Kaala Paani Review: A Survival Drama Doubling Up As Philosophy 101

We survived seven episodes of the series starring Mona Singh and Ashutosh Gowariker (among others) and are here to tell the tale.
Kaala Paani Review:  A Survival Drama Doubling Up As Philosophy 101
Kaala Paani Review: A Survival Drama Doubling Up As Philosophy 101

Director: Sameer Saxena and Amit Golani 

Writers: Amit Golani, Nimisha Misra, Sandeep Saket, Biswapati Sarkar

Cast:  Mona Singh, Ashutosh Gowariker, Amey Wagh, Vikas Kumar, Sukant Goel, Arushi Sharma, and Radhika Mehrotra

Available on: Netflix

In 2027, a mysterious epidemic grips the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a fatal disease that has no known cures. The Chief Medical Officer (CMO) of the islands, Dr. Soudamini Singh (Mona Singh) warns authorities of this looming threat, but they ignore her warnings. Sub-divisional police officer (SDPO), Ketan Kamat (Amey Wagh), driven by self-interest, enables a tourist trap of a festival, bringing in visitors and aiding a multi-million dollar corporation (ATOM) that wants to capitalise on an untapped market and maximise profits. Thousands of innocent lives are endangered, and a frantic race to secure a remedy begins. “Kaala Paani ki asli diwaar toh bahar hai, aur wo eenton se nahi, paani se bani hai (The real wall of this prison is the water surrounding the island),” says one character and ne’er was there a truer dialogue said. 

Director Sameer Saxena and writer Biswapati Sarkar (part of The Viral Fever, or TVF, team that created hit shows like Tripling and Permanent Roommates) come together to create a survival drama based in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. We can confirm that the pair are as good with this genre as they are with the urban middle-class vignettes that have made TVF famous. While Kaala Paani stumbles occasionally, for most part, the show is an engaging watch that balances the many moving parts of its plot. 

Kaala Paani on Netflix
Kaala Paani on Netflix

Finding a cure

The creators of the show build a world in which all the characters emerge as fully realised individuals with rich, multifaceted lives extending beyond the confines of their three-adjective character brief. Each character gets an arc — whether it's the House MD-esque Dr. Soudamini Singh, who goes home to feed her dog amidst the chaos of this mysterious disease, or the reticent tourist Santosh (Vikas Kumar) who is learning to be a better father to his children. While this ensures no one in Kaala Paani feels like a mere stereotype, this attention to character detail does occasionally make these hour-long episodes (the pilot episode is longer, at 70 mins) feel like a slog. Especially in the middle of its seven-episode run, Kaala Paani can occasionally feel like a punishment, as much for those of us watching the show as those in it — and that’s not just because Saxena and Sarkar toy cruelly with the emotions of Mona Singh’s fans. The gifted actor continues her run of playing characters that make up a supporting cast and underutilise Singh’s acting chops. 

Soon enough, there is a realisation — this infection is not a new threat. It has plagued the islands before. The Orakas (a fictional tribe), the indigenous inhabitants, seem to be able to sense its coming and relocate to other parts of the island in an effort to safeguard themselves. One character explains the indigenous people possess something the authorities don’t: “Tinnotu”, an innate, profound comprehension of their natural surroundings that is as much a cultural legacy as a genetic one, developed over generations of inhabiting these islands. Tinnotu makes them sensitive to even the subtlest changes in the environment and it’s to Kaala Paani’s credit that the show’s portrayal of these tribes doesn’t succumb to exoticising the people of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands even though the tribe is both fictionalised and seen through the lens of an outsider. The Orakas, having successfully weathered this epidemic in the past, emerge as potential linchpins in uncovering the cure. 

Kaala Paani on Netflix
Kaala Paani on Netflix

Philosophy 101

The show's core conflict takes its inspiration from the classic trolley problem of philosophy which asks a question for which there is no simple answer. If you can save a larger number of people by sacrificing a smaller group, is that justified?  The trolley problem prompts reflection on moral choices, utilitarian principles, and the ethical implications of taking action or maintaining inaction in the face of impending harm. In case you’re not familiar with it, have no fear. Ashutosh Gowariker as Lieutenant Governor of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Admiral Zibran Qadri, will explain it to you in detail in Kaala Paani. Zibran has the unenviable task of having to make a difficult choice between being a good person and a true leader. Whether Gowariker’s pained expressions mirror the discomfort with this responsibility or is simply the celebrated director’s discomfort with acting is anyone’s guess.

Vikas Kumar as Santosh imbues his performance with a compelling blend of love, grief, helpless angst, and misguided determination. As a father,  husband and a man grappling with the burden of life-altering decisions, Santosh emerges as a standout character. Through Santosh, the show is able to channel the mixed emotions we felt during the COVID-19 pandemic, adding a poignant note of relatability to this dystopia. The show’s three cinematographers — Dhananjay Navagrah, Barny Crocker, and Ewan Mulligan — are able to capture both the enchanting beauty of the Islands as well as their eeriness. 

For all the good choices that Kaala Paani makes in its storytelling, the show’s writing team is guilty of telling us the scorpion-frog saga that has to be the most overused hackneyed device since it appeared in the trailer for Darlings. However, this tussle between nature and free will is arguably a key ingredient in the tension that forms the foundation of this survival drama. The central concern is ensuring the islanders' safety and there are a number of characters who’ve got our spidey-sense tingling. Santosh's self-serving decision is a cause for concern, Admiral Zibran Qadri has let utilitarian principles guide his choices, and SDPO Kamat has had a significant change of heart. The fate of everyone on the island teeters on the edge. These are people wrestling with the burdens of ancestry and their personal responsibilities. Can we fight our nature? Can the scorpion choose to be the frog? Are we capable of change or are we imprisoned in our metaphorical Kaala Paani?

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