One of the joys of a good road film is its ability to spring surprises—when unexpected turns spell danger or wonderment; when characters you have no way of knowing well reveal, through transformative moments, who they are. There are many great examples; one that immediately comes to mind is Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise (1991).
Also inherent in the genre is the possibility of visual eloquence—of capturing a landscape at a particular time and age, and interpreting its beauty. In director Dev Benegal’s new film Road, Movie—his first after Split Wide Open (1999)—there is plenty of beauty for the eye. It’s a Rajasthan we have not often seen—brown, barren and daunting—and four bedraggled travellers braving it. But there’s no real mystery here. Although I travelled 90 minutes with these characters and a rickety cinema projector, I don’t know them at all—and I felt nothing for them at the end.
The journey begins when Vishnu (Abhay Deol), a disgruntled young man, decides to escape his staid small town life, spent selling oils that his father manufactures. He drives a decrepit truck (an antique 1942 model), the colour of an azure blue, faded and tattered at the edges, to Samudrapur, an imaginary town somewhere by the sea. On the way he encounters a young boy (Mohammed Faizal) who wants to escape from a roadside dhaba, and before you know it, he is in the truck, sitting beside Vishnu. Along the way, a wandering car mechanic (Satish Kaushik) hops in after repairing the fuming truck engine, soliciting a ride to a village fair. The three take a short cut through the desert. On the way, they almost die of thirst till a gypsy woman (Tannishtha Chatterjee) joins in. The expected happens between Vishnu and the woman.
The most memorable character in the film, soaked in romance, is the cinema projector and the broken cinema reels that the travellers screen during the journey. A particularly heartwarming scene involves a group of villagers tickled to loud chuckles by actor Buster Keaton on a grainy screen. Benegal is obviously enamoured of the magic of cinema under star-lit skies. But even so, cinema is just a punctuation in the film; it has nothing to do?with how the story progresses.
Although Benegal has stayed away from the usual exotic route—the Rajasthan of camels, palaces and Pushkar—associations with the “exotic Orient” are integral to the screenplay. The oil company of Vishnu’s father is called “Atma (soul) Oils”, for example, and these oils somehow become the panacea for all ills, including the wrath of a gun-toting water mafia don and his goons. There’s a touch of the bizarre in some scenes, deliberately so for the sake of humour. But given the skin-deep characters, it appears gimmicky, not satirical or profound.
The roadies: (from left) Faizal, Kaushik and Deol in Road, Movie.
Deol’s performance is not a tad above average; it seemed to me that he almost slept through the film, either sulking in the beginning or grinning in the end, after his supposed self-discovery. The only character who is believable, brilliantly essayed by Kaushik, is that of Om—a man with pride, a wry sense of humour, love of cinema, and the best and funniest lines in the film. Chatterjee’s character is entirely forgettable if you don’t consider kohl-lined eyes and silver ear-danglers character traits.
What stayed with me hours after the film was a visual montage: men on stilts walking past a billowing white cinema screen under a moon-lit sky; a donkey lazily passing by the blue truck in nowhereland; a giant, neon-lit ferris wheel in motion and men in masks dancing around it. Benegal has given Indian exotica a sophisticated edge.
Road, Movie released in theatres on Friday.