Jal review: A beautiful looking but largely unwatchable film

Suprateek Chatterjee

Apr 04, 2014 09:15:57 IST

It takes a special kind of hubris to tack on a blurb from a festival review at the beginning of a film. It takes an even more special kind of hypocrisy to quote it out of context. The marketing forces behind Jal, a laboured tragedy set in the Rann of Kutch, chose to quote a convenient line from Elizabeth Kerr’s review from the American publication The Hollywood Reporter – “A breathtakingly photographed tragedy of Shakespearean proportions”. It also happens to be one of the only lines in that review that actually says anything positive about the movie.

To be fair, Jal is a handsomely mounted production with lush visuals and a thumping, percussive soundtrack by Bickram Ghosh and singer Sonu Nigam (making his debut as a composer). It has a compelling story that can be distilled down to neat, ironic one-liners such as ‘Why is it so hard for human beings to access water?’ It even has a number of engaging and entertaining set-pieces.

 Jal review: A beautiful looking but largely unwatchable film

Courtesy: A screengrab from youtube.

But these well-intentioned efforts are lost in the self-indulgent, half-baked nightmare that is this movie, one that utilises fade-to-blacks after nearly every third scene.

This, apart from fragmenting the narrative, adds a layer of pompousness to the storytelling that is a complete put-off. Cinematographer Sunita Radia’s shots, captured on one of those notoriously expensive RedOne cameras, are frequently stunning and picture-postcard-worthy; but her unnecessarily snake-like camera movements suggest that she has never had the good fortune of using a jib before. In fact, many things about this film give one the impression that it has been made by a group of enthu cutlet film students who have been given a budget beyond their wildest dreams and are running wild with it.

The protagonist of the story is Bakka (a woefully miscast Purab Kohli), a self-proclaimed ‘water god’ who lives in an unnamed hamlet in the middle of the Rann Of Kutch. The inhabitants of this village, a gloomier version of those in Lagaan, appear to be poor and thirsty and have no real source of water nearby. There is a ‘dushman gaon’ nearby that has its own well as well as a feisty belle named Kesar (Kirti Kulhari). She is in love with Bakka, much to the dismay of Puniya (Mukul Dev, sporting straightened hair a la Dhoni from circa 2006). This Romeo-and-Juliet-like conflict forms the backbone of the story while a concurrent thread features an Archie-Betty-Veronica love triangle, with a tragic version of Betty being played by Kajri (Tannishtha Chatterjee).

Adding another dimension to the story is ‘Russian’ ornithologist Kim, played by German-origin actress Saidah Jules, who makes acting look like parkour for asthmatics. In the Rann to examine the mysterious dwindling of the number of flamingos migrating there, she is accompanied by the frequently sleazy Ram Khiladi (Yashpal Sharma, who else?) and some incorrigible villagers who are convinced that she is a porn star. One evening, she goes for a leisurely swim in a muddy oasis in the Rann (because this is a perfectly natural thing to do) and discovers that the flamingo chicks are dying due to the lack of freshwater. In the Rann Of Kutch. You don’t say, Kim.

She is also accompanied by two other foreign avian experts, including an American named Richard (Gary Richardson), who could have been played by any middle-aged Caucasian man travelling through the country. Thanks to their acting, the portions of the film involving the three are so weak that it feels like one is watching a really elaborate school play.

In fact, the acting across the board is so uneven that it seems like Malik was directing three different films at the same time. Some, such as Sharma, Chatterjee and young Rohit Pathak, stay true to their characters throughout. Others, like Kohli and Kulhari, try their best and pass muster despite not being right for their parts. Still others, like Dev, appear to have decided that a Kutchi accent is the same as a Haryanvi accent.

Malik, at times, appears to be channeling Tarsem Singh’s visual grammar; other times, he appears to be going for Shyam-Benegal-like realism. The results are indigestible. There are many moments that truly shine through: a humorous sequence depicting Bakka and Kesar’s conjugal activities, stunning shots of Bakka feverishly digging for a well, a conversation where Ram Khiladi and a villager haggle over one Euro, amongst others. The impact of these, however, is lost in the silliness and the grandstanding.

All in all, Jal is a beautiful-looking but largely unwatchable film, one that aspires to be a work of art but fails in some of the most basic aspects of filmmaking.

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Updated Date: Apr 04, 2014 10:33:15 IST