Mehta, director of Manjhi

The other, ‘Kaun Kitney Paani Mein’, released on August 28, is a satire on society as a whole. Like Manjhi, ‘Kaun Kitney Paani Mein’ too is set in rural India, this time in Odisha. The story is told through two villages, split long ago based on caste and money but never through water. The subject of the film is on water scarcity but rather than a preachy drama, it has tackled the issue in a satirical manner. It has Radhika Apte, Kunal Kapoor, Saurabh Shukla and Gulshan Grover in lead roles. This is the first time a love story (between Kunal and Radhika), is based on need of water. The director of the film, Nila Madhab Panda made his debut with the critically acclaimed ‘I Am Kalam’.

The film shows that through reversals of fortune, the old world order is broken and water becomes the biggest game changer. It has a domino effect on everything from social order to economics, even love and marriage. The film takes a satirical look at respect for resources, caste divides, and rural life against the backdrop of a traditional love story but all set in a realm where water is the new currency.

Both ‘Manjhi’ and ‘Kaun Kitney Paani Mein’ delve into issues which have tremendous social relevance in today’s India: road connectivity and water conservation. Both try to tell their story in all earnestness. But their treatment of the subject matter is different. While ‘Manjhi’ succeeds in convincingly showing the determination of Dashrath Manjhi in cutting his way through the hillock despite a host of obstacles like drought, famine, snakebite, corruption and the general apathy of those around him, ‘Kaun Kitney Paani Mein’ is more of a satire and the water issue gets overshadowed by caste conflict in the film.

Also read: An interview with Nila Madhab Panda, director of Kaun Kitney Paani Mein

Can We Learn From The Films?

India inherited a poor road network at the time of independence. National Highways Authority of India was established in 1988. But the actual road development started happening in India only after 1995.

Today, we have national highways, state highways, expressways and rural and urban roads. But these are not enough. India has a poor record of paved and unpaved roads, as compared USA and France which have predominantly paved roads of high quality. But the most pitiable state of affairs is of rural roads. And the situation has not improved much despite the government pumping in money through schemes such as the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana. And Manjhi has rightly conveyed the message of having good roads in rural areas as well so that no other Phaguniya dies at the time of childbirth. Providing good healthcare in remote areas is the other message conveyed.

Like road connectivity, water too is a very important issue facing India. Although India has made improvements over the past decades to both the availability and quality of municipal drinking water systems, its large population does not have robustly planned water resources. Water scarcity in India is expected to worsen as the overall population is expected to increase to 1.6 billion by the year 2050.

Nevertheless, the very fact that Bollywood is doing such conscientious films is cause enough for celebration. We do need more of these types of movies which give a message of development of infrastructure by keeping a perfect environment balance.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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