Two vastly different films vie for space in Girish Malik’s Jal. The first one is a sort of tragic satire. A Russian conservationist comes to the Rann of Kutch to study flamingos. She delights at the pink-hued birds taking flight, and one day, while taking a swim in a brackish lake, she discovers that the bottom is littered with dead chicks. She realises that she needs to provide the birds a source of good water, and so she – along with her team – contacts the government and gets drilling machines, and when they cannot find any water, they enlist the services of a local diviner named Bakka (Purab H Kohli). Soon enough, water is found.
A huge sadness weighs down on this portion of the film. The villagers in the area are perpetually water-deprived. They depend on Bakka, who presses an ear to the ground and says this is where the water is. And yet, with their pickaxes and spades, there’s only so much they can do, so far they can dig. And here’s this foreign woman, who, to save birds, is able to click her fingers and summon up the kind of machinery that can drill down to water in a matter of hours.
There are many ways this track could have played out. As a Swades-like feel-good fable about how it takes an outsider, sometimes, to make a change. As a portrait of government apathy. As a study of the inertia that envelops so many of our villages, whose downcast residents seek deliverance but from what and how they themselves do not know. Any of these could have resulted in a strong, unique art-house effort.
But the director is after another film as well – a more traditional, more mainstream melodrama involving stolen jewels, a double cross, murder, rape, some “comedy” where the villagers lust after the Russian conservationist, some more comedy about Bakka marrying Kesar (Kirti Kulhari) and retreating for a 10-day-long lovemaking session, warring villages, a love triangle (Tannishtha Chatterjee’s Kajri is in love with Bakka too), and an action scene where the hero fights the villain in a slushy pit. Suddenly, those flamingos are a distant memory.
Perhaps Malik felt that the largely unvarying landscape would provide the consistency, smooth things over and fuse the two films into an organic whole. To say that he’s in love with the desert is an understatement. He gazes at his surroundings like a teenage boy opening a Playboy centrefold for the first time. Practically every scene stops for a sharp intake of breath, and strives for a David Lean effect. Early on, when Bakka prays to the heavens for water, the camera rises and pins him down amidst acres of cracked earth, which look like designer tiles. Later, when Bakka is tied to a camel and dragged through the desert, the scene is presented in slow motion, all the better for the sand to rise like clouds of talc.
If only some of this obsession had transferred to other aspects of the film. The performances range from the perfunctory to the pitiable. Kohli is an affable presence when he’s drinking coffee in TV commercials, but he just doesn’t have it in him to portray the complex Bakka, some sort of “paani ka devta” who may also be something of a womaniser. Even the usually reliable Yashpal Sharma looks out of sorts. But there’s only so much you can do with this kind of writing. When Kajri speaks for the women of the village and offers their jewellery to pay for the drilling machine, no one protests that she cannot be making decisions for them, and no one slips a locket or a ring into a blouse because they can’t stand to part with it. They stand up meekly and proffer their necklaces and bangles. Saints would possess more personality. I walked out of this missed opportunity wanting to scratch a vague itch. Maybe a viewing of Road, Movie will do the trick.
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