‘The Pool’: Life Is Better in the Water
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There is nothing quite like the subtle pleasure of close but seemingly casual observation in a medium that often forgets how much natural grace, levity, and melancholy exists in the spontaneous actions of human beings. The gentle, gradual unfolding of circumstances and characters in “The Pool” is a quietly stirring reminder of how it can be done.
The new fictional feature by Wisconsin native Chris Smith, who is best known for his independently shot documentaries about wannabe Midwestern horror auteurs and culture-jamming anticorporate pranksters (“American Movie,” “The Yes Men”), again centers on a protagonist working his way up from the dirt toward an unlikely goal. But in “The Pool,” which begins a two-week engagement tomorrow at Film Forum, Mr. Smith has wandered far beyond his comfort zone, venturing to the subcontinent to direct a screenplay composed in Hindi, shot in a quasi-documentary neorealist style, and delivered with touching naturalism by a cast of both nonprofessional actors and a Bollywood legend. But rest assured: Even though this parable of compassion resonates across vast divisions of class and social manner, Merchant and Ivory it is not.
Venkatesh (Venkatesh Chavan) is an illiterate 18-year-old boy who lives on the cheap as a day laborer in Panjim, the capital of Goa, in southwestern India. Though he’s both crafty and outgoing, Venkatesh seems to have little ambition beyond his daily chores, which include prepping food and smoothing linens at a hotel. He keeps an eye on his young sidekick, Jhangir (Jhangir Badshah), with whom he shares greasy samosas from a vendor’s stall after the pair earn pocket change by selling plastic bags in a street market.
It’s a hard-knock life, but its requirements are fairly simple. Mr. Smith’s handheld camera and bare urban locations manage to evoke the distinct lack of privilege that is these boys’ natural lot, while amplifying the thousand small delights they take in simple gestures and philosophical conversations. It’s all very “Bicycle Thief,” without indulging in the kind of melodrama that ransacks the tear ducts. One day, though, Venkatesh spies a gleaming swimming pool in the back of an upper-class family’s estate and becomes spellbound. He idles for entire afternoons, lingering high up on a tree branch, watching the patriarch, Nana (Bollywood demigod Nana Patekar), tend to his lush gardens and argue with a young woman who turns out to be his daughter, Ayesha (Ayesha Mohan). All Venkatesh can imagine is diving into the pool, which exists as a symbol of everything he doesn’t have, but also as a mystery: No matter how hot it gets, no one ever takes a swim.
The plot, as such, moves along with the imaginative Venkatesh’s schemes to win access to the pool. After successfully stalking Nana to a plant nursery, he gets hired to do yard work — since the stoic gentleman doesn’t want this weird boy snooping on him from a tree. Gradually, these two disparate characters build a relationship on hard manual labor and minimal, if choice, words. Ayesha, who conveys the air of a spoiled, crabby princess, is the vaguely rebellious teenage daughter who rejects any conversation with her father but becomes fond of Venkatesh and the energetic, urchin-like Jhangir. Many of the film’s most emotionally affecting moments occur among the three of them, as Venkatesh fabricates a yarn about a boat they can take for a ride into the bay of the Arabian Sea. Later, he manages to find one, and the frame conveys an elemental, end-of-childhood magic as they clumsily poke their oars into the water. It’s not a postcard moment at all. Instead, the scene aspires to the evanescent quality of a literary epiphany.
The film’s abiding air of humility grounds everything in the matter-of-fact rigors of taxing work done with bare hands, rough tools, and small comfort. The pool, which holds a grail-like mystique for Venkatesh, represents something profoundly different for Ayesha and her father, which at once explains their alienation from each other and Nana’s kindness toward Venkatesh, whose motivating desire for a cool dip becomes radically transformative.
The potentially disastrous allure of shooting in a far-flung location obviously had a similar effect on Mr. Smith, who has taken huge risks to come up with an unexpectedly poetic gem.