January 26, 2009

An Indian Parable

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It is difficult to ignore the recent impact Bollywood has had on Hollywood and beyond, with movie moments ranging from the upbeat dance scene at the end of The 40-Year Old Virgin and Mike Myers’ abysmal flop The Love Guru to the land of drama and “serious film,” such as Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited and Danny Boyle’s Oscar contender Slumdog Millionaire. As anyone who has received a 21st-century telemarketing call can attest to, to focus on India at present is certainly to focus on a new and rapidly expanding center of the world.
How interesting, then, that director Chris Smith decided to create a stir at Sundance last year with a quiet, neo-realist film that takes place in India as well. The Pool nearly passed completely under the radar of critics, although it employs many of the elements that are firing Slumdog Millionaire through the box office roof. First-time or no-name actors play main characters; supporting characters are Bollywood legends moonlighting in cameos and bit parts. India is laid on its side and dissected, revealing the complex, stratified layers of wealth and class divide crammed atop one another. Perhaps the fact that the film itself is about an idea that could take place anywhere lends the film its special sense of gravity. It is barely a movie, more nearly a documentary about dreams and the choices we make, and how sometimes those decisions push our dreams away.
Venkatesh Chavan plays a boy of 18 of the same name, a hotel janitor trapped in a perpetual adolescence who is dissatisfied with his job and drifting through his own existence, even in the relatively up-tempo world of the city of Panjim. His best friend is an orphan boy seven years younger than he is, Jhangir Badshah. They work at odd jobs from day to day and sell plastic bags to get by.
One day, while climbing a mango tree, Venkatesh looks over a fence into a lush garden of an affluent resident of Panjim and glimpses a pool. In time, the pool becomes an object of Venkatesh’s objections, a metaphor for the social mobility that motivates nearly all that are stricken with poverty (at least in the movies).
The Pool never forgets its parable-like nature but still stays grounded in Smith’s neo-realist medium. The picture quality is high-definition, and scenes crackle with color and light. Shots of the ocean from a hilltop fortification and from a boat in the water’s midst dazzle the eye. The camera shakes ever so slightly, more like Traffic than Cloverfield, and the background is the ambient rush of the busy Panjim street, with music only bursting through during act and scene changes. Venkatesh and Jhangir’s dialogue is not scripted, as neither actor had experience or command of English (which Smith was working in) or Hindi (which the movie was filmed in), and yet their dialogue and mannerisms thrum with authenticity and life.
Venkatesh finds that the pool of his dreams is owned by an affluent, stoic man and his beautiful daughter Ayesha, a young Indian social rebel that reads trashy books and wears tank tops. Neither of them swims in the pool, and another tragedy of life is revealed: the pain of seeing something you covet lying unused. Venkatesh gets hired by the man as a caretaker and he and Jhangir strike up a friendship with Ayesha, who is reluctant at first but soon intrigued. Slowly the relationship between Venkatesh and these rich people begins to reflect his narrow idea of the world and the change that comes with exposure. The rift between the father and daughter is subtly revealed. Life unfolds, and the time to make difficult adult choices arrives far too soon.
An interesting note is that the only character to not play himself is Ayesha’s father, portrayed by Indian screen veteran Nana Patekar, an actor known for his uncanny style of line delivery and occasional ad-libbing. Watching him inhabit this role of a distant father dispelling his haunting advice and hope on a young man in his employ, a replacement for his own children where his advice feels wasted, is tragic in its earnestness and absorbing in its expertise. The Pool, in addition to depicting a universal story of humanity and a sweeping panorama of India, also showcases an understated performance by one of India’s greatest living actors.