Cast: Purab Kohli, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Kirti Kulhari, Yashpal Sharma, Mukul Dev, Saidah Jules, Ravi Gosain, Rahul Singh, Gary Richardson
Direction: Girish Malik
Mumbai: Director Girish Malik’s Jal, which has been shot by Sunita Radia, has a visual aesthetic that’s fluid, sensuous and stunning. Shot mostly in Rajasthan and Gujarat on a strict colour palette -- blue skies, beige land and a contained burst of colour -- the film is so beauteous that sometimes it forgets what it set out to do and pauses to admire its own beauty, the camera just rolling, capturing characters and scenes as they grow incongruous, making little sense and dragging the film down.
In the film’s first half these indulgences are long. In the second half, however, it picks up, leading us to a grand and tragic climax.
Though the visual excess takes away from the films story, it's part of the experience of watching Jal -- it tells the story of life in the desert, a land that’s cracking because of thirst, and gives us a sense of both, the splendor of scarcity and its sublimity.
At its core, Jal is a simple story of love, life and capricious elements set in the Rann of Kutch where a villager, Bakka (Purab Kohli), is in love with a girl, Kesar (Kirti Kulkari), from the rival village. Whatever the rivalry may have been about, today it’s over water. One village has it, the other doesn’t. But the parched village has Bakka, pani ka devta, the water diviner. Six out of ten times he’s got it right -- after an elaborate and ceremonial dance with drama, the spot where he jabbed his lathi had water underground.
Apart from the village rivalry, between Bakka and Kesar prowls Puniya (Mukul Dev), a malevolent character, and on the sidelines stands sad Kajri (Tannishtha Chatterjee), Bakka’s friend who has a soft spot for him. But nothing stops Bakka from going down on Kesar, not even the fear of instant death.
Into this love story is woven the story of brackish water, migratory flamingoes and their dying chicks. An ornithologist, Kim (Saidah Jules), arrives with Ram Khiladi (Yashpal Sharma), a local tour operator. She takes a dip in the lake, is horrified to find its bed lined with dead chicks. She moans and broods and decides to investigate and fix the problem. Soon other team members arrive, including Richard (Gary Richardson). They hire boring machines and labourers from Bakka’s village but find no water till Bakka decides to help them.
These firangis are the film’s weakest link. Limited by their bad acting and cliched characters, they come to life only because of the tharki, bumbling villagers who surround them, providing context, mood and entertaining diversion. They are an interesting mix of peripheral yet significant characters.
Search for water is underway, this time on the say-so of Bakka. As a jet of water bursts from the earth, Bakka’s lot changes.
He gets a sarkari naukri and Kesar.
But this glory is like rays of sun on the dry and mean land, playing dirty, devious tricks, leaving people delirious and happy till they discover that there never was any oasis.
Their job done, the foreigners pack up and leave, promising villagers help but not intending to do anything. The videshi and sarkari apathy that is gently showcased is deeply disturbing, and the naivety of villagers touching.
Desperate for water, the villagers turn to Bakka. But when his assurances yield nothing, the villagers turn on him and Kesar. Only Kajri, who till now was just an exotic figure in black mirror-work ensembles, comes to the foreground to avert a tragedy. But she can do that only for so long.
Jal’s main strength lies in the technical department. Cinematographer Sunita Radia, who has worked with the very best of Bollywood directors, including Rajkumar Hirani and Sanjay Leela Bhansali, captures the horizon as a luminous but looming threat, sometimes looking down on the earth as if from the worried heavens above. Her brilliant camerawork is matched by the uplifting background score by Sonu Nigam and Bickram Ghosh. Shubha Cudgel’s title song is haunting.
Though Jal's story is earthbound, it takes occasional flight, like a good, compelling dastan. But the film has an intermittently sparse and jam-packed screenplay and it tells its story in a style that’s a mix of documentary and theatre -- an affected, stylised narrative borrowing both form and spirit from various folk dance traditions. The film is marred by an uneven screenplay that rises and dips a lot initially. But once the story picks up, after interval, it's a delight to watch Purab Kohli.
According to Frances W. Pritchett, who has translated Dastan-e-Amir Hamza, “The ultimate subject matter of dastans, qissahs was always simple -- razm-o-bazm, the battlefield and the elegant courtly life, war and love." Jal has all the trappings of dastangoi, it just needed a better dastango.