Rating: 4 out of 5.

Sneha Jaiswal (Twitter | Instagram)

“I’ve said it a thousand times – always look for the simplest explanation. Because the simplest explanation is almost always the right explanation.”

A doctor tersely advices her juniors in the first episode of “Kaala Paani”, the 2023 Netflix series about a mysterious deadly epidemic sweeping the islands of Andaman. As it turns out, the source of the disease is easy to explain, but the solution to contain it is a long-hard race against time and death.

Directed by Sameer Saxena and Amit Golani, “Kaala Paani” spans seven episodes and is a gripping fictional dystopian tale written by Biswapati Sarkar.  The first episode opens in Port Blair, where a young man newly arrived for a job is given a tour of the Cellular Jail, also known as ‘Kaala Paani’ by the crafty local Chiranjeevi Prabhu (Sukant Goel), who emerges as a major character in the series. Twenty kilometers away in Jenkins Island (a fictitious place), a dark, horror-like scene shows members of an indigenous tribe trying to break a pipeline late at night, their reasons unexplained. But readers can draw some simple conclusions.

Meanwhile, an array of other characters is introduced. There’s the corrupt cop Ketan Kamat (Amey Wagh), who is on a punishment posting to Andamans and would do anything for a transfer back. There’s also the feisty, fierce Doctor Soudamini (Mona Singh), who has isolated a bunch of patients in her hospital suspecting a possible new outbreak; the young, enthusiastic post-doctoral candidate Ritu Gagra (Radhika Mehrotra) assists the doctor in understanding the new disease. A major sub-plot focuses on a tourist couple Santosh Savla (Vikas Kumar) and Gargi Savla (Sarika Singh) who find themselves trapped in Andamans and are separated from their young children. Ashutosh Gowariker is Jibran Qadri, the Lieutenant Governor of Andamans, tasked with bearing the weight of the entire fate of the union territory. Gowariker delivers a dignified portrayal of a leader who is compelled to make difficult decisions for the well-being of the civil population grappling with the outbreak of a new and threatening disease.

With at least four major stories unfolding simultaneously, “Kaala Paani” has plenty of plot packed into the series. The Islands of Andaman emerge as characters in themselves, with the cinematography capturing their scenic beauty and secrets vividly. A small fictitious indigenous tribe called the Orakas, who live in the forests untouched by modern ways of life, present a tense “minority versus majority” theme in the tale. However, the overarching theme of “Kaala Paani” centers on the age-old struggle of “man versus nature,” highlighting the perilous outcomes that often ensue when corporate greed interferes with the delicate balance of the natural world.

The Orakas are a fictitious indigenous tribe in “Kaala Paani”.

If you are post-apocalyptic fiction fan, “Kaala Paani” is one of the rarer Indian titles you can pick from around the web for a slice of desi dystopian experience. Once the authorities in the story realize they have an epidemic on their hands, they try to control the situation without creating panic among the masses, but their efforts lead to a chaotic stampede, which is reminiscent of zombie-themed stories like “The Walking Dead”. But as fans of the genre know – the scariest things in a zombie apocalypse aren’t zombies, but humans. And “Kaala Paani” has plenty of morally grey characters to keep you worried about what they might do, although, the writing does not push boundaries with its “villains”. There’s a strange balance between reality and fantasy, which never quite hits the bullseye, but at least keeps you engaged throughout.

While Mona Singh stands out in the first episode as the fiercely independent Doctor Soudamini, as the plot progresses, other characters begin to come to the forefront. Vikas Kumar as Santosh Savla has the most fantastic character arc, starting out as a soft, gentle, loving father to his two kids Kaddu (Aradhya Ajana) and Parth (Payash Jain). But as the epidemic changes their circumstances, Vikas is forced to shed his gentle demeanour to become a hardened survivor and Vikas Kumar deftly portrays this slow transformation. Amey Wagh is thoroughly despicable as the villain-like police officer Ketan Kamat, he is so convincing as an unscrupulous sycophant, you cannot imagine him mending his ways, even when the script tries to make you believe he is redeemable. Sukant Goel is terrific as local guide Chiranjeevi, who like Ketan is quite vicious, and dabbles in illegal side-businesses for extra cash. His mother warns him by citing the famous frog and scorpion fable, which demonstrates how venomous beings can bring harm upon others at the cost of hurting themselves. The fable foreshadows Chiranjeevi’s eventual fate, and Sukant Goel smoothly keeps changing colours like a chameleon throughout the runtime.  It’s a “dog-eat-dog” world in “Kaala Paani”, where some choose to become saviours, while others descend into the state of ruthless predators.

Radhika Mehrotra is sincere as the young Ritu Gagra, an expert in communicable diseases, who works round-the-clock to help find a cure and is often at the receiving end of severe criticism from her seniors for being too idealistic. Arushi Sharma plays another pivotal character called Jyotsna Dey, a nurse, who is visiting Port Blair to sell off her ancestral property and would’ve left before the island goes under lockdown but is stranded likes thousands of others because she extends her stay to re-unite with her childhood friend and crush Vinayak (Priyansh Jora). While Jyotsna’s storyline hints at the possibility of romance in the series, it takes a refreshing turn as her journey primarily revolves around her role as the guardian of two tourist children she rescues from a stampede. Some viewers might be disappointed by the lack of a typical romantic story in the tale, love is a major theme in “Kaala Paani”, although, a lot of it is familial. Veerendra Saxena has a cameo as Bunker Basu, an eccentric and asocial old man whom Jyotsna reaches out to for help. I chuckled when I saw Veerendra Saxena because it seemed like the role was practically written for him; he might be typecast into “cranky man” roles, because he pulls them off perfectly.

The series is interspersed with several flashbacks, ranging from centuries ago to World War II featuring Japanese soldiers (when Andaman was under Japanese occupation), and more recent ones that provide insights into the protagonists’ lives before the epidemic. While some flashbacks enhance the depth of the narrative, others could have been trimmed, as they contribute little to the story’s substance and primarily serve to intensify melodrama. This could have been achieved without delving into the character’s past struggles. Also, there are some scenes that get frustrating for viewers, because despite a life-threatening disease ravaging the islands, people don’t get their priorities straight. For example, there’s a scene where a character is on an important call, about to convey crucial information regarding the disease when someone enters the room, and instead of asking that person to wait for a minute, they put the call on hold. Seriously?

“Kaala Paani” is atmospheric, with a haunting soundtrack that steadily builds suspense, intrigue, and tension over the course of its seven episodes. While I was hoping for a decisive conclusion to the story, I wasn’t prepared for the loose ends in the climactic episode, which wraps the series with a promise of a potential season two.

Rating: 8 on 10. You can stream “Kaala Paani” on Netflix.

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