Jal (Water): Busan Review
Busan International Film Festival, New Currents
Purab H Kohli, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Kirti Kulhari
An ambitious debut suffers from a rare affliction — an abundance of style combined with too much substance.
The search for and control of precious, life-giving water is at the heart of Jal, a breathtakingly photographed tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. Set in the arid, harsh environment of Gujarat state, rookie filmmaker Girish Malik takes the approach that more is better; the “if you throw enough at the wall something will stick” philosophy of directing. To that end there are segments of Jal that just don’t work, but there are just as many that do, even when the film’s construction is occasionally boggling.
Bakka (a sometimes hammy Purab H Kohli) has convinced the residents of his village that he is a divine dowser with a special gift for locating that most precious of resources: water. Bakka’s community exists in one of the driest parts of India, and finding a viable well is crucial. It’s also something an enemy village possesses and is willing to kill to protect. While Bakka and his town struggle with the issue, Russian animal activist, Kim (who is the embodiment of irritating activists, played by Saidah Jules) shows up asking for Bakka’s help in finding fresh water to save flamingoes that are dying in the area. A diesel pump is shipped to an area near the village for the birds, but no consideration is given to the thirsty villagers. Then the drama really starts. The rival town’s most vocal critic of Bakka, Puniya (Mukul Dev, who has an evil dude laugh for the ages), conspires to destroy Bakka, and tragedy ultimately befalls his wife, Kesar (the luminous Kirti Kulhari).
There’s a lot of story here, tackling everything from ambition, greed, power, inequality and ecology in its strangely choppy and slightly schizoid narrative; the film whiplashes between affecting set pieces (Bakka dragged across the dusty land as punishment for perceived thievery) and utter nonsense — such as when Kim nearly starts a gang war by stealing from the rival town’s well. Jal is frequently saved though by excellent cinematography from Sunita Radia and a typically stirring Bollywood-esque soundtrack by Sonu Nigam and Bickram Ghosh.
Venue: Busan International Film Festival, New Currents
Cast: Purab H Kohli, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Kirti Kulhari
Director: Girish Malik