Outwardly confident yet quietly insecure, 18-year-old Venkatesh Chavan climbs into a tree and stares at a pristine pool. He's a domestic worker at a nearby hotel in the Indian coastal city of Panjim, Goa, and he's ambitious enough to know that he wants something more, even if he doesn't know what, exactly. He performs his duties, meets his considerably younger friend Jhangir Badshah to sell plastic bags to earn extra money, studies the untouched pool and the surrounding, uninhabitated house and garden grounds, and retires for the night.
Boiled down to its essence, The Pool, which opened in New York earlier this week and will expand across the country in the coming weeks, is an apparently obvious tale that unexpectedly yet inexorably immerses the viewer in the lives of four characters that, like the pool itself, are deeper than they appear from the surface.
Venkatesh, for example, gives the appearance of an industrious young man, though he's constantly late for work and is bored by his daily routine. Opportunity comes knocking when a young woman (Ayesha Mohan) and her father (Nana Patekar) show up at the pool. The girl is insolent and rebellious, the man is gruff and stern. She reads intently, he tends impassively to the garden. After a period of observation from his perch in a tree, Venkatesh follows the man and quietly makes his presence known as the man shops for garden supplies at a nursery. Soon enough, the man, who is never named in the film, hires Venkatesh to help him in the garden, where he is introduced to daughter Ayesha.
Venkatesh follows his own pattern and trails Ayesha to a park, where she sits and reads. By sheer persistence and dogged enthusiasm, he becomes friends with her, drawing her into his summertime activities with Jhangir -- throwing rocks to harvest mangoes, hiking to an abandoned fort overlooking the picturesque Arabian Sea, telling outrageous stories as though they were everyday occurrences. Separately, he becomes friendly with her father as they work together, relating similar-sounding tales of police, rabbits, and demonic possession. The man opens up as well, delivering homilies to the young man with earnest emotion. Still, neither Ayesha nor her father want to talk about the pool or why they don't swim in it.
From its title alone, The Pool invites immediate resistance. It's such an obvious symbol, first for Venkatesh's upward yearnings and then as the obvious source of tension between Ayesha and her father, that it feels too pat and facile to be taken seriously. As the film progresses, though, Venkatesh is revealed as a more complex person, recognizably a somewhat adrift teenager, and less a ruthless budding capitalist. He left home and school to earn money to help support his mother and two sisters. When he stares at the pool, is he thinking of the lifestyle that wealth makes possible? Is he dazzled by the untouched purity of its beauty? Or is he looking into his own soul and trying to define what he wants out of life?
For all of his lighthearted bluster and bravado, Venkatesh is still a kid, hanging around with the much-younger Jhangir, who conversely acts much more adult and judgmental. Venkatesh is attracted to Ayesha, maybe even dreams of a romantic or sexual involvement, but is still very much aware of the class differences that loom between them. He jokes with her as he does with everyone else, even as he carefully refrains from making a move on her.
In his interactions with Ayesha's father, Venkatesh is always respectful, yet later he downplays what the man has told him as 'simple philosophies.' Is he cultivating the relationship just for what he might be able to get out of it? Or does he have genuine appreciation for the man's fatherly interest?
The other three characters are more straightforward, which is somewhat of a relief since it avoids the possibility of unrealistic emotional catharsis. Ayesha and her father each have their own, personally justifiable reasons for the resentments they've developed. Their guarded, self-protecting shells stand in contrast to the open, heart-on-sleeve personages of Venkatesh and Jhangir. Everybody's suffered. On the surface, Venkatesh and Jhangir are the more resilient ones, sallying forth boldly into life despite the wreckage of childhood tragedies. As time proves, however, they still harbor the pains of the past; it just takes longer to dredge them up.
Director/co-writer/photographer Chris Smith (American Movie, The Yes Men) elicits good performances from a young cast with very limited experience, Nana Patekar being the rock-solid exception. What helps smooth out the rough edges are the moments when the personal stories of the characters are related. Whether they're based on real life or not -- the film itself is based on a short story by co-writer Randy Russell -- the young actors sound like genuine, everyday kids talking about their lives, even when the events themselves must have been fraught with peril.
The Pool succeeds by remaining modest. Rather than ram home dramatic highpoints with repetition or excess emotion, Smith recognizes that the most heartbreaking moments are often the most quiet, the ones that root themselves in memory waiting to devastate when they're least expected. That being said, The Pool is by no means an unhappy story or an unpleasant experience. It's a rueful, thoughtful, and altogether adult picture by an accomplished filmmaker.
More information on the film and future screenings can be found at the official web site.