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The 18-year-old beanpole at the center of The Pool usually doesn’t mind breaking the rules. Venkatesh, a “room boy” at a hotel in the Indian state of Goa, shows up late and jokes around once he gets there. He teases a co-worker who scoffs at his idea to turn on the TV while they’re tidying a room: “Are you a human being or an egg?” Venkatesh asks after he’s momentarily struck speechless by the guy’s knee-jerk reference to policy. But when Venkatesh spies a pristine pool in a wealthy part of his Panjim neighborhood, he rejects the option of sneaking in to take a dip like someone suggests. “I’m going in freely,” he says.
To Venkatesh (Venkatesh Chavan), the pool and its boundaries represent something larger than the petty workaday games he must play in order to survive and, both as object and metaphor, must be respected. The pool represents a grander life, one in which people are educated, read for leisure—Venkatesh can’t read at all—and can cool their skin and calm their nerves at their whim in a private backyard paradise. “The closest you’re going to get to that pool is cleaning it,” Venkatesh’s younger but astute friend Jhangir (Jhangir Badshah) tells him, bursting his daydream after both climb down from their perch in a voyeurism-friendly tree. But Venkatesh doesn’t buy it—or, at least, isn’t above thinking that it’d be fair to trade labor for access.
Improving one’s lot is the main message of this film by documentary filmmaker Chris Smith, which he adapted with Randy Russell from Russell’s short story (which was set in Iowa). The rewards of generosity, friendship, and balancing hard work with kicking back are lesser but still clear. When Venkatesh isn’t at the hotel, he spends his time peddling plastic bags to overzealous shoppers or hanging out with the 11-year-old Jhangir, who also works instead of going to school despite aspirations of becoming a civil engineer. But after they discover the pool, Venkatesh sets out to meet its owners: Ayesha (Ayesha Mohan), a pretty, modern young woman who mostly sulks around buried in a book, and her father (Nana Patekar), who tends to the garden. Neither of them use the pool.
Venkatesh goes from spying to following them both, striking up conversations with Ayesha when he not-so-casually happens by her favorite place in the park; shadowing her father at a garden center, he eventually offers to help him out. Both begin a tentative relationship with Venkatesh, with the chatty boy doing most of the talking. Venkatesh and Jhangir show Ayesha the sights—Smith, who also serves as cinematographer, shoots a crisp and sunny Panjim—but more important is the time the teenager spends with his new boss. “I wonder what I could have been,” Venkatesh says when he talks about having never gone to school. Venkatesh’s obvious intelligence, solid work ethic, and otherwise unfortunate circumstances (he became the breadwinner for his family in Karnataka after his father died) prompts the wealthy businessman to open up, teaching him some life lessons and eventually making him a generous offer to escape his lot.
The Pool is as quietly pleasant as its namesake. Smith keeps music to a minimum, focusing instead on his appealing, realistic characters and subtle storytelling that wisely downgrades a tragic but integral plot detail into a passing mention. Whereas Patekar is a Bollywood star—his performance as a man of integrity and wisdom but with few words is assured and nearly regal—Chavan and Badshah are nonprofessionals with a natural ease in front of the camera. Chavan’s Venkatesh espouses a larger, more genial view of the world than Badshah’s prone-to-bitterness Jhangir. (“No point in being pissed,” Venkatesh tells him at one point. “It’s bad for your health.”) But soon the pool owner’s kindness is paid forward. And the pool itself? A mere destination whose rewards aren’t nearly as tantalizing as Venkatesh’s journey.