Film: Road, Movie
Director: Dev Benegal
Actors: Abhay Deol, Tanishtha Chatterjee
Deol plays a lost trucker in this film, though he owns the 1942 model truck, and doesn’t quite ferry cargo for a living. A little boy he encounters at a dhaba in a desolate countryside calls him the “driver”. He's ticked off. The dhaba isn’t fancy either. To this, the boy says, Don’t expect Starbucks.
Now, Starbucks is popular Americana. The Seattle brand is unknown to most Indians, let alone, a poor kid in the country’s middle – of nowhere. At that moment alone, very early on in this road movie, you could tell the filmmaker is looking for a ‘whiter’ audience, not necessarily a ‘wider’ one.
The hunch turns out reasonably true. The Indian quaintness is fairly complete. The trucker pulls over a few times, and picks up along the way, besides Ray’s Apu-like boy, a Rajasthani gypsy (Chatterjee), and an over-dressed mechanic (Satish Kaushik). You also spot a maharaja’s palace (toward the end), and there are of course, exotically rustic Indian folk; stark poverty around the countryside’s lawlessness; and melodrama and songs of Bollywood, for the colour.
The point of this road-less journey remains mysteriously unknown though, given it’s the premise. You can’t quite place the leading man either, the wizard of pose: in Levi’s jeans, tightly trendy tee, cellphone in hand, iPod to the ears… You don’t know where he’s coming from, to figure where he’s going. He literally sells tel (exotic Indian oil) for a family business. Gone to get oil, or ‘gaya tel lene’ is of course an unrelated Indian metaphor for screwing yourself over.
The hero steps out without any supplies, across barrenness, alone, in a decrepit truck, not sure, to sell the truck that can barely move, or the ‘tel’. He does screw himself and his unlikely companions over. A random gent appears from nowhere to leave behind canisters of water for the group’s survival.
The landscape before them is an inescapably ‘Wim Wenders’ or ‘David Lynch’ vastness; unpopulated, unlimited, un-Indian -- soil and sand changes colours, cinema reels flutter in the wind…. Though a perfect sunset will look great anywhere, you can observe Benegal’s photographic sense of the visual. He films with care. Michael Brook’s subtle background score – especially the odd opening riffs from the Nusrat album Night Song – is sweet touch as well.
The truck carries as load, leftover cinema equipment. Compelled by circumstances or illogic, the hero and his companions show films on route. There is absolutely no one around. Thousands of ‘thirsties’ and ‘hungries’ materialise by perhaps the sound or sight of the screen from afar. The filmmaker equates the water mafia to corporates, or robber barons elsewhere. The tone remains staccato still.
What you crave from a film primarily about local films is a genuine nostalgic fondness for Bollywood as cinema. Merely montages from some popular flicks appear to disappear. References to silent star Harold Lloyd, or Buster Keaton, instead make for natives’ tastes.
As the director puts it in an interview, apparently this is how 70 per cent of India still watches films. Hmmm. I am told Robert DeNiro, who’s perhaps never quite been here before, loved this movie. I’m glad.