May Issue 2014

By | Arts & Culture | Movies | Published 10 years ago

It’s often said that the third world war will be over water. And in the scorched, drought-stricken Rann of Kutch region in director Girish Malik’s debut film, Jal, every day is a battle for water, as competing villages are prepared to kill when it comes to guarding their most precious resource.

It is in this harsh, unforgiving landscape, where the women are as tough, and sometimes even more so, than the men, and a general cynicism towards outsiders prevails, that our protagonist Bakka (Purab Kohli), the ultimate idealist, searches for water for his entire village. He has been successful six out of 10 times in the past, he reminds the other villagers, with whom he holds an almost legendary, though not always consistent, reputation. But, “One who lives with hope, dies thirsty,” warns the film’s opening line, which gives us a forewarning of Bakka’s fate.

Bakka’s slow-paced, traditional village is shaken up with the arrival of an unexpected visitor: An enthusiastic Russian animal-rights activist, Kim (Saidah Jules), who causes something of a commotion — though for no fault of her own; it seems the men in the village just can’t control their libidos  in the presence of an uninhibited foreign woman.

However, her enthusiasm is cut short upon discovering the bodies of dead flamingo chicks when swimming in the waters. The increased salinity in the algae they feed on is what’s killing them. With the help of her American and European friends, educated Indian government service employees and local labourers, Kim sets out to find fresh water sources to sustain the natural life in the desert region. The villagers are initially hostile to these new developments, and the elders ask: “Why is that no one comes to save us?” They find it demeaning that a bird’s life is considered more important than their own. But Bakka convinces them otherwise.

Despite their education, and the self-conscious pride they take in it, and the use of modern technology, the ‘outsiders’ are unsuccessful in locating water beneath the ground — that is, until they finally seek Bakka’s help. Bakka informs a condescending government employee that to find water, one requires strength of will, which the baffled man brushes aside as mere village superstition. But he soon has to eat his words, as it turns out Bakka was right all along.

They discover a water source which temporarily ends the village’s bad luck, the flamingos return, and Bakka wins the hand of his lady love, Kesar (Kirti Kulhari), from a rival village. All is well but, like a Shakespearean tragedy, does not end well. The water eventually runs dry, and a greater catastrophe unfolds.

Jal has a few weaknesses when it comes to editing, as many scenes could have been shorter, while others were cut too abruptly. Secondly, though an intelligent film, it crams far too many issues in one go, without exploring any in a meaningful way: man’s relationship with the elements, the vengeance and vagaries of nature, science versus superstition, man versus machine, forbidden love, the rural and urban divide and inequality in the distribution of resources. Furthermore, the amount of ‘comedy’ that was centred around Kim, with lewd Indian men hovering about her constantly, although not exactly inaccurate, was just… a little embarrassing to watch.

But these ‘flaws’ can be overlooked when considering the film’s strengths. In terms of cinematography, often times surreal and certainly experimental, Malik does a near flawless job. Considering that this is his first film, he has set the bar high. And though it may lack star power, it’s safe to say the film has created some stars in the process. From lead actors Purab Kohli, Kirti Kulhari and Tanisha Chatterjee, down to the supporting cast, everyone — and this is not an exaggeration — does an excellent job.

This review was originally published in Newsline’s May 2014 issue under the headline, “Water Wars.”

The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.