Maybe because two of Chris Smith’s earlier films have had the word “American” in their titles – American Job (1996) and American Movie (1999) – there seems to be something incongruous about the fact that his latest film, The Pool (2007), is an American independent film that takes place in Goa, India. If regionalism has been one of the many characteristics of indie cinema throughout its modern history, Chris Smith has expanded its scope to be more global – his film is in Hindi with English subtitles.
The genesis for the The Pool was a seven-page short story by Randy Russell originally set in Iowa. Smith distilled the central idea – one person’s obsession with another’s swimming pool – and transposed it to India. The Milwaukee-based filmmaker led a small crew to the ex-Portuguese capital city of Panaji, or Panjim as it’s translated in the film. Over the course of five months and 65 shooting days, he shot The Pool, which won a Special Jury Prize for “the most singular vision” at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, and then promptly drifted into distribution limbo – the fate of most great indie films these days. It opened belatedly at Film Forum in New York City this past September. The Pool currently is playing in other major cities around the country, and it’s scheduled to screen locally at the Sundance Cinemas Madison starting February 20.
Although most manual writers and screenwriting instructors haven’t taken much notice, many of the best independent filmmakers these days have moved away from relying on a conventional screenplay. All films, out of necessity, need to involve some sort of pre-planning – The Pool did have some form of a script – but the process of making the film was decidedly more open and flexible. Smith, like David Lynch with Inland Empire, began filming before actually having a final screenplay. While many scenes were scripted later, they evolved and changed during the process of making the film. Once the actors were cast – Jhangir Badshah was recruited as one of the two leads while working at a restaurant the crew frequented – Smith incorporated the actors’ own life experiences as part of their characterizations. Smith would shoot a scene and editor Barry Poltermann would assemble a rough cut on the fly. They would view it and then proceed from there. In some ways, it could be described as a more documentary approach applied to narrative filmmaking, and the resulting film represents an amazing accomplishment.
The Pool tells the story of Venkatesh (Venkatesh Chavan), an eighteen-year-old hotel worker, who becomes obsessed with the swimming pool of a wealthy Mumbai businessman, Nana (Nana Patekar), who vacations with his disaffected teenage daughter, Ayesha (Ayesha Mohan), in Panjim. The film begins with Venkatesh returning from a visit home. We see him riding the crowded bus, and arriving back to the hotel where, while hanging laundry, he kids a hefty co-worker named Malcolm (Malcolm Faria) about being unable to find him a wife because of his weight. But Venkatesh’s real friend turns out to be a pint-sized, eleven-year-old restaurant worker named Jhangir, who’s also his partner in hawking plastic bags around town – a small business venture that comes to an abrupt halt later in the film when plastic becomes banned.
Most films employ scenes that loudly announce their significance, but Smith’s film is so understated and subtle that most viewers might not notice. In a scene where Jhangir cleans the fish tank in the apartment of a wealthy boxer, Venkatesh reflects on their need to go to school. Venkatesh asks Jhangir what he’d study. He responds, “I’d be an engineer. I’d make big bridges and buildings.” When Venkatesh asks off-handedly whether he would build him a house, the young boy answers, “Yeah man, I’ll make one for you.” It’s a throwaway line. Shortly afterwards, Venkatesh becomes obsessed with the fluorescent blue swimming pool, even though Jhangir remains a skeptical critic. He thinks Venkatesh should sneak into the pool for a cool swim, but Venkatesh schemes to ingratiate himself with the owner instead. Even though he’s illiterate, Venkatesh buys a book about gardening, convinces Malcolm to read it to him, and positions himself to offer assistance when Nana visits a local nursery to buy plants.
Venkatesh’s initial relationship with Nana is one of master and servant. Nana is cold and aloof, and dismisses Venkatesh’s questions and personal revelations with few words. But he gradually warms to his new hired helper – whom he’s aware has been spying on him from a mango tree overlooking his property – and even encourages him to attend school once he discovers he possesses good math skills. Venkatesh also tries to get to know Ayesha, but – with her designer jeans, shoulder tattoo, obsession with reading, and airs of class privilege – she’s as sullen with him as she is with her father. When Jhangir wants to know whether she’s “hot,” Venkatesh arranges for him to judge for himself. The two approach her as she reads a book in the park, but she ignores their attempts to befriend her. As they buy Ayesha some chai and a fried samosa from an outdoor vendor, Jhangir asks, “What’s her problem?” He thinks she seems pretty weird – maybe even a bit crazy.
