Worlds, ideologies, the old and the new, nature and commerce collide in a seven-part survival drama set on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Writers Biswapati Sarkar, Nimisha Misra, Sandeep Saket and Amit Golani’s ambitious story attempts to tackle numerous issues through various characters.
Events begin in December 2027, some years after the Covid-19 pandemic. A highly publicised tourism event is beginning at Port Blair. The intention is to bring in revenue and improve employment opportunities to the island state.
On the eve of the event, the chief medical officer (Mona Singh) discovers a deadly disease that has the capability of turning into an epidemic. The local corrupt senior of a punishment posting, in cahoots with a major sponsor, dismisses her caution and the event proceeds.
A local police force with top cops working against one another; an administration trying to protect the citizens and local tribal population, which is headed by Zibran Qadri (Ashutosh Gowariker); overwhelmed medical services; visitors from the mainland, including a family of four; a righteous specialist doctor; a nurse and her childhood crush; an unscrupulous and shifty local tour guide; members of the Oraka tribe – these are some of the characters in this drama. Their subplots and character arcs inflate the story, shifting focus constantly from the urgency of an escalating waterborne environmental and medical crisis.
The script abounds in metaphors, including the title itself, which refers to the colonial-era Cellular Jail in Port Blair where freedom fighters were incarcerated, just as the island is locked-down to become a vast prison. There is the psychological and ethical conundrum of the trolley problem thought experiment, the fable about the scorpion and the frog, a running Darwinian theory theme, and references to the food chain. There is also a constant tussle between duty and instinct, following the rules and breaking them.
The screenplay moves back and forth in time, going as far back as 1943, establishing the presence of Japanese forces pre-World War II and the resilience of indigenous tribes such as the Orakas, whose survival becomes inextricably linked to the deadly new virus.
Directors Sameer Saxena and Amit Golani build up the physical setting well, with dockyards, waterways, vast oceans and thick vegetation. Yet the expanse and remoteness of the islands, the frenzy and state of crisis, don’t always translate. The outdoor scenes are most immersive, particularly the wildness and the casting of the Orakas.
The drama occasionally feels melodramatic, especially the plight of a distraught father (Vikas Kumar) as he searches for his missing children. It also feels Bollywood in tone, particularly the way Amey Wagh plays police officer Ketan Kamat and a simmering love story between a nurse Jyotsna (Arushi Sharma) and her friend Vinayak (Priyansh Jora).
At other times, the tension and emotions are profound, captured by Chinmay Mandlekar as the steadfast doctor Mahajan, Radhika Mehrotra as the earnest communicable diseases expert Ritu Gagra, and Sukant Goel as the local hustler Chiru. Goel delivers a remarkable performance, transforming himself into his character, carrying the viewer along on Chiru’s complex journey of revelation and recompense.
Vikas Kumar powerfully conveys the exhaustion of a man running out of hope and options. Radhika Mehrotra rides the arc of one of the better-written characters, thoughtfully playing the determined professional who comes of age.
Kaala Paani has some virtuous notes and themes, but overstuffing the series, and some illogical swings in the story, dissipate the thrill of a survival drama.