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Kala Pani (1996)
The best film I've seen from India.
"Kalaa Paani" is one of those films that the Indian film industry churns out from time to time to convince the rest of the world that Indian film-makers are perfectly capable of making great films, films that will have a powerful impact on the viewer, films that you cannot easily forget (if at all you can). It rises above established conventions and is of the same class as films such as "Gandhi" and others.
Be warned that, below, although I have tried not to give too much away, I am including a summary of the plot.
The film features a good cast, although not a perfect one: Mohanlal and Prabhu play the leading roles, those of Govardhan Nair and Mukund Iyengar respectively, Tabu is Paarvathi, Govardhan's wife, Alex Draper is David Barry, the tyrannical jailor, Amrish Puri is Mirza Khan, his sub-ordinate officer, and other actors such as "Delhi" Ganesh, Sreeni, "Cochin" Hanifa, and several others. We are basically told a story about the lives of prisoners in a prison in British India and their relationships. This is where the film shows originality. We are not being told about the Indian Freedom Struggle itself, we are told about what it was like to be in prison in British India, that is all. A point to be noted here is that the lives of prisoners in FREE India, and indeed, perhaps almost everywhere else in the world, is just as horrifically sad as we see in this movie.
Govardhan Nair (as already mentioned, played by Mohanlal), a doctor, intending to help some friends of an old aquaintance of his, unwittingly helps a group of terrorists plant an explosive on the path of a train carrying a few British officials. Despite his desperate efforts to avert the tragedy when he realises what he has done, misfortune strikes him, the bomb explodes, killing fifty-five people and he is sent to prison on charges of murder. Here, he meets other people who have actually committed crimes involving participation in terrorist activity and "revenge" attacks (and he also meets other people, who are actually innocent of committing any crime, just as he is). He forms relationships with these people, partly in the hope that he will have a positive influence on their lives, i.e., intending to turn them away from violence. We also see that sometimes, beneath their hardened, disturbing exteriors, criminals can have human sides, too. After all, as they say, sometimes criminals are made, not born. The rest of the film tells the heart-rending story that can sometimes be nastily play out in innocent people's lives. I think I have to mention that there is one scene in this film that is really saddening. It's probably the saddest scene in any film ever made. But strangely enough, while I could feel a lump in my throat, I wasn't really moved to tears.
The cinematography is excellent. The sound was stunning when I watched the movie in the theatre, the film being one of the earliest films made in India to utilise the "dts" sound system. The makers of the film did not make a gimmick of this fact, but it got noticed anyway - the way a film should gain praise. The art directors and the set decorators are the people who, in my opinion, have let the rest of the crew down slightly. There are several occasions when you can clearly see that you're actually being shown a set, but there certainly are several other occasions when this is in a way, made up for. And of course, you can sometimes see that you are being shown showers from hose pipes in place of rain. The music by Ilayaraja, one of India's finest musicians, is excellent, except for one song, which isn't too bad, but still not as good as the rest of his work in this film. The make-up crew have worked really hard and have done a good job, at least by Indian standards. It is unfortunate that these few flaws are present in an otherwise great film.
To sum up, if you've never watched Indian films and you want to watch one, this is the one.