Jal has a gripping trailer. Besides, it looks like it has been shot keeping the intellectual sensibilities of the audiences in mind. In short, it appears like an intelligent art film.
Or so you presume, and are therefore prepared to put on your thinking cap before entering the theatre. However, if that is how you are prepping yourself for a viewing of this one, then you are overestimating Jal. Debut director Girish Malik's movie may have won accolades in many circuits, but Indian audiences may not be so kind, even if they make an exception for an art film.
Bakka (Purab Kohli) is a human water detector, and this makes him an important person in the parched Rann of Kutch. He is famed for his achievements, whatever little, and people turn to him in times of need (which does not mean he always succeeds, though).
He has a lover, Kajri (Tannishtha Chatterjee), who will happily die for him, but he has his eyes on Kesar (Kirti Kulhari). He loves Kesar, but the latter belongs to a village that is hostile to his people, mainly because they have a water well that they are insanely possessive of.
Kesar herself is pursued relentlessly by the lustful and diabolical Puniya (Mukul Dev), whom she is not interested in. The fact that Kesar may have a soft spot for Bakka drives Puniya mad with frustration, and he will do anything to get Bakka out of his way.
Into this fray enters a Russian ornithologist, Kim (Saidah Jules), and her guide, the sleazy Ram (Yashpal Sharma). The villagers' problems are pushed to the background for a while, since the men have eyes only for Kim's bare legs. In fact, her choice of attire - shorts - convinces the men that she is a porn star, and maybe easy and loose.
Kim realises that her beloved flamingos - the same ones that she wants to study - are in danger, because there is a shortage of water. Upon learning about Bakka's existence, she enlists his help. Resentment seeps in from various quarters, since Kim and Bakka would rather quench the thirst of the birds than that of the villagers, and Puniya looks for a reason to get rid of Bakka for good.
The story is a commentary on society in general and the rural areas of the North West in particular. The water problem has many roots in environmental history and other exploits, and the screenplay tries to deal with the helplessness and despair of the people who are subjected to dire circumstances. They are desperate enough to turn to superstition and violence, and soon, there are no other options left.
The problem with the script, however, lies in its execution. It is clear that the story itself is of an uncomplicated nature, but the director's self-indulgence and probably heightened sense of intellect makes watching the visual translation unbearable at times.
As for the characters, once they are introduced, they just behave in the most erratic fashion, without justification. The deliberate subtlety in dramatic events makes most resolutions bland, and then again, there are scenes that are OTT without reason. The climax, when it finally hits you after a meandering story leading to chaos, is overdramatized and a bit of a let-down.
The tones of Shakespearean tragedy are evident in the story, but it also takes itself too seriously, and therefore loses the charm of a story well told. And the futility of the flamingo angle makes you wonder what the writers had in mind when they thought it up.
Purab Kohli is in his element in this movie. He is quite convincing as Bakka. His sincerity is what makes the movie watchable. And Bakka's nemesis, played by Mukul Dev, is a wonder to behold. He is effortlessly scary. Yashpal Sharma does his sleaziness bit with ease. Saidah Jules puts in a decent performance, and Ravi Gossain is noticeable.
Between the two girls, the contrast could not be starker. Kirti Kulhari is all fire and passion, and Tannishtha Chatterjee is the queen of understatement. Both deliver fine performances, but it is the latter who stays with you much after the movie is over.
While all the actors have done their best to become the characters they portray, the filmmakers should have paid some attention to the accents that they have adopted. If you close your eyes and listen to some of them, you may just mistake this for a story set in Haryana, or, in a few instances, Uttar Pradesh.
The setting is the Rann of Kutch, and production and costume designs are aptly worked out. The make-up and costumes of the women are slightly exaggerated, but that is forgivable, since they make up for the blandness. Saidah Jules is a little underdressed for a village scenario.
The cinematography is, by default, spectacular, given the location. However, there is an abundance of shaky shots that may be a device to stress a point, but is distracting nevertheless.
The main villain in the movie is the editing. Some sequences seem abrupt with their endings, and the flow is not smooth. The best part of the movie, on the other hand, is the music.
Jal is an important film, with an important issue. It may be too close to home for us to be objective about the movie, but the fact remains that despite the shoddy execution, the makers have a social message that cannot be ignored. Even if you are not too enthusiastic about catching it on the big screen, make sure to rent the DVD when it is released. It is worth one watch.