To the elites of Goan society, a swimming pool is nothing more than a place to relax and bathe, a mere appendage of a luxurious summer villa — a symbol of opulence, perhaps even profligacy, particularly in a coastal town like Panjim. But to Venkatesh (played by Venkatesh Chavan) it is more than just a refuge from the heat; it is a paradise, an oasis of wealth and opportunity amid a desert of squalor and hopelessness.
“The Pool,” directed by Chris Smith, is the documentary-style drama of this 18-year-old migrant worker from a rural village in Goa, India. It is both a hopeful portrayal of the human spirit and a humanistic comment on the realities of class in a rapidly changing society.
Venkatesh works in a hotel in Panjim, a town where swarthy workers make ends meet at the feet of the wealthy, light-skinned vacationers arriving for summer holiday. He scrubs toilets, launders clothing and makes beds at a hotel — the lobby floor of which becomes his bed at night — and peddles plastic bags on the street for a small sum of rupees. A business competitor-turned-partner and friend, 11-year-old orphan Jhangir (Jhangir Badshah), also aids him in this enterprise. Venkatesh’s dark, sinewy and lanky frame appears even gaunter under his tent-like button-down shirt, revealing a meager diet, but his eyes nevertheless betray a quiet confidence and a hunger for betterment.
Venkatesh climbs a tree hanging over the concrete security walls of a hillside mansion to glimpse into a Garden of Eden — a cerulean, placid pool shimmering in the high sun where no one seems to swim — and whet his material desires. “The rays of the sun will fall on me, while the water cools my skin. Nobody to worry about. All my problems will disappear,” he imagines. His aspirations seem quixotic; the pool seems a chimera, and Jhangir, a blunt realist, tries to bring him back down to earth. “The closest you’re going to get to that pool is cleaning it,” he declares.
But Venkatesh determinedly stalks the owner of the pool (Nana Patekar) — a rich former boxer from Bombay given to pithiness — and his comely, rebellious spaghetti-strap-clad daughter Ayesha (Ayesha Mohan) to find a way in. When he sees the proprietor at a nursery Venkatesh approaches him and offers to carry his plants. The magnanimous owner conveniently takes him under his wing like an adopted son (his own drowned in the pool) hiring him to help clear brush in the surrounding gardens.
Venkatesh and Ayesha meet poolside, quickly befriend one another and begin to flirt, but future romance is improbable. “You’re black and she’s white,” Jhangir reminds him. Nevertheless, his relationship with Ayesha’s father further deepens as he works with him, learning from him.
But having reached the pool, the shore of his desires, Venkatesh can only dip his fingers into its surface, refusing to spoil its virginity with a full bodily ablution. His asceticism reflects his selfless nature. At the end of the film, after the landlord of the pool offers to sponsor him to go to school in Bombay, Venkatesh, knowing he is already too old for primary education, decides to stay on in Panjim to watch after the pool’s gardens, giving the scholarship to Jhangir.
The questions of race and class posed in the movie temper the story’s optimism, however, providing the viewer a stark portrayal of India’s social stratification. The film’s realism is enhanced all the more by the natural and surprisingly adept acting of a cast of local actors who speak in their native Hindi and play characters named after themselves; the handheld camera technique (which, however, at times feels forced); and the stunning footage of India — from the pristine rural countryside to the bleak city streets — which make the film a revealing cultural document worth seeing alone for its richness.
But, ultimately, it is the film’s idealism that inspires us. The pool is just a symbol of the story’s universal message. Deep in humanity, clear in compassion, the pool is the fountainhead of hope.