The Pool (Chris Smith, 2007)
[note: review originally published 24Jan2010]
What’s up with American directors shipping off to parts unknown to make foreign-language films these days? When you think about it, it’s long overdue; Hollywood has been importing, and destroying, foreign directors for years. Maybe the American directors figured that heading out of country would improve their stuff? Needless to say, the ones who are willing to try it are already good—Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre) and Joshua Marston (Maria Full of Grace) are recent examples. Here we have another. Chris Smith was the co-director of one of 1999’s best and quirkiest documentaries, American Movie. While in America, Smith has stayed in the documentary world, turning out the same kind of quirky, funny docos. And those I’ve seen are all well worth your time. But put the guy on a plane to Goa and you end up with this gentle (sometimes too gentle) comedy-drama about the Indian caste system and one teen’s attempt to break out of it—all in order to get a swim. Of course, there ends up being a great deal more to it than that, but that’s your basic gist.
Venkatesh (Venkatesh Chavan) is eighteen and working in a hotel in Goa, not at all content with his lot in life. All we know of his life outside the world of the hotel is that he has a much younger friend named Jhangir (Jhangir Badshah)—at one point Venkatesh claims to be eighteen and Jhangar eleven (though Jhangar states that Venkatesh doesn’t know his actual birthday, and thus doesn’t know how old he is)—and that Venkatesh is obsessed with the idea of swimming in a pool at a summer house in one of Goa’s nicer districts. He goes and stares longingly at the pool every day, and life goes on, until one day the family who owns the house shows up. Or part of it, anyway. Dad (Ghost House‘s Nana Patekar, the only actor here with prior experience), a gruff-but-tender sort, notices Venkatesh, and hires him to do odd jobs around the grounds. There’s also a daughter, Ayesha (Ayesha Mohan). Who is, of course, hot, and thus Venkatesh’s pool obsession gets transferred. Kind of.
There comes a point in some movies where you ask yourself, “okay, so the main point is resolved, what’s next?”. I’ve always seen this as a major drawback, because everything else in the movie feels tacked on. The Pool hits that point after about thirty minutes; one more screenplay revision could probably have fixed it. That said, I have fought revising the rating for this movie up a star for the now-well-worn trope of using amateurs for movies aimed at the art-house set (a la Cidade de Deus, which brought the trope back into the popular consciousness); I enjoyed the acting here, and the rational part of my brain knows it doesn’t matter how much prior experience the actors had. But the other part says “that’s pretty cool”, you know? (I know it’s all manipulation, but at least that allows me to choose whether I succumb to it.) There were also some other Bollywood touches that were missing. I could be wrong, but it seemed to me that Smith was looking to make a Bollywood-style film here, and I’m all for Western directors heading over to India and learning Bollywood methods of moviemaking, if for no other reason because we might start seeing the return of the three-hour American film. But The Pool is staunchly American, from the ninety-eight minute running time (in Bollywood, that’s a short!) to the lack of cast-of-thousands song-and-dance numbers to the indie feel of the whole thing. I’m not necessarily saying this is a bad thing; those who are used to Bollywood films, however, might get a sense of disjunct.
The biggest problem with the movie, though, I alluded to in my opening paragraph. It is too gentle. This may be why I got that “tacked-on” feeling for the last hour; the setup for the romantic subplot becoming the main plot of the movie was there, obviously, but it wasn’t there enough, if you get my meaning. The movie almost seems paralyzed by the boldness of its subject matter at times. This is understandable (after all, the underlying meaning of the caste system has always been “let’s keep those lower-class thugs away from our nubile daughters”), but it seems to me an outsider—an American film director, say—would be more inclined to be bold about his subject, not less. There’s a fine line to be drawn there, and I am certainly one who would advocate erring on the side of caution. I should give Smith points for not turning this into a morass of message. But he could have trod a lot closer to the line. (Seeing Venkatesh have a Mark Borchardt-style explosion? That woulda made this movie.) ** ½