Through Venkatesh’s sheer persistence, the three of them begin to hang out together. Venkatesh and Ayesha view each other across a chasm of class differences. Whereas Venkatesh and Jhangir love the taste of fried food, Ayesha prefers fruit. When she asks Venkatesh whether he has a girlfriend, he tells her that he already has an arranged marriage – to someone who turns out to be only ten. Ayesha reacts with disbelief. She asks him, “What if you don’t like her when she grows up?” Venkatesh and Jhangir also invent things about themselves as a way of embellishing their routine lives. Jhanghir claims to want to go to America because he knows an American girl, while Venkatesh tells Ayesha he has a friend with a boat and proceeds to offer her a ride.
Venkatesh also spins yarns as he works for Nana. He talks about killing and eating rabbits while hunting in his village. He also tells Nana about drinking blood and being possessed by a female ghost for six months, which caused him to eat huge amounts of food before the fat spirit inside him finally was able to be exorcized. He also tells Nana about a fight, which sent him to jail for three days. His tales, whether true or invented, serve to show that he and his wealthy boss and daughter, for all practical purposes, live in alternate universes. When Venkatesh comments to Jhangir that he thinks Ayesha is sexy, Janghir sees the absurdity of his older friend’s desire. He responds, “Yeah . . . sexy. You two are meant for each other. You’re black and she’s white.” Jhangir adds, “I don’t like the way she wears those low-cut tops. She shouldn’t wear such skimpy tops.”
Yet, as Venkatesh, Jhangir, and Ayesha spend more time together, we even think a romance might be starting to blossom as she becomes more responsive. They visit an ancient fort and venture out into the harbor in a rented row boat. In the meantime, Nana offers to take Venkatesh to Mumbai where he can continue to work for him and attend school. On a bus trip to visit a forest that Venkatesh claims is inhabited by deadly monkey men, Ayesha brings up the plan to move to Mumbai, which comes as a complete surprise to Jhangir. She tells Venkatesh, “My dad’s an asshole. I don’t know how long it will take you to figure that out.” As they start to head into the forest, Janghir suddenly becomes scared and refuses to go further. When the two start to leave without him, he suddenly explodes in a jealous rage. Jhangir denounces Venkatesh to Ayesha as a stalker and opportunist, and the two friends end up in a fistfight, while Ayesha dismisses them as immature children. On the return journey, they all ride in separate seats on the bus.
Throughout the film, Venkatesh has become increasingly unhappy with his situation at the hotel. To Malcolm’s consternation, Venkatesh keeps showing up late for work. After Malcolm criticizes his singing, Venkatesh suggests turning on the TV, but Malcolm indicates it’s not permitted by the management. Venkatesh responds angrily, “Are you a human being or an egg?” Venkatesh later accidentally breaks a guest’s Walkman. He gives it to Jhangir to fix, but Malcolm ends up getting fired by the boss for stealing. Despite the fact it’s really Venkatesh’s fault that Malcolm gets blamed unjustly – Jhangir wonders why he doesn’t feel guilty – Venkatesh acts relieved that his critic is no longer there to bug him.
Nevertheless, Venkatesh agonizes over the decision of whether to go to Mumbai. He once again returns home where we see his impoverished rural roots in Karnataka (where the orphaned Jhangir is also from) and meet his mother and two sisters, one of whom is about to get married. His mother would like Venkatesh to move back. In most dramatic films, reconciliation between Venkatesh and Jhangir would be a difficult and extended process, but all it takes to reestablish their bond is another jar of chutney from Venkatesh’s mom. Ayesha is a different case altogether. Upon his return, Venkatesh attempts to give her a scrawny orange kitten as a gift. “I can’t keep it,” she tells him bluntly. To her bemusement, he abruptly abandons it in the park – it’s the same street cat we’ve glimpsed earlier – and he admits to her that it’s a stray he found. As they eat cake, she makes a personal revelation, but the scene ends in awkward silence.
