One of two big surprises is that this gentle, humanistic tale of an illiterate young man making his own way in southern India isn't the work of a native South Asian filmmaker, but an American. The second surprise is that director is Chris Smith, who is best-known for such uniquely American documentaries as AMERICAN MOVIE, HOME MOVIE and the mordantly funny THE YES MEN. Need a third surprise? Smith's unlikely foray into fiction filmmaking (his second, counting his feature debut, AMERICAN JOB) is wonderfully realized and remarkably assured.
Originally from a small rural village in the state Karnathaka, 18-year-old Venkatesh (Venkatesh Chavan) now lives in the Goan capital of Panjim where he works as a "room boy" at a hotel, scrubbing floors, cleaning toilets and serving breakfast trays to guests who barely acknowledge his existence. In his off hours, Venkatesh and his best friend, Jhangir (Jhangir Badshah) -- an 11-year-old orphan who lives out of the restaurant where he works nights -- buy plastic bags from a shop owner and resell them at a small profit to shoppers at an open-air market. It's a hardscrabble life but Venkatesh knows he has few options; without an education, he'll never be the businessman he once dreamed of becoming. Like a sunbeam through a magnifying glass, Venkatesh's frustrated desires have become focused on a single point: The sparkling, azure blue swimming pool he can see behind a high garden wall attached to a seemingly empty house. Each day Venkatesh climbs a nearby tree and sits dreaming of the day he'll dive into the pool's cool waters and when he does, Venkatesh tells Jhangir, his problems will all disappear. Then one day the house is no longer empty: Its owner (Bollywood veteran Nana Patekar), an unsmiling, well-to-do businessman from Bombay, arrives for a vacation with his pretty, sullen and deeply resentful daughter, Ayesha (Ayesha Mohan), in tow. Hoping to gain access to the property and, eventually, the pool Venkatesh follows the owner to nearby plant nursery where he offers his services as an assistant gardener. Nana takes him on and Venkatesh ingratiates himself with stories about his village and the rough times he's endured in Panjim, while occasionally mentioning the pool no one ever seems to use. Venkatesh also can't help but notice Ayesha, who sits around with her nose buried in a book until the mere presence of her father - -whom she seems to detest -- drives her out of the house and into the nearby park. Venkatesh follows her and with a little help from Jhangir manages to crack her hard shell. They soon become friends, and Venkatesh learns the reason behind her father's sorrow, Ayesha's own feelings of guilt and rebelliousness, and why no one swims in the pool that seems so heavenly.
At the heart of this picturesque fable is a truism so shopworn it can barely stand repeating: It's better to give than to receive. But in Smith's hands -- and the mouths of his excellent cast, some of whom, like Chavan and Badshah, are non-professionals -- that simple idea regains all its import and meaning. While AMERICAN MOVIE and THE YES MEN marked Smith as documentarian with a nose for a good story, this unassuming yet hugely ambitious undertaking reveals a filmmaker with an impressive range and depth of feeling that is only now becoming apparent. leave a comment --Ken Fox