Surya Ganga is a panoptic film about the gradual and definite destruction of India’s rivers. The film points out how means of producing power (hydroelectricity and fossil fuels) are causing not just ecological loss but also severe and adverse social effects.

A shot shows a woman from a village in Uttarkashi, Uttarakhand, complaining. Her village community, which for generations have been cremating their dead on the Ganga’s bank, cannot do it any more. The reason - the stretch of river near their village does not have any water for the major portion of the year.

What she points out next really hits you. “Every time there is a death in the village, we have to write an application to the dam authorities to release some water into the river so we can conduct the cremation rituals, but most often they reject our demand.” In the background a dry Bhagirathi riverbed can be seen beside smoke emanating from a funeral pyre.

The documentary film, in which renowned actor Naseeruddin Shah plays a pivotal part, is made by the brother and sister duo of Valli Bindana and Marthand Bindana. It has been screened at several film festivals, and was the winner at the Kolkata Wildlife Film Festival 2018 (Best Theme) and the World Cine Fest - Lonavala 2018 (Best Green Film).

Valli, who has worked in the advertising field, is the writer and director of the film. Her brother Marthand, who is into still photography and works for an NGO on organic farming, handled the camera.

It took the duo a total of five years to complete the film. Says Valli, “It was very challenging. There was so much that we were doing for the very first time. Shooting all the footage was tough but the most difficult part was using all that footage, 130 hours in all, in a manner which made sense to the audience and carried the message.”

The seed of the film was sown in 2013 when Valli, who now stays in California, took her six-year-old daughter to see the Ganga in Uttarakhand and her daughter asked the question, “Where is that big river Ganga you always talked about?”

The question flooded Valli’s head with memories of when she herself encountered the mighty Ganga for the first time.

“It must have been my early college days when I saw the river Ganga in Rishikesh for the very first time. It moved something within me. It looked fast, powerful, yet very beautiful. Though I am not religious, all those stories, life and emotions which are attached to the river and which I had grown up hearing from my parents did affect me.

“And when my daughter said that where is the Ganga you talked about so much, I knew I had to go out and find out about what had happened to the river I saw in my youth.”

The film explains how in many stretches in the hill state of Uttarakhand, the river Ganga has totally disappeared or been reduced to a trickle owing to numerous hydro projects. With water having been diverted to parallel tunnels feeding power plants, the main course of the river at many stretches is today devoid of any water.

“In Uttarkashi, I met a boy whose favourite game was to catch small fish that live in small puddles among the stones in the Bhagirathi river. Here, the river except for the monsoon months has been reduced to nothing more than a series of shallow pools and puddles. For that boy, the river Ganga stands for these series of puddles and nothing more. Because of the building of these series of dams in the upper Ganga, this boy has been robbed of the physical presence of Ganga which his ancestors revered,” says Valli.

“What is more worrying is the fact that many more such projects are still in the pipeline,” she adds.

The focus of the film then shifts to the coal mines of the Indian state of Jharkhand. Here the film depicts the destruction and pollution of rivers due to open-cast coal mining, and the difficult lives of the people engaged in mining work.

In a nutshell, Surya Ganga is a refreshingly told tale with a poignant message, about the pursuit of power and the havoc caused in its wake. It shows the indiscriminate and ill-conceived use and abuse of our rivers in the form of big hydro and coal mining projects.

It talks about the social, human and environmental cost of imposing such mindless policies.

It is about the epic conflict staged between development and conservation, power and people, with rivers, forests and social life at stake.

But most importantly the movie also talks about the alternatives and sustainable solutions. In fact its most refreshing part is in the storytelling, which is done in a sensitive and innovative manner.

Roping in Naseeruddin Shah for the film was a major achievement for the movie makers, as is the way they have used the seasoned actor in the script. Shah plays the buffoon, the misinformed commoner with a know it all attitude, with consummate ease. Effortlessly he manages laughs from the audience on a number of occasions.

“When we approached Naseer for the film, he did not know us, we did not even have a ready script. But still he said yes to our project,” says Valli.

As the name suggests Surya Ganga in its last part presents the sun as the answer to the present and future power needs of the earth. The audience may find some problems with this section which presents an overly rosy picture with solar power and to some extent wind power being shown as the ideal solution. It does not talk about any negative aspects of solar power, such as the difficult question of properly disposing of batteries and solar panels.

Making the film was difficult, according to Marthand, but getting it screened was another huge challenge. For the purpose the Bindanas have designed a screening kit which can be used by groups and organisations to screen the film.

The movie ends with Shah reciting a poem by Vikram Seth at the Prithvi Theatre in Bombay. “It was like serendipity. We were just there at Prithvi Theatre and Naseer was reciting this poem. Thankfully, they people allowed us to film it and the poem as read by Naseer went so well with the theme of our film. So, we simply kept that part for the end,” says Valli.