‘Kaala Paani’ series review: Ambitious survival drama reaches the shore

Sameer Saxena’s series — starring Mona Singh, Ashutosh Gowariker and Sukant Goel — is driven by urgent ecological concerns; it’s most compelling, though, when focusing on the small human moments in the fore

October 18, 2023 02:16 pm | Updated 02:16 pm IST

A still from ‘Kaala Paani’

A still from ‘Kaala Paani’

One can forgive environmentally-minded storytellers for reaching for the crutch of popular entertainment. It’s admittedly hard — in India as much as anywhere else in the world — to satiate mainstream audiences with straightforward lessons about the planet or climate or ecology. An obvious workaround, therefore, is to wrap it up in something exciting, be it mythology or genre thrills. The Kannada film Kantara was exceedingly successful at this last year, and so was, to a lesser degree, the Hindi creature feature Bhediya. Now we get Kaala Paani, on Netflix India, which takes the survival thriller template and turns it into a sustained meditation on a fractured and desperate post-pandemic world.

As its name might suggest, the seven-episode series is set in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a union territory of India on the southern rim of the Bay of Bengal (its capital city, Port Blair, houses the Cellular Jail National Memorial, a former British prison that held Indian political prisoners during the freedom struggle). The year is 2027, and the islanders are expecting a heavy influx of tourists for a vibrant ‘mahotsav’. It will boost the local economy, argues Lieutenant Governor Zibran Qadri (Ashutosh Gowariker in his acting comeback), overriding concerns of Chief Medical Officer Dr. Soudamini Singh (Mona Singh). Soudamini, we learn, is investigating a mysterious ailment that has affected 11 people so far and thus views the forthcoming festival as a potential superspreader event.

Soudamini’s hunch proves right, tragically. A deadly bacterial outbreak dubbed ‘LHF-27 ’— ”I hate it when disease names have numbers in them,” mutters Qadri — soon engulfs the entire region, infecting and killing tourists and local residents alike. It’s interpreted as an ancient curse by the Orakas, an indigenous tribe who seem to have predicted the onset of the epidemic and retreated to safer ground. True to the conventions of a post-apocalyptic thriller, the narrative branches off in multiple (interconnected) directions. Some of the subplots — like that of tour guide and part-time poacher Chiru (Sukant Goel) whose machinations land an innocent family in peril, or of shifty IPS officer Ketan (Amey Wagh) who wants out of this hellish posting —are buoyed along by an engaging moral tension. Others, meanwhile, feel contrived and undercooked, recognisable from half a dozen films or shows in the genre.

Kaala Paani (Hindi)
Showrunner: Sameer Saxena
Cast: Mona Singh, Ashutosh Gowariker and Sukant Goel, Amey Wagh, Vikas Kumar, Arushi Sharma, Radhika Mehrotra
Episodes: 7
Run-time: 55-70 minutes
Storyline: Multiple characters attempt to cope as a deadly epidemic engulfs the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, locking off the region from the Indian mainland

Works of speculative fiction typically reflect our anxieties about the near-future. Kaala Paani, on the other hand, talks directly and potently to our near-past. In using a future Andaman as their setting, and LHF-27 as their fictitious disease of concern, directors Sameer Saxena and Amit Golani and lead writer Biswapati Sarkar are essentially mounting a COVID allegory while subverting the scrutiny of a direct commentary. Early on, Chiru describes his native land as a ‘mini-India’, and the show can be viewed as a model, a microcosm, of what the country went through during the pandemic years.

This is evident from the second episode on. Qadri talks about the difficult decisions —elucidated through the Trolley Problem thought experiment — facing him and his higher-ups; as he rightly predicts, their knee-jerk response to the outbreak is to seal off the region from the mainland. Doctors and researchers must choose between pursuing a cure and providing frontline treatment to the terminally-ill. A pyramid of privilege is enforced; the rich and powerful get top priority, followed by the mainlanders and then the locals. Families are split asunder (two key deaths in the series happen offscreen, mirroring the crushing abruptness of covid tragedies). Bodies are bundled off to the crematorium in the dead of night. The language of the pandemic is all-pervasive: ‘rapid tests’, ‘quarantine’ ‘ground zero’, ‘sequencing’.

Saxena and Sarkar last gave us the whimsical coming-of-age comedy Jaadugar (2022). Though Kaala Paani represents a significant leap for the duo — give or take, a computer-generated snake or an irredeemably banal frog-and-scorpion fable — it feels very much like their work. The grim ecological backdrop of the series is both leavened and reinforced by the small human moments in the fore, with its middle-class characters fuzzing over wafers and nicknames in the face of looming tragedy. Sukant Goel, Amey Wagh and Vikas Kumar turn in especially vivid, poignant performances. There are no monsters or martyrs in Kaala Paani, no clear heroes or villains. It has the last of all of us.

Kaala Paani is streaming on Netflix

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