Venkatesh (Venkatesh Chavan) works cleaning rooms at a small hotel in Goa and tries to make a little extra on the side with his friend Jhangir (Jhangir Badshah) by selling cheap plastic bags to street traders. One day, Venkatesh sees a swimming pool within a walled and gated property and sets out to ingratiate himself with the owner, Nana (Nana Patekar). Venkatesh is nothing if not aspirational, but the pool which encapsulates those aspirations for him also represents tragedy and heartache for Nana and his seemingly sullen and enigmatic daughter Ayesha (Ayesha Mohan).
Director and co-writer Chris Smith has a background in American independent cinema, making his latest effort, shot in India and with its dialogue almost entirely in Hindi, all the more beguiling. Whether he simply relishes a challenge, or found something poignant in telling this rich and profound story from an outsider’s perspective, we do not know. But he has crafted something at once simple and ornate, earthy yet beautiful.
The Pool could, in less accomplished hands, have been awfully trite or dour, yet Smith has managed to draw a singularly affecting performance out of his lead (the relatively untried Chavan), despite him generally remaining unaffectedly expressionless. Chavan represents a real find here, delivering a thoroughly naturalistic performance, with genuine charisma resonating from the screen. His relationship with Jhangir, who is seven years his junior is warmly sketched and feels genuine, with a depth and richness of friendship conveyed without resorting to histrionics or melodrama.
Ayesha, more “world-wise” and initially altogether sullen, is gradually coaxed out of her shell by Venkatesh’s sincerity and enthusiasm, though she has her reasons for being withdrawn. But nothing is delivered as a sledgehammer blow, rather this is an exercise in subtlety and restraint. We feel like we are dropping in on lives that are being well and truly lived, with very little spelled out or spoon-fed. Venkatesh recognises that he will struggle to advance himself without a decent education, something which Nana tries to spur him on towards, as their friendship grows through, of all things, Venkatesh offering to help with the gardening.
The Pool is shot in an unfussy, but beautiful fashion. There are times of hand-held, almost documentary-style framing and others where the camera moves back and takes in a broader shot, with the streets of Goa being presented as nothing more or less than Venkatesh’s stomping ground; neither romanticized nor rendered grimmer than they are. His existence is clearly meagre, but he seems genuinely happy and at peace and he remains the sweet, heartfelt centre of this incrementally affecting film. There are no sign-posted, obvious character arcs, no sensationalistic denouements, no wild crescendos, simply the progression of peoples’ lives, mistakes, good days and bad, journeys, friendship and everyday life in all its joy, sadness, monotony and eventfulness. It is a fitting testament to The Pool that its final shot, with Venkatesh simply sitting in a chair feels profound, meaningful and perfect.
The Pool is not going to be the easiest to track down, as it is initially enjoying a fairly limited run in London, Brighton and Ipswich between now and Christmas, but if you are in or around those locations try to catch it and if nothing else, keep an eye out for it on DVD. A quiet and surprising success.