At the Michigan Theater
4 out of 5 stars
In the past few months, “Slumdog Millionaire” has won the hearts of audiences worldwide. Its success has sparked a recent surge of interest in films about India, which benefits films like 2007 Sundance Award winner “The Pool.” The movie, released last fall, has finally been able to find its footing in smaller markets.
The film’s protagonist, a young man named Venkatesh (newcomer Venkatesh Chaven) embodies the idea of India’s working-class population. The film is quick to show the tedium of his menial job at a hotel, where he spends his days tidying rooms and doing laundry. Like most Indians in his class, Venkatesh’s poverty is exemplified by his lack of material possessions. Though basic necessities like food, clothing and shelter are never lacking, audiences will never see him kick back on his couch and watch a cricket match with a cold beer. In addition, Venkatesh is unable to read or write. His illiteracy is not due to the lack of educational opportunities in India, but rather a result of his decision to get a job so he can send money home to his family.
Part of Venkatesh’s daily routine includes perching himself on top of a tree and gazing in a trance-like state at a vast, blue pool in the backyard of a local mansion. He dreams of the rush of jumping into it, being enveloped by the cool, crisp water and washing away all of life’s problems. After striking a friendship with the pool’s owner (Bollywood legend Nana Patekar) and his daughter Ayesha (newcomer Ayesha Mohan), Venkatesh soon discovers he is not the only person who holds a deep connection with the pool. And, since this is a coming-of-age story, Venkatesh naturally comes to realize his true destiny by the film’s end.
“The Pool,” which is documentary filmmaker Chris Smith’s (“The Yes Men”) first foray into fiction, reaches extraordinary levels of authenticity. Smith cast his two leads, Venkatesh and his preteen friend Jhangir (newcomer Jhangir Badshah), from off the streets. As non-professional actors who have actually experienced the hardships of their characters, they give wonderfully natural performances. The movie is shot on location in the stunning city of Panjim; the film artfully captures its dust-strewn streets and verdant jungles. Smith also throws peculiar quirks about Indian culture into the film: Venkatesh discusses his impending arranged marriage, dodges mopeds and rickshaws in traffic and boards up the hotel for the monsoon season.
Nana Patekar is famous across India for his angry, vivacious roles in Bollywood films. Yet, in a film full of amateur actors, the veteran gives a quiet, commanding performance as a man with a troubled past. Patekar’s acting is impeccable, as can be seen in his subtle transformation from a stubborn, isolated brute to a father figure for Venkatesh. His daughter Ayesha is an angsty teenager with surprising depth. Her hatred of her father is actually given plausible justification.
While “Slumdog” transported audiences into a fairytale India with extreme depictions of poverty and violence, “The Pool” is an ideal portrayal of everyday life in India. Additionally, it’s an astounding feat that Smith managed to direct this film entirely in Hindi without knowing a word of the language. Without a percussive score, fancy camerawork or an over-the-top song and dance sequence, “The Pool” isn’t as technically flashy as its Indian counterparts. Instead, it relies on outstanding performances and characters to create an admirable, meditative film.