Whisper the name “Goa” to any traveler in India, and they will likely picture palm tree beaches, Portuguese architecture, and scantily-clad sunbathers. But India's most prosperous state is not only the stomping ground for Europeans bopping to the latest trance music or perusing the market stalls of Anjuna. There is another Goa, strewn with old bottles and plastic bags, peopled by skinny hotel boys who sweep the rooms and make the beds. It is this second, local world that provides the lyrical setting for The Pool, the latest from American director Chris Smith.
The Pool tells the story of 18-year-old Venkatesh Chavan, a hotel worker in the state's capital of Panjim. His life -- selling plastic bags with his sensible friend, the 11-year-old Jhangir Badshah, and saving money for his family back in neighboring Karnataka -- changes direction when he is captivated by the swimming pool of a wealthy family from Mumbai. Father Malcolm (Nana Patekar) and daughter Ayesha (Ayesha Mohan) see only tragedy in its turquoise waters. Yet for Venkatesh, the pool represents luxury, mystery, the promise of transcending his position in the rigid social hierarchies of Indian society. “I don't want to go in like a thief,” he says. “I'm going in freely.”
For Chris Smith, The Pool is a departure as well, not only because he is better known for making documentaries, such as American Movie (1999) and The Yes Men (2004), but also because his past projects have focused on subjects closer to home: the families of middle America. (The Pool is based on a short story by Randy Russell, who shares writing credits. Russell's story was originally set in Iowa.) But Smith brings a similar level of sensitivity and respect to these inhabitants of Panjim as he did to Mark Borchardt, the quixotic hero of American Movie. In the same way that he captured the mullets, drunken Christmases, and financial struggles of working class Wisconsinites without judgment, Smith has photographed the realities of the residents of Goa.
He returns repeatedly to shots of Venkatesh carrying a bundle of laundry or locking the doors of the Hotel Arcadia, emphasizing the clockwork of his day and the rhythms of the city. As Venkatesh begins working for Malcolm -- and befriending Ayesha -- he relates the stories of his life, conversations, which take place while the pair chops logs, builds trellises, and so on. At one point, Malcolm shaves and splits a coconut while advising his young worker on the importance of education; when his knife finally cracks the shell in two, my fellow audience members gasped. In each scene, the look and sound and feel of a day in Panjim is paramount.
In addition to using Hindi, Smith cast non-professional actors to play the roles of Jhangir and Venkatesh, and they share their characters' names. (Nana Patekar, however, is a Bollywood star.) Jhangir is adorable yet stern, while Venkatesh brings an appropriate dreaminess to his role, and when he talks to the enchanting Ayesha, his serious stare turns convincingly to a goofy grin.
Throughout, The Pool itself maintains an impossible perfection, its sparkling aquamarine like the flag of an unknown land. In a country with so little potable water, the idea of a swimming pool -- water chlorinated and cordoned off for the bathing pleasure of vacationers from Mumbai or the United States -- cannot help but signify the social and cultural conditions. Fortunately, The Pool is more than abstractions and universalities. It is closely observed, heartfelt, and rooted in place -- minus the sunbathing stereotypes.