It takes a special kind of arrogance to add a festival review blurb to the beginning of a film. it takes an even more special kind of hypocrisy to quote him out of context. The marketing forces behind JAL, an elaborate tragedy set in the Rann of Kutch, chose to quote a convenient line from Elizabeth Kerr’s review of The Hollywood Reporter: “A stunningly photographed tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.” it also happens to be one of the only lines in that review that actually says something positive about the movie.
To be fair, Jal is a superbly staged production with lush visuals and a punchy, percussive soundtrack by Bickram Ghosh and singer Sonu Nigam (making his songwriting debut). has a compelling story that can be summed up in witty, tongue-in-cheek lines like “why is it so hard for humans to access water?” it even has a number of engaging and entertaining cutscenes.
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But these well-intentioned efforts are lost in the half-hearted, self-indulgent nightmare that this film is, one that uses fades to black after nearly one in three scenes.
this, in addition to fragmenting the narrative, adds a layer of pomposity to the narrative that is a complete disappointment. Sunni cinematographer Radia’s shots, captured on one of those notoriously expensive refurbished cameras, are frequently stunning and postcard-worthy; but her unnecessarily snake-like camera movements suggest she’s never been lucky enough to use a jib before. in fact, many things about this film give the impression that it has been made by a group of enthusiastic film students who have been given a budget beyond their wildest dreams and are going crazy over it.
The protagonist of the story is Bakka (a sadly misunderstood Purab Kohli), a self-proclaimed “god of water” who lives in an unnamed village in the middle of the Rann of Kutch. The inhabitants of this village, a darker version of those of Lagaan, appear to be poor and thirsty and have no real source of water nearby. There is a ‘Dushman Gaon’ nearby who has his own well, as well as a feisty beauty named Kesar (Kirti Kulhari). she has a crush on bakka, much to the dismay of puniya (mukul dev, sporting hair straightened to the dhoni from circa 2006). this romeo and juliet-style conflict forms the backbone of the story, while a concurrent thread features an archie-betty-veronica love triangle, with a tragic version of betty played by kajri (tannishtha chatterjee).
Adding another dimension to the story is ‘Russian’ ornithologist Kim, played by German-born actress Saidah Jules, who makes the performance look like parkour for asthmatics. She’s at the rann to examine the mysterious decline in the number of flamingos migrating there, she’s joined by the often sleazy ram khiladi (yashpal sharma, who else?) and some incorrigible villagers who are convinced she’s a porn star. one night she goes for a leisurely swim in a muddy oasis in the rann (because this is a perfectly natural thing) and discovers that the flamingo chicks are dying due to lack of fresh water. in the rann of kutch. don’t say, kim.
She is also joined by two other foreign bird experts, including an American named Richard (Gary Richardson), who could have been played by any middle-aged Caucasian man traveling the country. Thanks to his acting, the parts of the movie involving the three of them are so weak that he feels like he’s watching a really elaborate school play.
in fact, the acting in general is so uneven that it seems that malik was directing three different movies at the same time. Some, like Sharma, Chatterjee, and young Rohit Pathak, stay true to their characters throughout. Others, like Kohli and Kulhari, try their best and pass the test despite not being right for their roles. others, like dev, seem to have decided that a kutchi accent is the same as a haryanvi accent.
malik, at times, seems to be channeling tarsem singh’s visual grammar; other times, he seems to be opting for a shyam-benegal type of realism. the results are indigestible. There are plenty of moments that really shine: a humorous sequence showing the conjugal activities of Bakka and Kesar, stunning shots of Bakka feverishly digging for a well, a conversation where Ram Khiladi and a villager haggle over a Euro, among others. the impact of these, however, is lost in silliness and bombast.
Overall, jal is a beautiful but largely unwatchable film, one that aspires to be a work of art but fails at some of the most basic aspects of filmmaking.