The German philosopher Georg Hegel had said that the only thing humans can learn from history is that they do not learn from history. This is applicable to so many things. Humans have waged wars since the beginning of time, and they gave us an understanding of the cost that people have to face every time we take up arms. Yet, here we are, escalating every conflict and decimating countries for no apparent reason. Humans have elected fascists and faced their consequences. Yet, here we are, doing the same thing all over again, thereby jeopardizing our present and future. If that seems like a lot of research, just turn back the clock by a couple of years and see how the COVID-19 pandemic taught us to unite as a species. Did we pay any heed to that? No, not at all. And Kaala Paani says that if something catastrophic happens again, we won’t act any differently than we have several times in the past.
Sameer Saxena’s Kaala Paani, which he has co-created with Amit Golani, Nimisha Misra, Sandeep Saket, and Biswapati Sarkar, takes place in Andaman and Nicobar, where a festival called Swaraj Mahotsav is taking place. A mysterious disease (later titled LHF-27), with symptoms like fever, coughing, and black spots on the back of the neck, is slowly spreading. Dr. Soudamini Singh is looking into this issue, and she doesn’t want the festival to happen because she doesn’t know how dangerous this disease is. But due to the pressure from Lt. General Zibran Qadri, police officer Ketan Kamat, one of the owners of an insidious company called ATOM, Swasti Shaw, and her enforcer, Saurabh Wani, the good doctor is forced to bow down. Elsewhere, a taxi driver named Chiru is looking to poach turtle eggs with his partner-in-crime, Pundi, via the Savla family while they travel all over Andaman and Nicobar. Chiru’s brother, Vinayak, who is an environmental activist and defender of the local tribe, the Orakas (because Vinayak and Chiru’s parents were and are activists too), is trying to re-establish his relationship with Jyotsna, an old friend and ex-healthcare worker. And all of the aforementioned lives, as well as the lives of the tourists and local people of the islands, are thrown into turmoil as the disease begins to spread through water.
It’s apparently quite tough for movies and web series to address the COVID-19 pandemic and its repercussions, possibly due to its severity and recency, and also because governments want us to perceive the handling of the crisis the way they want the world to perceive it, even if our lived reality is different than what’s portrayed by those in power. So, it’s surprising to see Kaala Paani set its narrative in the year 2027 and show how India has changed after the COVID-19 pandemic and whether we are ready to face something similar to the pandemic. Spoiler alert: We haven’t changed. The writers place a lot of importance on the science of it all, and they spend a lot of time detailing the inner workings of the government, law enforcement, healthcare, and the flag bearers of capitalism. But they go a level deeper by looking at the faces of the people behind these professions and how their actions reflect the opinions of the masses or completely subvert them. They show that, until and unless we strive for inclusivity, empathy, and peace, we won’t be able to weather any kind of storm because, at the end of the day, the system is going to prioritize those who are strong, financially speaking, over those who are barely making ends meet.
While it’s fairly easy to analyze Kaala Paani through the lens of what we’ve endured and what we are still enduring, I think things get difficult, and hence infinitely interesting, when it comes to the characters. I have heard way too many web series say that their characters are “complex,” that they “exist in the gray,” and that they are meant to “challenge our core values,” and all of them have failed to deliver on these promises. The writers of the Netflix web series, though, have delivered in spades by creating some of the most twisted fictional people I have come across recently. They had me reacting audibly to the small screen. I don’t even remember the last time every character (almost every single character!) made me wonder if I should root for them or wish that they faced the worst nightmares imaginable. Ketan Kamat genuinely got under my skin. Santosh Savla made my blood boil. Everything that Chiru did was anxiety-inducing. Jyotsna and Ritu were anxiety-inducing too, but that was because they were too nice for this horrific world. And even the supporting characters—like Parth, Shashi, and Pundi—not only elicited strong reactions but pushed the primary characters to evolve in significant ways. So, yes, I think Kaala Paani is one of the best-written shows of the year.
Kaala Paani does take some time to get going. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the first three episodes. They do a pretty decent job of establishing the stakes while jumping from one character’s journey to another quite seamlessly. But it’s only after episode four that the creators hit their stride by toying with the basics of filmmaking, i.e., editing and cinematography. The issue nowadays is that a lot of webseries (and even movies) that are centered around a serious topic think that they’ve to keep their visual storytelling as bland as possible. It seems like they’re afraid that if they move the camera too much, if they block a scene properly, and if they edit conversation-heavy scenes with a hint of inventiveness, they are going to lose their audience. The makers of Kaala Paani show that they can do all that and maintain the gravity of the story they are trying to tell. They oscillate between the past and the present like it’s a scene straight out of old Bollywood, and yet it feels like a modern tale. Every single episode is engaging as hell due to its pitch-perfect pacing. The only issue I have is with the low-light and nighttime cinematography. It’s something that isn’t limited to this web series; it’s an industry-wide problem. However, it seems like nobody is ready to break this curse.
The cast of Kaala Paani is spectacular. Amey Wagh knocks it out of the park. Sukant Goel is brilliant! I think it’ll be safe to say that Goel and Wagh get some of the best scenes in the entire web series. Mona Singh’s appearance is brief, but what she manages to achieve in that screen time is worth applauding. Vikas Kumar’s transformation over the course of seven long episodes is riveting. Arushi Sharma is fantastic. Portraying trauma in a sensitive and educational way is an uphill task, but Sharma makes it look easy. Radhika Mehrotra is amazing. Seeing her working from the sidelines and gradually becoming a central figure is intriguing. Chinmay Mandlekar is a little one-note, but that’s good enough given the nature of the role. Sarika Singh has such a strong presence. Rajesh Khattar is largely overlooked, but he gets to flex his acting chops during the second half of the web series. Aradhya Ajana and Payash Jain are exquisite. Virendra Saxena continues to prove that he’s one of the best in the business. Ashutosh Gowariker is an odd fit. He doesn’t feel all that impactful initially, but the more you think about the nuances of his performance, the more fascinating he becomes. Priyansh Jora, Jagdish Rajpurohit, Kanan Arunachalam, Mahadev Singh Lakhawat, and Poornima Indrajith don’t get to do a lot, but they make their mark. In addition to that, given how the web series features a lot of background actors, I have to say that their contribution shouldn’t go unnoticed.
Kaala Paani is one of the best web series of the year. It is certainly one of the best medical dramas that India has ever produced. The way it mixes scientific jargon with old-school melodrama is genuinely impressive. The writing and the direction are excellent. Every single actor is on their A-game. It’s a win from every perceivable angle. Now, it remains to be seen if it gets to its viewers, especially those who are in positions of power. It’s true that the power that the masses hold is immense. But true power doesn’t always come from numbers; it depends on how influential an individual is. And if that individual is selfish, indecisive, and opportunistic, then they can push everyone towards their doom. So, we must elect people and then hold them accountable based on their scientific acumen and their willingness to care for our health and the environment. If the elected officials want to go in a different direction and ruin our present and our future, we must replace them with level-headed folks, or else we’ll be stuck in an endless cycle of epidemics and pandemics.