A prison called Kaala Paani

Like its name, Kaala Paani (Black Water)  starts off dark. Figuratively and literally.  I spent most of the first episode squinting at the screen, trying to figure out who was doing what in the many, many night scenes. The story is set in the Andamans, and the name Kaala Paani is a callback to when the British used the colonial Cellular Jail (also known as Kaala Paani) to imprison criminals and political prisoners, who were exiled to the remote islands, hemmed in by the ocean on all sides, some never to leave. 

In present day, we are in a different kind of hell.  A mysterious disease is killing off the population, and Dr Saudamini Singh, the island’s curmudgeonly but unstoppable Chief Medical officer – played by Mona Singh, wonderful as always – is hell-bent on finding out how. We also meet the inevitable rookie – a young researcher Ritu Gagra (Radhika Mehrotra) –  who diffidently offers theories and is of course immediately put in her place. 

Plot holes abound, so does the silver lining

The show spends the first few episodes finding its feet. The island is quarantined, but there is a disjointedness to where everyone is, how they get there, and where they can go in the quarantine. Plot holes abound. In one storyline, a nurse (Arushi Sharma) has access to all sorts of secret hospital procedures, yet has to journey deep into the jungle to find anti-epileptic medication. Multiple characters are introduced with no defining trait other than previous trauma: the nurse has a dark secret, the researcher has a sad history, the father of a family is afraid of everything. It’s a relief when Amey Wagh’s delightfully sly, self-serving policeman, Ketan Kamat, appears among this parade of people we must feel sorry for. 

A show of many firsts 

 A poster of Kaala Paani (Image courtesy: IMDB)
A poster of Kaala Paani (Image courtesy: IMDB)

But even in those episodes Kaala Paani is stunning in the sheer scope of its ambition, and by the halfway point it grows into that ambition. This is a show of many firsts. It starts off as a ho-hum medical mystery about disease and possibly water pollution—hardly the most riveting of subjects—and explodes  into a complex exploration of pandemics, co-existence with indigenous people of the Andamans, and the nature of evil itself. What is evil, the show asks, and what is the best choice in a series of terrible choices? What is evil, and what is merely unthinking human carelessness? As one character says, “People who throw trash by the beach don’t mean to kill the sharks.“

A worthy watch 

Not everything succeeds. The Orakas – the show’s version of an indigenous Andaman tribe—get treated more like a cause than actual people with emotions and agendas.  Everyone  on the show is either against the Orakas or hopelessly devoted to them as a collective, as opposed to more realistically having individual feelings for individual Orakas. And there’s more than one derivative reference to shows like House or Lost or The Last of Us – Dr. Singh is cranky and limps, Veerendra Saxena plays a misanthrope who hides out in a self-sufficient bunker in the woods. But despite that, India’s first island mystery makes the format its own. 

Even in the season finale, unlike a lot of Indian shows, Kaala Paani doesn’t give us neatly wrapped answers. Questions are answered and mysteries are satisfyingly solved, but more questions are set up for Season 2.  In the end, Kaala Paani, despite its title, doesn’t shy away from grayness.  And that’s what makes it worth watching. 

Sandhya Char has been contributing to India Currents since 2002. Her work has appeared in several publications including in India West, India Post, Rediff/India abroad, ComputerEdge magazine and Shadowed...