A young man’s curiosity to see how the other (wealthier) half lives is the gentle mainspring of documaker Chris Smith’s lovely feature debut, “The Pool.” Universality abounds in the seamless adaptation-transfer of co-screenwriter Randy Russell’s short story from Iowa to Panjim in the Indian state of Goa, and Smith’s utterly natural filmmaking there is impressive. A surefire critical success and a certain title on festivals’ wishlists, pic emerges as one of the best narrative competish works at Sundance this year. B.O. prospects, however, may be limited as pic is neither a mainstream Indian movie nor a typical Yank indie item.
After returning to Panjim by bus from his rural Goa hometown, Venkatesh (Venkatesh Chavan) works as a hotel housekeeper and hangs out with his younger pal, Jahangir (Jahangir Badshah). The loose, easy mood and relaxed jump-cut pace gives off the delicious aroma of the early days of the French nouvelle vague, but without an iota of the sort of studied imitation that’s currently plaguing a host of indie filmmakers.
Partners in a rag-tag biz selling plastic bags to pedestrians, Jahangir is demonstrably Venkatesh’s better when it comes to street savvy and common sense, but Venkatesh is destined to be the movie’s hero, since he has a vision of something beyond his reach: a hillside home’s backyard pool, shimmering with an aquamarine glow.
Thinking he’s spying without being seen, Venkatesh enjoys climbing up a tree to view the pool, which is apparently never used by the home’s two inhabitants. Skeptical Jahangir scoffs at his buddy’s obsession: “The closest you’re going to get to that pool is cleaning it.”
But Venkatesh encounters the home’s residents — a wealthy man originally from Mumbai (Indian star Nana Patekar) and his sharp-tongued daughter Ayesha (Ayesha Mohan), and inserts himself into their home life in a charming but natural way. Venkatesh follows Ayesha — “stalked” is too harsh a term –from her home to a park where she enjoys reading, but she seems much too urbane and sophisticated for the kindly country boy.
One of the many pleasures of “The Pool” is watching how these culturally opposite people find common ground, and become involved with each other through such simple acts as home gardening and conversation. Smith follows his best instincts as a non-fiction filmmaker by injecting as much of the characters’ actual background and personal details as possible, so that when Venkatesh relates some of his wild, only-in-India adventures to Patekar’s father, the line between truth and fiction is effectively erased.
Scenes play out of their own accord, with ambling little ventures with Venkatesh, Jahangir and Ayesha beautifully capturing the sense of youth possessing all the time in the world.
Still, things never linger too long, while Smith’s camera (helmer is his own d.p.) rarely if ever goes in for close-ups and prefers taking in the immediate world around his characters. He is as fascinated — as the viewer quickly is — in how Patekar carves a coconut as he is in Patekar’s fatherly advice or his invitation to Venkatesh to return to Mumbai with him. (Subtitles refer to the city under its former name, Bombay.)
Standard Bollywood treatment would turn Venkatesh’s life-altering choice into an opportunity for third-act melodrama, but “The Pool” is an object case in the difference between story and plot machinations, emotional truth and bathos.
Non-pros Chavan, Badshah and Mohan ease into their roles while grasping telling details that lend their characters real personality. As the only screen vet, Patekar visibly relishes a rare chance to perform in front of the camera in an engagingly low-key register.
Editor Barry Poltermann continues the same relaxed attitude to pace and selection that he had with Smith on “American Movie.” The Portuguese-inflected soundtrack (with music by Didier Laplae and Joe Wong) reps an example of how Smith has creatively tapped into Goan culture and its ties with the Portuguese colonial era. Pic’s enormously difficult production challenges and its last-minute readiness for Sundance are belied by everything on screen.