Producing and releasing a medical/survival drama a year after the global pandemic ceased is a good call. This pandemic brought the world to a standstill, but at the same time, people were also going through chaotic times. Human beings changed their perspective about how life functions, and survival became their only goal. The pandemic also tested Charles Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest, and this phenomenon is the essence of the new Netflix India original Kaala Paani.
Set in the year 2027, just a few years after the COVID-19 pandemic, Andaman and Nicobar Islands are all set to organize Swaraj Mahotsav, a massive festival organized by a global MNC ATOM to increase the footfall of tourists from across mainland India. A million people are expected to attend this event, Dr. Saudamini Singh, the Chief Medical Officer of the government hospital in Port Blair, is on the brink of discovering an epidemic that could potentially have a disastrous effect on the population currently on the island. To help her find the root cause of this outbreak, Dr. Ritu Gagra, a specialist in communicable diseases, joins Dr. Singh. On the same island, Chiranjeevi, aka Chiru, is a local who works as a tourist guide and driver and hopes to earn well during this festival. Chiru becomes the tourist guide for the Savla family from the day they land in Port Blair. Chiru is in favor of the development of the island, while his brother Vinayak, aka Vinu, is an environmental conservationist. Vinu is vocal about his support for the Oraka community, which is one of the oldest indigenous tribes in the world and resides deep in the forests of the island.
Police Officer Ketan Kamat is trying hard to pander to the senior executives of ATOM, who are expecting medical clearance from Dr. Singh for the tourism festival. As the fear of the epidemic grows, the makers of Kaala Paani talk about various subjects regarding nature and survival. The situation regarding the outbreak worsens, and it puts Dr. Singh under dire pressure. Will Dr. Singh be able to bring the epidemic under control? Did Lieutenant Governor Admiral Zibran Qadri make a mistake by ignoring Dr. Singh’s warnings? Are the Oraka tribes under threat of extinction? All these questions and more are answered by the makers of Kaala Paani.
The highlight of Kaala Paani is its story, and the location it is set in, that is, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. A part of our country that has never been explored by Indian filmmakers. Priyadarshan’s Kaala Paani was a period drama set in the colonial era. Meanwhile, this is a current take on the medical situation of the island, which is surrounded by greenery and turquoise-blue sea. The premise of the show is excellent, which will remind viewers of Aashiq Abu’s Virus and Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion.
The screenplay is dense and tight, despite the long runtime of the episodes. It is the first time any filmmaker has delved into the stories of the indigenous tribes of the island. In this case, it is the Orakas who have successfully managed to stay away from modern civilization and live peacefully in their settlements. Their bond with nature is explored in depth. The makers talk about how they have the independence to live at their convenience, even though they are looked down upon by other inhabitants of the island.
The makers beautifully merge Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ theory with various subplots, and it paints several characters in the show with shades of gray. Almost all the leads in Kaala Paani have a definite arc, and the writers give them a conclusive ending. They go through their journey of understanding the situation, which helps them change their opinion. Some made the right decision, while others had to make a tough choice that was far from their initial values. The famous verse from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is included in the show. The verse itself defines the nature of the situation the entire island is facing.
The screenplay does drag on a bit, as the runtime of each episode is close to one hour or more. The narrative is highly engaging, even though there are too many subplots going on at the same time. The writers do miss out on certain obvious plot holes, but many of them could be ignored as the subject matter at hand is gloomy yet extraordinary. The frenzy of other locals and tourists is showcased realistically. The viewers can sense hysteria growing as the show progresses.
There is a zeal in the writing, which is hard to ignore. The makers have pulled off an extraordinary feat by speaking about nature, the local tribes, environment protection, development, tourism, and survival. Every character in the show is committed to getting into the muck and finding answers to their questions. Dr. Singh wants to find out what caused the epidemic, while Dr. Ritu and Dr. Mahajan are trying to curb the spread. Lt. Governor Qadri is trying to bring the situation on the island under control, while Ketan Kamat and Chiru are hell-bent on proving many people wrong.
In many shows and movies, we have seen women take center stage. It makes the viewers look at them as humans. Kaala Paani could be a perfect example of how one should write sensitive male characters. Father figures in the show convey love to their kids with patience and sensibility instead of lashing out at them. They are also against putting their kids through the agony they faced growing up. This is essentially men breaking away from generational trauma and making sure their kids grow up to be sensitive human beings. The writers and directors have done a wonderful job with this narrative, and it shines through the anxious surroundings of the show. There is a caste discrimination angle, which also explores how people are looked down upon for their surname instead of being valued for the work they do for the community.
The makers also bring up the poignant question of why the Oraka tribe is given importance. The lives of the other inhabitants during the epidemic should be a key matter of concern as well. This throws light on the morality angle, and the makers give a balanced response to these questions. The subject of how selfish human beings are, which adds to their sense of superiority complex, is explored in depth. The inhabitants of the islands still consider themselves worthy of living a longer life than the Oraka tribes. The narrative of the show is brutally honest, and it will make viewers uncomfortable. The ending of Kaala Paani is bittersweet, but the makers conclude season one by offering viewers a sense of hope. This creates a feeling of calmness in the narrative, which has been chaotic from the start.
The cinematography of the show is excellent, as is the production design. Both departments create a sense of fear and claustrophobia. It puts the viewers right in the middle of this medical emergency and makes them feel helpless as well. The dialogue is tacky in most parts, and it kind of detracts from the tense situation at hand. The makers could have stuck to conversational lines instead of dramatizing them. It brought down the engagement factor, even though the screenplay is high on emotions. The direction is excellent and tight because it does not stray away from the main plot, and the screenplay brings together all the characters in a definitive manner. It connects all the subplots convincingly without confusing the viewers. The editing takes a back seat in this show because the narrative takes its own time to develop and grow into a gripping survival drama.
The performances in the show are very hot and cold because there are actors who leave an impact, while there are others who are just plain abysmal. Sukant Goel as Chiru is excellent right from the start. His arc is tragic as he goes through a couple of breakdowns and cathartic moments. The viewers can sense his emotions, while his mindset slowly changes as he learns a life-changing truth about himself. His diction and accent while speaking Tamil are highly appreciated. Mona Singh, who plays the role of Dr. Soudamini Singh leaves a lasting impression. She looms over all the other characters as a dark cloud which showcases the intensity of her performance. Amey Wagh as Ketan Kamath is surprisingly good. His performance as a corrupt police official who realizes that everyone working with ATOM is highly entitled. There is a sense of satisfaction in seeing him go from a highly unlikeable character to a slightly bearable one.
The performances of Arushi Sharma as Jyotsana and Ashutosh Gowariker as Lt. Governor Admiral Qadri are not as effective as their characters are supposed to be. On a screenplay level, Jyotsana’s character goes through a journey and soon takes control of her life. She also saves people, which is essentially her job as a nurse. But her performance lacked sincerity and depth. Ashutosh Gowariker’s character is forgotten in the middle of the show and gains traction in the finale episode. His character goes through a radical shift, which sadly does not surface in the performance.
Kaala Paani is a triumph in storytelling and expansive screenplay. The viewers may not want the show to conclude so soon, as the narrative towards the end becomes much more interesting. There has to be a season two, which will expand on the cure for LHF-27, the bacteria that has engulfed the island. The show is an excellent drama that raises plenty of questions about human beings and their choices.