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The deep end of The Pool

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It's love at first sight when an impoverished Indian "hotel boy" lays eyes on a bungalow's pristine swimming pool in The Pool. Nonprofessional actor Venkatesh Chavan, discovered while helping his parents sell scrap, plays a character patterned closely after his own background and experience in this quiet, naturalistic drama from American filmmaker Chris Smith.

Venkatesh's obsession with the swimming pool creates a vivid portrayal of the gulf between India's haves and have-nots. Venkatesh performs menial labor in the hotel, sells plastic bags on the streets with a canny 11-year-old boy (Jhangir Badshah, another novice actor) and occasionally visits his family's rural village. Glimpsing the swimming pool from a tree, he becomes increasingly fascinated by the family who owns but never uses it. Venkatesh gradually ingratiates himself into the lives of the wealthy, taciturn father (Bollywood star Nana Patekar) and his restless daughter (Ayesha Mohan).

It's hard to imagine a filmmaker making a more drastic change of pace than Smith does with The Pool. Smith, who's best known for his documentary work in American Movie and The Yes Men, transplanted Randy Russell's short story from Iowa to India and shot the film in Hindi, even though he doesn't speak the language. Smith's documentary background serves The Pool in good stead – neither Chavan nor Badshah could read, so they couldn't learn their scenes in advance – and the movie has a completely naturalistic tone, as if we're observing real people, but without documentary film's intrusive quality.

Since he's "played" by an untrained actor, Venkatesh seldom projects or signifies his feelings in ways movie audiences are used to noticing, making the character's intentions ambiguous. He gradually wins both the father's and the daughter's trust with his persistence and far-fetched stories – he even claims to have been possessed by demons in his village. The audience has to decide whether he's being truthful, or if his ambitions are corrupting him. Not all moviegoers will respond to a film that tends to be restrained to a fault, but The Pool's cultural sensitivity and surprising ending elevates it above the level of cinematic tourism.

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