In his second narrative feature The Pool, documentary film-maker Chris Smith (American Movie) considerably expands his range and thematic concerns. Working in Hindi, telling a low key, resonant story about an 18-year-old Indian boy's quest to break free of his disadvantaged origins, Smith is working closer to the impulses of an anthropologist than film-maker.
Transposing author Randy Russell's short story from the American Midwest to Panjim, in the Indian territory Goa, Smith has set himself up for a difficult assignment.
If his approach has the trappings of imperial outsider, Smith largely avoids the part of interloper. Apart from some highly-improbable uses of American-inflected slang in the English-subtitled Hindi dialogue, Smith reveals an alert and stable grip of the material, immersing himself in the daily texture and fabric of his characters' lives.
With David Gordon Green's Snow Angels, the movie was the most formally accomplished of the Sundance dramatic competition. The film was honored with a special jury prize for 'singularity of vision.' The film evokes a past Sundance prize-winner, Tony Bui's Vietnam-set Three Seasons, a similar exploration of how money, opportunity and economic possibility alter friendships.
The movie is a natural for other festival programmers, and it should secure some upscale business in specialised bookings, particularly large North American cities such as New York, Chicago, Toronto and San Francisco that have large Indian populations.
The home market, especially DVD, is a likely key destination. Ironically, the movie's best hope exists in India, where the presence of Indian star Nana Patekar is likely to alleviate cultural disapproval that the movie was made by Westerners.
The metaphoric title underlines the American origins of the short story, suggesting one of John Cheever's diamond sharp studies of privilege and social striving. The story centres on Venkatesh (Chavan), a bright if somewhat wayward dreamer from the countryside who has arrived in Panjim to work as a hotel housekeeper. His best friend is loquacious, funny 11-year-old Jahangir (Badshah).
Despite their illiteracy, the two have sharpened survivalist skills. Born hustlers, they supplement their meager hotel income concocting business schemes, like selling plastic bags to foreigners.
Venkatesh's deeper longing is established by the movie's recurrent image. He is perched on a tree, where his gaze is fixed on the well-appointed, garden lined swimming pool.
He insinuates himself into the lives of its occupants, performing yard work and cleaning detail for the wealthy Mumbai businessman (Patekar). Critically Venkatesh's new business opportunity enables him to make contact with the man's sullen, emotionally detached daughter Ayesha (Mohan).
His former crush object with whom he has been secretly observing from a distance, Venkatesh forms an emotionally tenuous friendship with her that survives their considerable differences in class, social status and sophistication.
Smith shapes the story to character rather than action, annotating the uncertainty and confusion. Working with these young actors, the performances expressive and silent, Smith adroitly captures the lively, unforced rhythms, documenting the ease and comfort of their conversations that encompass everything from the country's caste system, the perceived advantages of being lighter skin, to the family tragedy that explains Ayesha's resentment of her father.
The Pool is a very impressive technical achievement. Smith operated the camera, and much of the film is shot hand held, the camera in tight observation of the actors' faces and body inflections. Barry Poltermann's editing is also shrewd in the fluid, smooth manner it is cut on movement. Mohan has one other credit, and the non-professional Chawan and Badshah have a purity and stillness that is never less than free and generous.
The movie ends on an ironic note of self-sacrifice. It's not a stunt though something earned and finally, even respected.
based on Russell's short story