There is a scene in Kaala Paani, directed by Amit Golani and Sameer Saxena, where a teacher draws a map on the board and asks his students to identify it. One of them says that it's the map of India, but the teacher asks the student if he's absolutely sure and further inquires if anyone in the classroom can draw the complete map of India. One boy stands up and adds Lakshadweep and Andaman and Nicobar Islands to the drawing, and the teacher concludes that these union territories, too, are a part of India. The intention is pretty loud and clear: We often forget to include Lakshadweep and Andaman and Nicobar Islands in our conversation regarding our motherland. Kaala Paani integrates this notion (or oversight) into its story through that scene where Admiral Zibran Qadri (Ashutosh Gowariker) tells Ritu Gagra (Radhika Mehrotra) that the Indian mainland will cut off its connection with Andaman and Nicobar Islands if the news of a virus is leaked to the public. Ritu, at first, doesn't believe Zibran. She thinks the island would get support from the mainland, but things happen as per Zibran's predictions. The union territory is merely a scenic site for the people of the mainland. During an urgent situation, no one offers to help the inhabitants and visitors staying on the islands.
The mentioned virus in Kaala Paani spreads through contaminated water. Yes, the words "Water water everywhere, not a drop to drink" make an appearance. The polluted H2O is located at Jenkins Islands, and if you want to blame anyone, blame the ATOM corporation. It's an evil company hell-bent on increasing deforestation and displacing a tribal community (the Oraka tribe). The men/women in suits are rich and influential. They exist at the top level, while the Oraka tribe exists at the lower level. In a food chain, the indigenous people would take the role of prey, and the ATOM company would be represented as the predator. But this is a broad picture. Look at Kaala Paani with a microscopic lens; you will find the prey-predator-like scenario almost everywhere. Saurabh Wani (Rajesh Khattar) exploits Ketan (Amey Wagh), an SDPO, for his benefit. Ketan blackmails Chiru (Sukant Goel), a tour guide/hustler, to do his bidding. The characters eventually turn on the Oraka tribe for their own security. The people at the top use the ones at the bottom for profit because they can do so. A man kills a snake and eats the eggs because he has the power to accomplish this task. The same man later leaves a patient in the middle of the road because he can do so. Similarly, the ATOM company destroyed the lands of the tribal people because...they could do so.
In Kaala Paani, a woman narrates the story of the frog and the scorpion, and it immediately leaves you irked. Are filmmakers out of "fresh" moral stories (Amit Golani, Nimisha Misra, Sandeep Saket, and Biswapati Sarkar serve as the writers)? This frog-scorpion one has already become a big cliché. It's used to make a comment on a man's nature, though this nature thing has more than one meaning in the series. It not only refers to the inherent qualities of a sentient being but also Mother Nature. The voiceover in the first episode informs the audience that nature has its way of taking revenge, and it always wins. A mysterious illness descends upon the Andaman and Nicobar Islands because natural forces are ready to wreak vengeance. The first episode also opens with a man being taken to the Cellular Jail, which just foreshadows the future events. The characters, after all, get trapped in a "jail" whose walls are made up of water. And then we have Ketan, who thinks of himself as a prisoner. He was involved in corrupt activities, and the police department punished him by sending him to the island. Later, after firing his gun in public, he is exiled to a particular section of the island.
Wagh is excellent in the role of a dishonest officer. He is so sly and manipulative that he even makes us believe in his lies at one point. Wagh gives us a range of emotions and expressions, and there is so much fun in watching his playful rhythms. Mona Singh is the only other actor who offers us pleasure through her presence. In the role of Dr. Soudamini Singh, she walks with a limp (courtesy of a prosthetic) but is mentally faster than her colleagues. During her introduction scene, she almost instantly recognizes that an old woman is suffering from a sexually transmitted disease. I can't talk more about her character as that would lead to spoilers, but I will mention that I enjoyed how her last action made that opening rock scene comprehensible. Unfortunately, the rest of the actors are one-note and fail to liven up their characters as well as this material. Vikas Kumar, as Santosh, is given an interesting part, but his performance seems strictly confined to the words of the screenplay. When asked to be good, he looks innocent and puts on a dark face when ordered to be savage. He is better than other actors, but all of them (except for Wagh and Singh) simply give an external performance. They look and behave a certain way, though they seem empty from within.
Santosh's arc is that he goes from being a good guy to a bad one. He is initially so shy and silent that he refuses to ask an air hostess for a water bottle. As the show progresses, he becomes selfish and violent and murders a snake as well as a woman. In fact, many characters in Kaala Paani either go from being bad to good or good to bad. As a result, many of the "twists" become predictable. When Ritu requests Ketan to do the right thing, you immediately guess what decision Ketan will end up taking. The fact that the show attempts to present this moment as something tense and suspenseful is laughable. Aradhya Ajana is that cute kid who gives rise to sweetness and sentiment, and the show uses her for "aww" moments. I hate it when a movie or a series puts child actors for such purposes. It's a cheap way of mining affection from the audience. Scenes like the one where she makes an old man realize the importance of friendship could very well come with a board saying, "Give an endearing little grin." And that reunion is extremely cheesy and embarrassing. Kaala Paani really pulls at your heartstrings, and in doing so, it often comes across as kitschy.
During a meeting, Zibran talks about the classic trolley problem, which involves choosing between saving the lives of either five workers or one. Ultimately, he is asked to choose between a few tribal people and thousands of tourists and citizens. Even Santosh faces a similar dilemma when he falls down in a pit. He can either kill a snake and eat the eggs or drink a soda and kill his daughter's wish. In such circumstances, humans prioritize personal matters over everything, and Kaala Paani constantly proves how uncaring we can be when it comes to saving the lives of our own families. The series thinks it's making a grand, eye-opening statement, but this is the work of a naif. Every emotion is underlined with musical cues, and every character development is busy hammering the same point: Humans can be kind or terrible. There is a sense of simplicity in the series. When Zibran takes that decision in the end, he is converted into a villain. Given his history, he should have come across as complex, and we should have felt how difficult it must have been for him to arrive at this conclusion. But Gowariker merely wears a wicked smile and talks about dharma like a maniac. His maturity in the earlier scenes suddenly looks like a facade - an illusion created by the show so that it can repeat the same point.
Kaala Paani is, by all means, a very watchable show, and it produces sufficient amounts of intrigue by the end to raise your excitement for the second season. One of the most powerful and emotional moments here comes in the form of a simple cut as we move from two shaky hands to a single one. I also liked how seamlessly we often go to the flashbacks. But then there are annoying scenes like the one where a woman, instead of revealing important information to someone, starts talking to a man. The characters might be trapped on an island, but moments like these make you feel as if you are stuck within the boundaries of triteness.
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