Indian OTT content has a few titles under the survival drama genre, and Kaala Paani is its champion. The 7- episode series on Netflix speaks to you with a voice that continues to haunt India, even today. It is a story from the heart, and Sameer Saxena gives a blithering lesson on human nature through the series. Kaala Paani stresses on the innate bond that nature and humanity share, and that the latter may show its darkest side when prompted wrongly.
Kaala Paani (lit. black water) is a play on the nickname given to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. During the freedom struggle, revolutionaries were sent to the Cellular Jail in Port Blair, absolutely cut off from mainland. To be sent to that particular jail, meant being in kaala-paani. This also serves as a recurring idea in the series, that once you step foot on the islands, you will become prisoner to them.
The series deals with an epidemic that breaks out in India’s Andaman and Nicobar islands, situated at 1813 km from the mainland. Consider the disease as an echo of COVID-19, as doctors and researchers grapple with finding the cause and remedy for it. In the midst of all this, is the remote Oraka tribe that resides on one island. The tribe is cut off from modernity, and seems to possess the secrets to get nature to work with them in tandem. It is also this tribe that reminds the characters of the basic foundation of humanity. The magic of Kaala Paani is in the way it depicts the constant tussle between the extremes of human nature. In essence, the show is about what it is to be a human.
It’s not that a story like that has never graced Indian screens before. It is nothing different from pandemic, but it is the treatment of it that changes the game. The writers (Biswapati Sarkar, Sandeep Saket, Nimisha Misra, and Amit Golani) have given their heart and soul to the plot, and it shows. Kaala Paani is not about the disease, but about how it changes people, and how that further affects society and mankind. It is a rather raw telling of what happens when a person loses everything. The person then sheds all attributes of a societal human, and becomes a primal one. There are some very shocking character changes in the story, as each is forced into dilemmas because of the disease.
Featuring an ensemble cast, they have done a fantastic job in carefully piecing and weaving each character’s arc through the story. In a very seamless fashion, they all come across the other at some point or the other in the series. It doesn’t feature any big names save for Mona Singh, but each actor delivers a performance that lasts with you for a very long time. Soudamini Singh is the Chief Medical Officer at Central Hospital, who always had an inkling about the disease before it was discovered. Her suspicions are dismissed by the Lt. Governor Zidran Quadri (Ashutosh Gowariker), who wants to host a huge festival for tourists on the island. Chiranjeevi (Sukant Goel), aka Chiru, is your local two-timing fellow who doubles as a tourist driver by day, and also has a poaching agreement on the sides. There is a play on his name as well in Kaala Paani, as you will see further in the series. He befriends Santosh Salva (Vikas Kumar) and his family, who visit the islands as tourists. Then there’s ACP Ketan Kamat (Amey Wagh), who is the definition of a shrewd police officer. Watching Kamat, you would think that surely a man as wicked as him cannot change. But things take a different turn for him, thanks to Dr. Ritu Gagra (Radhika Mehrotra), a researcher who did not ever think she was to be working on something like this.
Most characters have origin stories in the series, upon which they rely to make challenging decisions as the plot advances. It is the best rendition of using so many characters to advance a single plot. Every one of them develop into newer versions of themselves, and you’re on track with every single curve.
The series is also a visual marvel, courtesy of Ewan Mulligan, Barny Crocker, and Dhananjay Navagrah. Mulligan has worked for equally stunning films like Article 15, and carries the same brilliance in Kaala Paani. A harrowing tale is given some relief with the cinematography, featuring some excellent landscape shots. They make you forget that the islands are festering with disease, and instead look like tropical getaway havens.
In all, Kaala Paani is going to make you reflect back at the pandemic, and the human suffering that it caused. It is an intensely introspective work that has you thinking about your own morality. In times of dire needs like an epidemic, humans are obligated to help others. Changing this dynamic will only lead to bad consequences, which continues to be the leitmotif in Kaala Paani. This series deserves more than just rave reviews; it needs to be seen as a reminder of what humanity is supposed to be like.