Life-and-death dilemmas collide with death and disease in the once-pristine Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the genre-bending, visually arresting Kaala Paani. The Netflix series, created by Sameer Saxena, addresses a slew of urgent themes and dovetails them into an overarching story of a populace in the grip of a deadly epidemic.
Even as the administration strives to strike a balance between what is necessary and what is morally permissible to tackle the emergency, a multinational company and its agents pursue a single-point agenda of making a killing from an officially sanctioned water pipeline project.
Water is indeed the visual and thematic leitmotif of Kaala Paani, hardly surprising for a tale that unfolds in a part of India that is walled in by the ocean on all sides. Its contamination mirrors the toxicity that has seeped into the air and the land that make up the islands.
The moral conundrums that the medical fraternity and the Lieutenant-Governor’s office face pertain to the pressing need to save the infected population, prevent the disease from spreading, control the movement of people, and adopt measures to minimize the impact of panic reactions.
Set in the near future but spanning multiple decades with flashbacks setting the context and snatches of dialogue alluding to hoary times, Kaala Paani, written by Biswapati Sarkar and directed by Saxena and Amit Golani, abounds in thrills, tragic turns of events and individuals weighed down by the past.
The year is 2027. The Covid-19 pandemic is still fresh in the minds of people. The Kaala Paani storyline looks beyond disease and devastation and blends fiction and truth to delve into the reasons behind the public health crisis – deforestation, threats posed to an endangered indigenous community, industry-government nexus and corruption at various levels of the local administration.
A sense of dread and gloom pervades the islands as Leptospiral Hemorrhagic Fever (LHF-27) turns rampant. Citizens and medical professionals are up against an enemy that is invisible, Nature, which has borne the brunt of mankind’s greed for centuries and is now striking back. The seven-episode series derives strength from the ethical, psychological and environmental questions that it raises.
A Panchatantra story about a frog and a scorpion is used to underline the nature of goodness and dishonesty in present times. The “trolley problem” thought experiment alludes to the situation on the ground – the administration is in a make-or-break moral quandary. Is it fine to sacrifice one person in order to save thousands?
Kaala Paani situates numerous significant stories, contemporary and historical, in the collective and the personal in search of an answer to that question.
The Kaala Paani cast is led by Mona Singh and Ashutosh Gowariker but it is Sukant Goel, playing a Port Blair taxi operator, who hogs the lion’s share of the spotlight. The gifted actor does full justice to a strong author-backed role that allows him to mine a wide range of emotions, from the frothy and flippant to the intense and unsettling.
Also impressive are the key supporting actors, each playing a character with a past marred by trauma and unpleasant experiences that take some doing to live down. From violence to toxic masculinity and social ostracism to professional hurdles, these individuals have been though a lot and what they encounter during the epidemic is an opportunity for them to redeem themselves.
Vikas Kumar plays Santosh Savla, a tourist from Bokaro who has travelled to Andaman and Nicobar Islands with his wife and two children to attend a tourist festival. The man, benign and soft-hearted, banks upon his wife Gargi (Sarika Singh) to be the family’s pillar of strength through thick and thin. In a severe crisis situation, Santosh has to dig deep into his reserves of endurance as he is buffeted by separation, loss and bereavement.
Arushi Sharma is Jyotsna Dey, an aspiring nurse who has abandoned her ambition following a violent incident in Pune that has singed her for good. Her shot at redemption rests on ensuring the safety of two children separated from their parents.
Radhika Mehrotra plays medical intern Ritu Gagra, who joins the team of Dr Soudamini Singh (Mona Singh), a grouchy, cynical but exceptionally committed professional who lives with a German Shepherd aptly called Mister, as the latter’s hospital faces a severe staff shortage in the face of the health crisis.
Amey Wagh delivers an energetic but delightfully layered performance as police officer Ketan Kamat, a man given to fishing in troubled waters and saving his own skin come what may. And Chinmay Mandlekar gets into the skin of a doctor under understandable duress aggravated by a tragedy that hits the hospital.
A major tourist festival is a couple of days away and thousands of visitors have arrived in Port Blair. Panic spreads as word gets around that a mysterious killer disease has descended on the islands.
The administration, led by Admiral Zibran Qadri (Asuthosh Gowariker), the central hospital under Dr Soudamini Singh’s charge, individuals like Chiranjeevi (Sukant Goel) whose livelihood depends on the influx of tourists and infected locals and several outsiders are sucked into the maelstrom.
The crisis is, of course, not directly of the tourists’ making. The plunder of tribal land and unsustainable development models have pushed the scenic islands to the brink. A multi-billion-dollar MNC, with the connivance of elements in the bureaucracy and the police, seeks to extend its hold on the land the forests stand on and the people that the forests belong to.
The struggle to save lives coincides with the race to find the cause of the epidemic and a cure. The narrative revolves around the fate on endangered indigenous community that has lives in the forest for 60,000 years.
Kaala Paani is a well-acted, wonderfully crafted and consistently watchable drama the skirts around the pitfalls of a multi-pronged narrative. It devises ways not to let one thematic idea get in the way of another. All the strands come together neatly and with exceptional clarity.
The cautionary tale does the tightrope walk between the depiction of an epidemic and its fallout and the placement of it in a larger ecological context with skill and balance. A series that has much to show for its efforts.
Mona Singh, Arushi Sharma, Ashutosh Gowariker, Sarika Singh, Sukant Goel
Sameer Saxena, Amit Golani