Paani movie review: This Priyanka Chopra-produced Marathi film is part 'message' drama, part oddball romance
Another Priyanka Chopra-produced “true story” after last year’s Bhoga Khirikee — an uncharacteristic disappointment from Assamese veteran Jahnu Barua — Paani is as much about water, or lack thereof, as it is about people.
The Marathi-language drama sees actor-producer Adinath Kothare follow in father Mahesh’s footsteps. In this, his first directorial venture, the younger Kothare commands both sides of the camera. Behind it, he crafts a masterful portrait of rural Nagdarwadi and its villagers, whose struggles to modernise through water cultivation form the film’s primary backdrop; in front of it, Kothare plays Hanumant “Babu” Kendre, a paragon of decency around whom his story pivots.
Caught between his duty to his village and the woman he loves, Babu eventually grows into the “hero” role, but Kothare makes him work for it. In fact, when Paani opens, Babu is but a minor player in the grand proceedings. Kothare draws us into his world with details and daily routines; layers of dust cover every face and every surface, and the heat practically radiates off the screen. So when a faceless woman carries water back to Nagdarwadi from miles away, the plight she embodies isn’t just dramatised through her fatal heat-stroke, but through the stark image of her matka tipping over, as its water drains out onto the parched earth, and as another woman tries to salvage what’s left of it.
At first, the film seems like the story of a local activist, who’s guilted into bringing water projects back home to Nagdarwadi. Though, while its initial setup bears a slight resemblance to Ashutosh Gowariker’s Swades — just swap out electricity for water — Paani isn’t concerned with the story of a brain-drain intellectual returning with foreign or urban-learned expertise to rescue the lowly townsfolk he left behind. Rather, the activist in question has a pessimistic outlook when it comes to progress, so he delegates the job to Babu, a man who’s never left Nagdarwadi and, it would seem, a man who doesn’t want to leave until it’s self-sufficient.
Babu is a bit of a hot-head when it counts, but he lives in the shadow of bosses and politicians; everybody seems to be playing some sort of game with his village. He has a way out, too: were he to marry local student Suvarna (Rucha Vaidya, Jodhaa Akbar), he could probably leave town and move to a place where water isn’t either a day-long trek, or a tanker brought in as political bargaining chip by a local leader (Kishore Kadam, Fandry). Babu’s shy, subdued dynamic with Suvarna is a breezy respite from his sweltering labour. He digs literal holes to harness water, and metaphorical ones by empowering local women much to their husbands’ chagrin — but even his easy-going romance finds itself against a ticking clock. As Babu and Suvarna dance around formalities, Suvarna’s parents don’t want to wait around until Babu has failed at his pipe dream. They plan to marry her off elsewhere.
On paper, Paani amounts to a linear tale of steely determination overcoming the odds, the kind of dime-a-dozen picture you’d expect to border on “inspiration porn.” However, in Adinath Kothare’s hands, it’s a nuanced character piece. He modulates his tone and demanour as Babu depending on who he’s around — he stumbles and stammers in front of Suvarna, but he jumps into action as soon as local goons threaten the water project — and yet, even these seemingly disparate modalities feel part of the same continuum, since Kothare knows exactly when to cut to a close-up, or cut away to a new scene, or hold the camera just a hair longer. Because Babu’s story is told through the most minor, subtle metamorphoses; each reaction shot appears to change him in some way. He grows more desperate. Or more confident. A step back. A step forward. You almost wish he were a more pompous filmmaker and kept the camera on himself for longer periods.
Though Kothare also knows that this story can’t just be told by Babu’s face. He composes each scene with a diligent eye towards blocking, capturing the movement of people — both as groups and as individuals — with the sort of three-dimensional scrutiny associated with masters like Kurosawa. Lofty praise for a first-time director, but one look at Kothare’s staging and the way his backgrounds and foregrounds interact is enough to tell you where you are, emotionally speaking, at any point in the story. (A particularly expressive beat plays out as a man sitting in the shadows stands up to meet the sunlight; a potent image on its own, though one magnified by its redemptive context)
What separates Paani from films of its ilk however — arguably Kothare’s secret weapon — is tonal balance. The film’s neo-realist, often improvised quality is meticulously composed. Think back to childhood, and how your parents’ carefully considered bedtime stories seemed like off-the-cuff adventures spun out of ether; there’s always a method to the madness, but it’s hidden by allure. The film drifts between socially-minded “message” drama and oddball romance, two stories that so often take melodramatic form, and it roots them in conversational familiarity. And yet, in its pursuit of verisimilitude, it neither foregoes the grandeur of the former, nor apologies for the giddy, exciting jolt of the latter. It makes grounded reality, in all its grimness and glee, feel like music.
Paani was screened at the recently concluded New York Indian Film Festival.
Updated Date: Jun 03, 2019 18:45:02 IST