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Water Water Everywhere

Friday, June 01, 2018

In this week’s film 'Bhavesh Joshi Superhero', the protagonist reportedly fights Mumbai’s water mafia, among other crimes. This reminded one of Dev Benegal’s 1999 film 'Split Wide Open', that also had the water mafia as one of its main tracks, perhaps the first time the workings of gangs dealing with water was exposed in a feature film.

Co-written by Upamanyu Chatterjee on whose novel his earlier film 'English August' was based, this one did not win the same kind of acclaim. The director had packed in more issues a single film could do justice to, but it was talked about on the festival circuit and also won a few awards.

Rahul Bose played a street-smart hustler, Kut Price or KP, who works for a gang that that controls water supply to the slums of Mumbai (by the simple method of locking public taps). At a time when bottled water was not as ubiquitous as it is today, he also sells mineral water to tourists. The work is apparently more lucrative than peddling drugs, because, as KP says, “Only some people need drugs but everybody needs water.”

KP, who was helped by a Catholic priest, has adopted a 10-year-old flower-seller Didi (Farida Haider Mulla). The mafia bosses find out that KP has been trying to cheat them and have him savagely beaten and evicted from his home. He is dismayed to find that Didi has been kidnapped.

KP also strikes up a friendship with Nandita (Laila Rouass), who has come to Mumbai from London to host a television talk show called 'Split Wide Open', that is a lurid tell-all program in which Mumbai-ites discuss their sexual problems or fantasies on air, anonymously. She asks KP to get her participants for the program and they find out through the show, that Didi is with a paedophile businessman (Shivaji Satam). KP is shocked to find that she does not want to be rescued from the life of luxury she now has with the much older man.

The water mafia business is pushed to the background once the film goes into revealing sexual peccadilloes of people, in a till then very (now slightly less so) repressed society. But the closing titles make a mention of the water riots that broke out in the suburbs, when water supply was interrupted for a week. But soon life was back to normal; as KP observes in one of his many pithy one-liners – “This is Bombay, only entry, no exit.”

KP was no superhero, but it would take a real one to solve Mumbai’s water woes.

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