When winter descends on Delhi, the only thing harder to escape than the stifling pollution is talk of how stifling the pollution is. What the chatter, the headlines, even grey-toned health-magazine spreads don’t cover, though, are the emotional costs of every compromised breath.
Nila Madhab Panda, who won a National Award for I am Kalam, the 2011 film about a boy who changes his name to that of India’s beloved former President, tackles the subject in Megha’s Divorce. The short film — it’s 10 minutes long and moves swiftly through three settings — infuses wit, telling detail and plenty of heart in its look at the impact of the annual crisis on relationships.
The premise is simple: Megha wants to settle in Dehradun, away from the Capital’s toxic air, which aggravates her nine-year-old son’s asthma. Her husband, Akaash, has a 72-year-father unwilling to leave the family’s ancestral home in Delhi. The couple, frazzled and fatigued, end up in family court, seeking a divorce.
If Panda draws believable performances from his cast (Megha Fadnnis, Chandan Anand, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Divya Dutta), it’s because he’s so close to the subject himself. When his son was 12, his doctor advised the boy to stop playing outdoors. “He was a keen sprinter but lost his sporting spirit because of this city,” Panda says.
In the two decades that he’s lived in Delhi, he’s seen friends, relatives and colleagues consider leaving because of the pollution. Some have even settled for lower-paying jobs so they and their families can breathe easier. One couple he knows has long been arguing over whether or not to leave.
“Life has become a compromise in Delhi because of the pollution,” Panda says. The divorce case in the film is meant to reflect this through its unusual argument, a new kind of incompatibility.
Panda has made two other films addressing the impacts of altered environment and climate change. Kadvi Hawa (2017) is set in a hinterland where people have forgotten what rain smells or feels like. Kaun Kitney Paani Mein (2015) is set in a barren land, amid a fight for water. And the documentary Climate’s First Orphans (2005) records life in a coastal village slowly being swamped by rising sea levels. Like Megha’s Divorce, all three were released free on YouTube.
Because the idea of his climate films, Panda says, is to drive home the point, to as many viewers as possible, that the toll it is exacting goes far beyond what even the numbers reflect. “I was born in a village in Subarnapur district in western Odisha, surrounded by nature. In Delhi, there came a time when I had to buy oxygen canisters in winter. There is an emotional toll to all this as well. I know the reality of environment degradation and climate change has hit me hard,” Panda says.