Rice Professor’s Film Explores Lake Bellandur’s Environmental Crises
Photo courtesy of Rice University
Photo courtesy of Rice University
By Ivy Li 09/27/22 11:48 PM
Environmental crises aren’t usually depicted as slow-moving in the media, but Sindhu Thirumalaisamy’s award-winning 2019 documentary film ‘Kere mattu Kere’ or ‘The Lake and the Lake’ comes as a counterpoint to the standard narrative of environmental activists .
Bellandur Lake is the largest kereor lake, in Bangalore, India, and it acts as a receiver of wastewater discharged by the rapidly urbanizing city.
“I used to live around this lake before I moved to the United States, where I started working on this film,” said Thirumalaisamy, assistant professor of filmmaking at Rice. “I didn’t live at a visual distance from the lake, but at an olfactory distance, which is a much further radius. I feel like it’s part of me in some ways.
Last Thursday, the screening of Thirumalaisamy’s film marked the first event of the year in the Humanities NOW series. Fay Yarbrough, professor of history at Rice and associate dean of undergraduate programs in the School of Humanities, started the series during the pandemic to show the relevance of humanities research to contemporary challenges in the world.
“People need the humanities to understand what’s going on to make sense of what’s going on around them,” Yarbrough said.
During the presentation of the film, Thirumalaisamy explained that the toxic foam, fumes and recurring fires of Lake Bellandur have become the focus of international media attention. Those who live near the lake face a daily environmental crisis, even as life persists around its frothy waters.
But the film takes a slower approach, opening with footage of the foam swirling across the surface of the lake. We see people and wildlife co-existing – migrant lake communities continue to use the lake for its natural resources and as a place of worship and gathering.
“I wanted to think about different kinds of beauty, both terrible and socially meaningful,” Thirumalaisamy said.
In the post-film discussion, audiences referred to the film’s portrayal of the beauty of Lake Bellandur despite its pollution, and the discomfort this contradiction brings.
“I think we live in a time of aesthetic confusion in terms of how we’re supposed to relate to some of these things,” Thirumalaisamy said. “When moss first hit the roads, I read a news article that said someone got out of their car to go play with it because they were so in love with this thing that looks like snow in a place where it does not snow.
Asked about the title, Thirumalaisamy pointed to China Miéville’s novel “La ville et la ville”, in which there are two cities that share the same geographical space.
“It’s like the series of how many different lakes could exist for how many different people,” Thirumalaisamy said.
This multi-faceted view of the lake was particularly impactful for Caroline Mascardo, a freshman at Lovett College.
“We tend to be very solution-oriented and have this idea of what’s good, what’s bad. [and] which will fix it,” Mascardo said. “There are a lot more nuances – there are so many layers in terms of who and what is affected.”
In particular, the film presents the very visible socio-economic and caste divisions of Bangalore through the apartment complexes dominating the poor settlements closest to the lake. Although the film centers on urbanization in India, Thirumalaisamy believes there are resonant parallels with Houston as well.
“In Houston, as in Bangalore, city planning decides who remains available to flooding and who remains protected,” Thirumalaisamy explained. “These kinds of decisions are designed. They come out of politics. And they’re very carefully designed to protect some people and make others disposable.
While environmental activists often describe Lake Bellandur as a lake in urgent need of saving, Thirumalaisamy asks us to take a critical look at the crisis, which is inextricably linked to social and cultural challenges. She explained that after the film ended, many migrant communities were looted and destroyed by the police.
“There is no clear separation between people and environments, [which] I try to teach in my classes,” Thirumalaisamy said.
During the filming process, the lake was both restricted and unrestricted, according to Thirumalaisamy. Despite signs warning against trespassing, people still went there to pray, social workers monitored pollution levels and reporters turned out to cover the kere, among others. As a filmmaker, Thirumalaisamy wanted to honor these social interactions and the lingering life that continues to exist around Lake Bellandur.
“The funny thing is when I started making the movie, people were like, be careful over there, it’s really dangerous over there, there’s no one there,” he said. said Thirumalaisamy. “But I didn’t feel like I was doing anything dangerous just being there.”
On the other hand, access to the treatment plant was much more difficult.
“They didn’t have the infrastructure to deal with the amounts of waste the city was producing, so they were letting it through,” Thirumalaisamy said. “I could never get that picture because they were so paranoid I would make them look bad.”