Update: There has been a claim regarding one of the trivia posted. The claim has been made by producer’s daughter (see Facebook comments at the bottom). I have updated her side in the trivia section.
There will be some movies that will tackle social issues and will be relevant forever. Thaneer Thaneer is one such classic that vociferously spoke about the water issues in the country at that time. If you think about it, this movie is relevant even today and will be applicable in the future too.
Thanneer Thanneer is also the epitome of freedom of expression that Tamil cinema had.
Thaneer Thaneer (1981) (Water Water)
Thanneer Thanneer was based on a play by the same name written by Komal Swaminathan. The story revolves around Athipattu, a small village, whose residents have to walk 10 miles to fetch potable water. Sevvanthi (Saritha), married to a policeman (Radharavi as Alagiri) comes to the village during her pregnancy time. She meets this stranger, Vellaisamy (Guhan) while fetching water one day. Listening to the woes of the village, Vellaisamy decides to help them by fetching water in a big mobile tank and villagers agree to give him food everyday in-return.
One day, Sevanthi finds out that Vellaisamy is a murder convict and has escaped from prison. Although some villagers reckon that he should be handed over to the police, the villagers decide against it as he is bringing water to the village. The school teacher (Vathiyar Raman) takes responsibility and villagers pledge that they will not inform police about Vellaisamy. Sevanthi even strains her relationship with her husband and mother-in-law in order to save Vellaisamy for the greater good. When the election comes up, the villagers refrain from voting and it becomes a larger news item. Fed up with inaction, the villagers propose to build a canal from the river to the village. The fate of the canal, village, Vellaisamy and Sevvanthi is explained in a poignant climax.
K.Balachander directed the movie while MS Viswanathan did the musical score. The movie was produced by P. Govindrajan for Kalakendra movies.
Why is it so special?
1. The movie touched upon a very important issue that most people wouldn’t like to speak about openly. It never compromised on the rhetoric and the ideology it wanted to portray. The stark reality was so hard hitting that RM Veerappan, then Information minister of Tamil Nadu state government seeking a ban on the movie for showing state government in a bad light.
2. There can’t be a more realistic movie than this. The climax will break your heart and definitely, you will think twice when you waste water next time. It pricks your conscience and also portrays the future that we will be part of.
3. The portrayals of the actors. Although, Saritha just bulldozes everyone, Guhan, Radharavi, Vathiyar Raman made the perfect cast. Even the smallest characters make a mark in the movie and mostly non-actors or the original actors from the play were utilized.
4. Of course, the conviction of K.Balachander, who moved on from domestic issues to take a much broader social issue. He handled so deftly and the ideology reached the masses
Why should it be on the list?
1. For taking up a social issue and openly criticizing the establishment on how water resources were handled. If the movie were to be made now, the movie would have been definitely banned. I can’t imagine Balachander’s state.
2. For creating a trend to make hard-hitting movies on social issues without sugar-coating the facts. The movie also became a commercial hit.
1. Thanneer Thanneer was so hard hitting that made politicians from DMK and ADMK (the two main parties in the state) asking for a ban on the movie. DMK and ADMK members clashed in the parliament to revoke the censor certification of the movie. Sivappu Malli and Varumayin Niram Sivappu were added to the list and accused of promoting naxalism. 
2. Komal Swaminathan’s play was staged by SV Sahasranamam’s theatre troupe in 1980. K.Balachander got inspired by the social message and wanted to take the movie to a wider audience. This particular claim has been made by G.Dhananjayan’s book. 
3. According to producer P.Govindarajan’s daughter, the producer watched the movie along with Muktha Srinivasan and his son. He bought the rights next day and roped in K Balachander to direct the movie. The actors and location were chosen by Govindarajan along with Vathiyar Raman. They also trained the actors and did the groundwork for the movie. She also claims that K Balachander wanted to cut certain scenes after the censorship issues but her father stayed strong to release the movie without any cuts.
Her comment on my blog post –
I have also asked her to contact G.Dhananjayan to make a dispute claim about this issue.
3. As mentioned earlier in this article, the theatre actors were used in the movie to bring in authenticity to the roles.
4. Surprisingly, there were heavy rains during the 1981 monsoon season and the movie was expected to release during October. Although, producers were wary of repercussions. Balachander was confident about the audience. And the audience responded in the right way.
5. The film received two national awards in the next year – Best Feature Film in Tamil and Best Screenplay award for K.Balachander.
6. R.K.Raman, who was introduced in this movie as Vathiyar became Vathiyar Raman later.
7. Eventually, the Tamil Nadu Government amended the Tamil Nadu Cinemas (Regulation) Act of 1955 in 1987 to make a provision to prohibit any movie that might badly depict sitting MLAs and MPs. The amendment still stands. 
8. There is not any known negative copy of the movie. So whatever copies are in circulation is the ones available. If you want to see the movie, there is a version available on the Youtube.
9. The play has been translated into many languages in India and it is still staged.
- The Best of Tamil Cinema – Volume 2 by G. Dhananjayan