A languorous meditation on free will versus destiny, Chris Smith’s fine film The Pool traces a few weeks in the life of Venkatesh, a teenager who labors at a modest hotel in the dusty city of Panjim, Goa. As a “room boy,” Venkatesh does it all: scrubs the floors, preps the kitchen, delivers room service, hangs laundry, and even cleans the lavatories. He goes about his tasks in ordinary monotony, yet he has something of a secret passion.
In his off hours, Venkatesh (played in an almost documentary-like fashion by Venkatesh Chavan, a non-professional actor working in front of the camera for the first time) steals away to a country villa on the edge of town. Climbing a tree, he perches in a high branch, gazing over the estate wall. There, he takes in a garden oasis, filled with dense foliage, ceramic masks, and most importantly, an immaculate swimming pool, a large rectangle of blue calm.
Venkatesh returns repeatedly to behold the water. On his third visit, he brings a friend along into the tree. “It’s too beautiful a house to leave sitting empty. If I owned that pool, I’d jump in it every day,” he muses, and then adds, “All my problems will disappear.”
By the fourth visit, the spot has begun to evoke a hypnotic feeling—a lulling, almost narcotic effect on the viewer, so that we, too, are drawn into the spell it exerts over Venkatesh. Smith co-wrote the screenplay with Randy Russell, based on Russell’s short story. They’ve crafted a film of silences that speak volumes, and of quiet conversations filled with spare, unemphatic dialogue, such as in this exchange between Venkatesh and Ayesha, a blasé young girl who lives on the estate: “You have a pool and don’t swim in it,” he ventures. “The ocean’s nice,” she replies, by way of deflecting his interest.
Early on, Smith and Russell reveal a major alliance by the most subtle, offhand means. A street urchin pops up in the hotel kitchen window as Venkatesh washes dishes. The younger child, an orphan, pleads for some chai. “Go away, beggar,” snaps Venkatesh. At some point, their paces slip from formal to familiar: we realize that we’re watching a ritual these boys go through, that they’re in fact close friends, close enough for Venkatesh to send the “beggar,” Jhangir, on his way with a chutney that Venkatesh’s mother instructed her son to give him.
In its theme of children functioning as adults (yet retaining their naïveté) The Pool summons to mind a slew of older foreign films. There are traces of certain Francois Truffaut French New Wave classics suffusing the tranquil mood that itself feels reminiscent of Satyajit Ray’s work; Venkatesh belongs to a genus recognizable from movies and literature—that of young men mesmerized by surfaces. The closer he advances to the beckoning pool of the film’s title, the closer a choice looms. By the time that choice comes, we’re so caught up in his ingenious resourcefulness that you hope and pray he’ll make the right decision. And yet you fear he won’t—that like Truffaut’s anti-heroes, he’s too much of a romantic dreamer to assert himself by any straightforward route.
Smith, an American known for directing documentaries (notably, the WTO send-up The Yes Men), has made a nearly flawless feature in a language (Hindi) that isn’t his own, starring child actors who speak no English. If The Pool occasionally lapses into the prosaic, it’s a minor fault. Smith and Russell’s dialogue only misses when it states what the performers’ expressions tell us clearly enough; otherwise, there are some endlessly quotable phrases to be savored; among them, Venkatesh’s elucidation of his arranged wedding to a ten-year-old bride: “We’ll create our own love story, after we’re married.”
Smith also serves as his own cinematographer. In the movie’s most entrancing sequence, the three children—Venkatesh, Jhangir, and Ayesha—take to the open sea in a turquoise canoe called the Shiv Dani. After a while they stop rowing, let the boat idle, and as the confidences they reveal veer between amusing and heartrending, Smith eschews close-ups in favor of wide-angle shots. He focuses on the vast, sun-dappled, pale-green expanse of sea, and on his characters’ place within that serene waterscape. It’s an emblematic image that, in the moment, conjures nothing less than the entire world of myths, and dreams, and child’s play. – NPT
October 27, 2008
An alternate version of this review originally appeared in Northwest Asian Weekly.