Set in the hinterland of rural south India, at a time when the monsoons have failed two years in a row and the ground water table has fallen precipitously, eight year old Mangi’s family is under duress. Satya, her alcoholic father’s, bore well digging business begins to falter, while Avani, her step-mother, is driven close to breaking point by his behavior.
The story, however, is told from Mangi’s perspective - in a world where magic and mysticism is not only possible, but capable of changing lives and fortunes. When a traveling puppeteer finds a baby snake, he puts it in a box with Goddess Saraswati’s picture on it and entrusts Mangi with its release. Mangi, however, has other plans. She takes it to school and shows it off, creating a ruckus that ends with its getting stolen. Venky and Ravi, two arch enemies of hers, claim to have it, but demand retribution for old rivalries.
Matters twist and turn as the family is buffeted by the high winds of capricious fortune. A symbol that Mangi draws on a starving calf ends up being more meaningful that she realizes, launching her into a journey that visits things as diverse as antibiotic usage in shrimp farms to snake charmers who extract their keeps fangs.
In the end, however, threads coalesce in a heart warming surprise when Mangi learns the responsibility that power over fellow creatures entails.
Avani, in ancient Hindu mythology is the Goddess of the Earth. As per legend, at a time long, long ago, when the world had turned barren by the neglect of vedic ritual, an emperor by the name of Prithu confronted her with the plight of her inhabitants and pressed her to yield her wealth. Avani agreed. Taking the form of a cow, she symbolically gifted her milk to save the lives of creatures endangered by the calamity.
In our culture, that milk is representative of all the bounties that the earth gives us: its rivers, its fertile soils, its sheltering mountains and if we were to take an anthropomorphic view, the birds and beasts that we have dominion over.
Avani also means “a river bed”, and I believe that meaning is just as relevant in this film since it references the weight she carries, or perhaps endures.
On the outskirts of the city where I live, Hyderabad, is an industrial area called Patancheru, known for its systematic abuse of environmental pollution control laws. A 2007 study led by Prof. Joakim Larsson of the Sahlgrenska Academy at Gothenburg University in Sweden had this to say about waste being discharged from a site there called Patancheru Enviro-Tech Ltd (PETL):
“Around 90 companies in the region that manufacture active pharmaceutical ingredients, or assemble final drug products, send their waste to PETL. With permission, Larsson's team sampled the waste exiting the plant; they found drugs including the antibiotic ciprofloxacin, at concentrations of up to 31,000 micrograms per litre, and the antihistamine cetirizine, at up to 1,400 micrograms per litre. The team estimated that the amount of ciprofloxacin entering the river from the plant could amount to up to 45 kilograms a day – the equivalent of 45,000 daily doses.“
A little further down, in the same article, the authors add:
“The concentrations in the treated effluent of ciprofloxacin, a powerful broad spectrum antibiotic, exceeded levels found in the blood of patients taking this drug. The amount released during one day at one site corresponded to the total use of this drug in Sweden over five days.”
This is not a new issue - there have been articles dating back more than a decade - including this one dated 6th Feb 1991 in The New York Times titled “Patancheru Journal; 300 Factories Add Up to India's Very Sick Town”. Although some work has been done in cleaning up the area, much of the problem has just been shifted to other places, notably the Andhra coast.
Industrial pollution, however, is only part of the reason why the story of Avani needs to be told. Our relationship with the creatures that we share this world with, is the other part. And it takes a major share of the film’s emphasis.
By making Avani a rural fable infused with the colors and textures of South India, I hope to draw younger audiences in. And by telling it through the eyes of an eight year old, I hope that our heartstrings will be tugged enough that her catharsis will be absorbed as our own.