What hopes does 18-year-old Venkatesh harbor? The country boy who now works in western India's port city of Panjim isn't exactly articulate on the matter. There's an arranged marriage in his future, the suggestion that his labors may net modest gains, and the vague promise that life could be more interesting. But one goal is clear: Venkatesh would like to swim in that pool.
The titular object of desire in Chris Smith's coming-of-age dramedy The Pool sits in the lush gardens of a gated, vacant house. Venkatesh (Venkatesh Chavan) spies on it from an overhanging tree, and wonders to his younger friend Jhangir (Jhangir Badshah) about its lack of use.
But mostly Venkatesh works. He's a "room boy" at a cheap hotel -- an all-purpose dogsbody who cleans toilets, makes beds, provides room service, does laundry and sleeps on the floor of the lobby as a low-budget night clerk. Venkatesh and Jhangir also sell plastic bags at the market.
But when a man and a teen-age girl appear at the posh house -- and still no one uses the pool -- Venkatesh's obsession shifts to the inhabitants. He follows the man to a nursery, enabling Venkatesh to secure yet another job, working in the house's garden. From this, he strikes up a tentative friendship with the girl, Ayesha (Ayesha Mohan).
Over a few weeks, Venkatesh learns about plants -- and gets a few life lessons -- from the unnamed homeowner. Meanwhile, in their rare moments of free time, Venkatesh and Jhangir show the broody Ayesha what they do for fun -- eating cheap treats, exploring a crumbling colonial fort.
The Pool is a departure for director Smith, an American documentarian who scored an indie hit with 1999's American Movie (about a struggling horror filmmaker) and profiled the corporate pranksters The Yes Men in 2003's eponymous film. For this narrative feature, Smith adapted a short story from his colleague Randy Russell, re-set the tale in India and filmed the story in Hindi with primarily nonprofessional actors. (Nana Patekar, who portrays the father, has a long career in Indian film.)
The Pool explores similar themes as the recent Danny Boyle feature Slumdog Millionaire: Each features a "family" composed of two boys making do in the big city while tantalized by opportunities, and both films invite frequent comparison of the haves and have-nots.
But while Slumdog was flashy, frenetic and proffered a modern fairy tale, The Pool feels as deceptively still as the surface of the untouched pool. Smith's documentary background lends itself to this film's meditative, neo-realist style. With its quiet moments, halting conversations and exquisitely framed scenes, the film owes less to Bollywood than to Indian's other film monument, director Satyajit Ray, who crafted deeply felt lyrical melodramas that also explored Indian's dynamic socio-economic milieus.
Beneath the placid surface of The Pool, these four ordinary lives are changing, if only in small ways. The film is rarely explicit, instead building character and plot through small, nearly banal, though often funny, scenes. And not everything is revealed: A stray comment suggests that something in the past may be the root of the anger between father and daughter; we never learn the source of the man's wealth, but something in his brief chats with Venkatesh hints that his own background may have been modest.
While for us the pool is an easily read symbol of thwarted desires, within the context of the narrative, the pool -- and its allure to Venkatesh -- remains elusive. He often stares into it, but we can only guess at his thoughts. Is he thinking of taking a swim, of what this luxury represents, of the water's clear, simple beauty -- or is he lost in unrelated rumination, the shimmering pool as half-noticed as a gazed-at campfire or horizon?
Smith leaves The Pool open-ended; documentarians know they close their stories with chapters left unwritten. Potentially life-altering decisions are made by the man and Venkatesh, but their precise motivations are unspoken (there are clues, but not facts), and the eventual outcome remains debatable. In Hindi, with subtitles. Fri., Jan. 9, through Sun., Jan. 11. Harris