EmptyPalm Springs International Film Festival
PALM SPRINGS -- Returning to narrative film after his well-received documentaries, Milwaukee-based writer-director Chris Smith has ventured to India and made a truly independent gem of a feature.
"The Pool" combines actors and nonpros speaking Hindi and a smattering of English in the story of a poor teen who befriends a wealthy man and his daughter. Informed by incisive observations about the class divide but more interested in the mysteries of the human heart, this gentle variation on neorealism is a delight on every level.
Uplifting without a drop of sap, the tale of a boy's obsession with a glittering swim-ming pool and how it changes four lives offers numerous pleasures and one of the most satisfying and resonant conclusions to be seen in recent cinema.
The self-financed film, a selection of the Palm Springs International Film Festival, is scheduled for September release in New York by Vitagraph Films -- the distribution arm of the American Cinematheque -- with rollout to select markets to follow.
Shooting in Panjim, capital of the Indian state of Goa, Smith tapped two local boys to play versions of themselves in this adaptation of an Iowa-set short story by co-scripter Randy Russell. Venkatesh Chavan portrays an illiterate 18-year-old from the country who works in a hotel and dreams of being able to attend school. During his off hours, Venkatesh and his best friend, Jhangir (Jhangir Badshah), an orphaned 11-year-old restaurant employee, buy plastic bags from a store and resell them on the street -- an entrepreneurial venture that's dashed when the city bans plastic bags.
But Venkatesh soon finds a new opportunity, working in the garden of a wealthy man (veteran actor Nana Patekar). It's no accident that they meet; Venkatesh has been observing the man for some time, perched in a mango tree in the city's tony hilltop neighborhood. The man's tranquil backyard pool has captured his imagination -- if he can swim in it freely, he tells Jhangir, all his problems will dissolve. Later, when he does receive the go-ahead to use the pool, it comes with an offhand revelation that explains the man's reserve and his insolent teenage daughter's anger.
Guileless and unselfconscious about his low economic status, Venkatesh draws out both the man and his daughter (Ayesha Mohan). Beneath her big-city sophistication and tough veneer, Ayesha is a compassionate soul. Jhangir sees a made-for-each-other couple, but Ven-katesh tells Ayesha with a smile that his marriage is arranged; he need only wait for his 10-year-old "darling" to grow up. Still, he's not above trying to impress Ayesha, asserting with sweet cockiness that he has access to a boat, then having to scramble with Jhangir to find one.
On their day trips to old forts and the lake, this trio share sad, sometimes terrible realities about their young lives. Ayesha's father, meanwhile, working in the garden with Venkatesh, slowly responds to the boy's gabbiness, his reticence giving way to adages and fatherly advice that reveal the soul of a poet. Venkatesh privately laughs at his "corny philosophies," but they make a profound impression on him and lead to the film's final, heroic act of generosity.
The cast delivers lovely, unforced work. Lending the story buoyancy is the soundtrack's judicious use of music recorded in Mumbai's only remaining analog studio, under the helm of retired Bollywood arranger Kersi Lord.
Smith, doing his own 35mm camerawork, brings an outstanding sense of movement and composition to the proceedings, capturing a vivid sense of place and, above all, the deepening, unspoken connections among his characters. Some of the film's quietest moments detonate with heart-stopping poignancy.
Director/director of photography: Chris Smith
Screenwriters: Chris Smith, Randy Russell
Based on the short story by: Randy Russell
Producer: Kate Noble
Music: Didier Leplae, Joe Wong
Costume designer: Darshan Jalan
Editor: Barry Poltermann
Venkatesh: Venkatesh Chavan
Jhangir: Jhangir Badshah
Ayesha: Ayesha Mohan
Welathy Man: Nana Patekar
Running time -- 95 minutes
No MPAA rating