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Treading uncharted territory

A movie maker went trotting along India on a journey to debunk clichéd depictions of its interiors. He drove along borders and wound up uncovering mythic landscapes.

india Updated: Mar 17, 2010 01:15 IST
Dev Benegal
Dev Benegal
Hindustan Times

My travel across Rajasthan and Kutch had me skirting the border on roads built by the Border Road Organisation. They’ve single-handedly constructed some of the most amazing routes in places one would never imagine existed. All along them, which cut across uncharted areas of India, you come across funny, somewhat poetic signs that the road makers have put up. You get to read such gems —

“If you are married, divorce speed.”

“I love you, but not so fast.”

“Check your nerves on my curves.”

My big concern while making Road, Movie was that Rajasthan has already been well documented pictorially and visually in books and films. But everyone I spoke to said that other than the clichés, the areas were largely unknown.

To begin with, this was both a relief and a challenge — I needed to go beyond the clichés and find something original and authentic that resonated well with the audience. I wanted to find the Rajasthan that would lend life to my film, and surprise the people who thought they knew the land well.

Strange discoveries
Several million years ago — some say 35 others 180, or even 225 — Jaisalmer was a sea bed. Today one can see traces of its past in the rock formations, lava, fossils and, if one is lucky, sea shells that abound there. The border roads led me to discover even the mythic landscapes of India.

Amongst the most memorable roads was the Tanot-Longowal — one with no sign of life; marked only by eerie gusts of winds. A straight road like an arrow pierced into its heartland, a trail that led me straight to where the battle of Longowal was fought.

Forts and sand farms
The Longowal Ghotadu is yet another stunning road — stark and barren, except for the occasional mud hut where people live in temperatures that rise up to 50 degrees Celsius. Here, pots of water are buried in the sand to keep them cool and prevent water from evaporating.

Veer off the road, and you’re following a group of camels to the abandoned fortress of Ghotadu; it’s a stunning fortress built from mud bricks.

Then there’s the Tanot Shiv road on which you need permission to travel. It takes you to the last outpost between India and Pakistan with the ruined fort of Shiva being the only sign that there’s life nearby.

The Khaba road takes you past the fossils, the lava formations and, if you keep driving further, ends at the abandoned town of Kuldhara. Once inhabited by the Paliwal Brahmins, it was abandoned one night when the entire community left en masse.

From Rajasthan, the road to Barmer and then into Kutch is unforgettable.

My favourite journey was on the road to India Bridge. You cross the Tropic of Cancer and arrive at the last outpost before the great Rann of Kutch begins. At the end of this road, you stand facing the vast expanse of the Rann.

In front of you, there’s a twenty seven thousand square kilometre stretch of white sand.

Where next?
Perhaps off-road, on a camel, trampling across that immense matted blanket. On a full moon night, especially, it’s magical.
Benegal is the director of Road, Movie, which released last week

First Published: Mar 14, 2010 22:40 IST