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The Pool

Director: Chris Smith
Cast: Venkatesh Chavan, Jhangir Badshah, Nana Patekar, Ayesha Mohan

(Vitagraph Films; US theatrical: 3 Sep 2008 (Limited release); 2007)

Screwing Up Your Head

The film and story were changing on a daily basis. One of the great things about the way we were working was that it was completely fluid. We were editing as we went along—so that had a huge impact on the finished film as well.
Chris Smith



Venkatesh (Venkatesh Chavan) cleans hotel rooms for a living. As he and his coworker Malcolm (Malcolm Faria) scrub toilets, prepare food for room service, and hang bed sheets out on the roof to air-dry, they discuss their lives apart from work. When the subject turns to dinosaurs, Venkatesh is a loss. “Like Godzilla,” says Malcolm, “In the movies.” Still no connection: “I don’t go to the movies,” says Venkatesh, “they strain my eyes.” Malcolm smiles, “Don’t sit so close and you won’t strain your eyes.” 


Such logic doesn’t come easily to Venkatesh. At 18 years old, he’s unable to read and quite aware of what that means for his future. He keeps to his routine, making his way from job to job in the Indian coastal city of Panjim, Goa. His long-conditioned, now internalized sense of limits is made visible at the start of The Pool, when he appears riding a bus, bumping along, framed by support bars and partially obscured by his fellow riders. His face is serene, his slouch slight. He’s on his way to work, again.


When he’s not at the hotel, Venkatesh is selling plastic bags on the street with his 11-year-old best friend, Jhangir (Jhangir Badshah). They make an odd couple, one tall and the other a foot or so shorter, animated and scrawny as they approach possible customers, hoping against hope that after hours on the sidewalk, they’ll have cash for a quick meal from the sidewalk vendor. Venkatesh sighs, “We’ve got to figure out a way to go to school. We can’t live like this forever.” Jhangir, less conscious of time passing, agrees in the abstract. “If I could go to school,” the older boy persists, “I could get a good job or start my own business. I wouldn’t have to work so hard.”


The set-up seems familiar. But before you start thinking you know what this movie’s about, take a breath. Adapted from a short story by Randy Russell, director Chris Smith and Russell’s script shifts the location from Iowa to India, where Venkatesh’s survival of poverty and frustration provides the parentless Jhangir with a kind of role model, even as the older boy seeks an alternative to what seems his inescapable future. Venkatesh’s expectations are shaped by his past, which emerges gradually and in fragments. At the same time, his self-understanding is indicated by frequent long takes and evocative compositions, as he makes his way along crowded sidewalks or gazes on the street from hotel room windows. His perspective is shifted when he heads up the hill to his favorite respite, a tree from which he watches a house with a pool.


Here he observes Nana (Nana Patekar), working to clear and shape the pool area while his daughter Ayesha (Ayesha Mohan) does her best to ignore him. Jhangir points out his friend’s folly (“The closest you’re going to get to that pool is cleaning it”), then suggests he just climb over the wall and go for a swim if he wants it so much. Venkatesh demurs, imagining another way in. “I don’t want to go in like a thief,” he says. “I’m going in freely, without worrying about getting caught. The rays of sun will fall on me while the water cools my skin. Nobody to worry about. All my problems will disappear.” Jhangir barely seems to hear him, focused instead on his friend’s lunch. “Are you just gonna pick at that or what?” 


The contrast between the younger boy’s practical concerns and Venkatesh’s dreams is blurred when the latter does in fact make contact with Nana. Following him to gardening supply shop, Venkatesh offers to carry plants to his vehicle; Nana reveals that he’s seen him watching him (“Don’t keep sitting in that tree, you’re going to fall and break your neck”), then invites Venkatesh to work for him. Soon the two are digging, planting, and pruning, and Venkatesh has purchased a gardening book (when Malcolm observes that he can’t read it, Venkatesh says he looks at the pictures). He listens carefully, absorbing lessons and mimicking behaviors.


Venkatesh’s education appears in a series of brief, evocative scenes, he and his mentor bent over a task as one or the other tells a story. When Venkatesh recalls killing and eating rabbits with his friends when he was a child, Nana shakes his head: “You never felt bad about killing rabbits?” Venkatesh keeps digging. “No,” he says without noting the question’s implication, “Why?” While they burn dead brush, their eyes fixed on the flames, Venkatesh recalls hitting his head and lying unconscious for two days, alone and undiscovered. When he woke, he says, he was possessed by a ghost. “When I finally went home,” he says, “I started speaking in tongues. I started catching chickens I’d choke them and eat them raw. I used to drink blood.” Nana looks surprised, but doesn’t protest. “I ate so much but I never got full,” Venkatesh reports. “The thing [ghost] got full.”


As much as Venkatesh talks about his history—separately to Nana and to Ayesha—they keep mostly quiet about the past trauma that both binds and divides them. Venkatesh observes from a distance and through door frames her arguments with her father (he complains that she won’t work on the pool area with him, she insists on reading her book, about depressed kids in China, she says, “about screwing up your head”). Sympathetic and enchanted, Venkatesh befriends her, appealing because he is so unlike her father even as he tries to hard to emulate him.


Venkatesh and Jhangir try to impress Ayesha, childishly and charmingly. They show her how to get fresh mangoes off trees, introduce her to the pleasures of street vendors’ “oily” food, and take her on a day trip to an old fort. Her escape from the tension at home is complicated when she hears that Venkatesh was once held captive for three days by a tourist, who threatened to take him away to New Zealand. “You didn’t go to the police?” she asks, astonished. “I’m scared of the police,” he answers. If his distrust of authority makes sense, given his desperate childhood, the film also shows Venkatesh’s evolving moral sensibility. Rendered in starkly poetic images, at once abstract and lovely, his perspective changes from isolated to connected.

Rating:

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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The Pool -- Trailer
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