Chris Smith, who also did his own superb 35mm cinematography, constructs The Pool as a series of vivid snapshots of these characters and the place they inhabit. Some scenes are short vignettes, with only several lines of dialogue. Smith is as much concerned with visual details – the rhythms of Venkatesh’s daily life – as with character. Or maybe it’s that the endless repetition of daily chores defines his existence. We see Venkatesh making up beds in the hotel, buying bread at the bakery, washing dishes in the kitchen, scrubbing the marbled floors and toilets, dealing with the laundry, opening and closing the heavy metal gate of the hotel each day.
One of major strengths of The Pool has to do with its complex characterizations. Of the two, Venkatesh is the dreamer, while Jhangir is much more of a pragmatist. It’s almost as if their relationship is based on a role reversal. In many ways, Jhangir really functions as the older brother – not the other way around. Venkatesh naively sees the pool as the solution to all of his life’s problems, but Nana and Ayesha both know better. It’s the reason why Ayesha is so sour and why her father, as Venkatesh describes him to Jhangir, often stares vacantly into space.
Nana Patekar is a famous Bollywood actor, but Venkatesh Chavan and Jhangir Badshah give outstanding performances for being non-professional actors. Both play their parts with a combination of concentration mixed with distraction, which adds to the naturalism. It is their bodily gestures that convey their characters as much as the words they say. When Nana brings up the proposal of going to Mumbai, Chavan taps his knee with his finger as a kind of nervous tic. Chavan’s not acting – he’s just being himself.
And there is something about Jhangir Badshah’s upright gait and the energetic way he swings his arms as he walks next to Venkatesh that suggests his fierce determination and survivor instincts. He also has a great laugh, most evident in the scene where Venkatesh tells him about some guy on the bus who couldn’t hold it and ends up defecating in his pants. There’s also a funny scene where Jhangir gets something in his eye as the two boys sip sodas on some steps. Venkatesh offers to take a look, then suddenly blows hard into Jhangir’s eye. The little kid responds, “Hey man! What the . . .?” The incident says everything there is to know about their relationship. In the scene where they say goodbye, Jhangir’s eyes flit momentarily up the street before shifting back to Venkatesh and his own inner feelings of sadness. It’s moments like this that suggest an authenticity that non-professionals often can bring to the screen.
The dialogue has the indirection of everyday conversation. In one scene, where Jhangir and Venkatesh discuss the pool, Jhangir asks Venkatesh whether he’s going to pick at his food or eat it. When they discuss Ayesha being sexy, Jhangir’s criticism of her “skimpy tops” seems like a non sequitur, especially when he follows it by suggesting, “She’s solid and cute. I’m starting to warm up to her.” Ayesha has some of the best lines in the film. After telling Nana to “fuck off,” he asks her where she’s going. She answers, “To kill someone.” It’s not just what the characters say, however, but the cadence of their responses. When Jhangir talks about wanting to be an engineer and to build big bridges and buildings, what comes out of his mouth sounds more like a Lettrist sound poem – as if we’ve suddenly become transported into Isou’s Venom and Eternity.
Barry Poltermann’s editing of The Pool is nothing short of remarkable, and this final cut, which differs from the one originally shown at the Sundance Film Festival, is the best I’ve seen. The post-production sound work by Didier Leplae and Joe Wong has impeccable nuance: the wind rustling through the vegetation when Venkatesh, Jhangir, and Ayesha visit the fort; the clown horns of street traffic which mark the passage of days; or the whir of a small bird as it darts through the frame that makes the last cut of the film even possible.
It wasn’t so long ago that the British film journal Sight & Sound did a cover story lamenting the sorry state of American indie cinema after a less than stellar Sundance Film Festival (as if that is the sole barometer of anything). Despite the current crisis in distribution – the fact that so many smaller companies have gone under – the independent films this year have been terrific. And Chris Smith’s The Pool certainly stands as one of the highlights.