If you think that a Milwaukee-based filmmaker landing in Goa to etch out a story about a teenage boy from Karnataka must have been the result of some ill-conceived notion about dragging a small (American) budget over to an “exotic” (read: inexpensive) destination, let me be the first to splash some ice-cold Lake Michigan water on that assumption. Director Chris Smith knows exactly what he is doing. And his charming, first-person account, made with characters that (mostly) use their real names and might as well be playing real-life roles, triumphs as one of the best Western fictional films ever made in India.
Based on a Randy Russell short story (from his forthcoming book Nine Lies),The Pool is all mood and atmosphere. Venkatesh (played marvelously by newcomer Chavan), an older teen caught in a dead end stint as room attendant at a Goa tourist hotel, strikes up an unusual friendship with 11-year-old (and orphaned) Jhangir (Badshah). To escape the utterly ordinary existence of his daily grinds, Venkatesh daily scales a lush neighborhood tree to gawk at an inviting swimming pool in the courtyard of a palatial villa.
The fact that the villa occupants—the rich, mostly—absent owner (Patekar) and his rebellious daughter Ayesha (Mohan)—never use the pool intrigues Venkatesh even more. Having nothing in common with the pool owners, Venkatesh lands a gig as the gardener for the immodestly sized house and charts a new course that offers a life lesson or two.
In exploiting the magical, tropical setting, Smith’s camera smartly refrains from any close-ups on the faces of the characters. This brilliantly reflects the detached outlook all the characters appear to use to cope with emotional baggage of different weights—Venkatesh and Jhangir figuratively running away from their poor life stations and the father-daughter villa dwellers struggling to outlive one sad history.
Smith may be a “foreigner” to India—the credits include hearty thanks to two Wisconsin congress members who aided in facilitating a safe passage to India—but the ease with which he commands the subject, and the depth he draws from his characters is, simply put, stupendous. Patekar is wonderful as the restrained father whose long-suppressed paternal instincts are sparked by the arrival of new gardener, while little known Chavan does wonders in the pivotal central role.
Ultimately, The Pool is the jaw-dropping beautiful reflection of those beguiling white lies that take foundation in otherwise mundane existences: the lie made up of the ongoing cold war between father and daughter; the lie playfully imbedded in the semi-serious horseplay between Venkatesh and Jhanghir—playfully aloof but also covering up an unspoken, indestructible bond the two boys share. Then there is the seductive, hyperbolic front-and-center placement “lie” of the pool itself, which symbolizes both one of the most extravagant luxuries of modern life and yet also is a reminder of profound loss.
The best little lie, however, is the one that unfolds at the very end, just as Smith’s work appears to be done in Goa and the camera appears ready to pull away and return to Wisconsin. Yes, it’s a lie Venkatesh pulls off—he fails to live up to one promise for the exact fulfillment of another—and his microcosmic universe is suddenly a bright beacon of bittersweet happiness.
Chavan, Patekar, and Smith wade into the The Pool and emerge with an instant classic.
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.