Road, Movie: A Review

Road, Movie – Dir: Dev Benegal. *ing: Abhay Deol, Satish Kaushik, Mohammed Faisal, Tannishtha Chatterjee

No, that’s not a typo, the title of the film really is road-comma-movie, for those are the two main narrative and thematic elements at work in this, director Benegal’s fourth outing, and, perhaps more importantly, actor/star Deol’s much anticipated follow-up to the avant garde-by-Bolly-standards hit Dev. D. The road in question is the dusty, uneven desert road on which Vishnu (Deol) ploughs a borrowed, murky blue-green 1942 Chevy truck, as well as perhaps the road-to-a-destination that his life is trying to find. ‘Movie’ refers to the traveling cinema packed away in the innards of said truck, where Bachchan and Chaplin fraternize and myriad dreams converge and disperse. Weighty, though also somewhat vague metaphors, yes, but not entirely unfamiliar or unexpected if you have encountered Benegal’s idiom before in his earlier films such as English, August and Split Wide Open. Road, Movie is probably his most ambiguous, languorous work yet – to call its pace ‘leisurely’ would be putting it mildly. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, if you go in prepared for what it’s supposed to be: a sometimes dreamlike, somber spirited mood piece.

Abhay Deol has very pointedly set himself on the path less traveled in Bollyland, and taken up the mantle of an alternative New Indian Cinema, playing almost-always unlikable urban grunts who must find redemption (or a modicum of it at least) by putting themselves through a humiliating process of self-discovery, and discovery of selflessness. Here, as Vishnu, he wants to flee (even if temporarily) the surefire dead-end banality of his future as the scion of a hair oil manufacturer. So it is that he sets off on a six-day sojourn through the heart of the Rajasthan desert, with movies and oil as his cargo. Along the way, he acquires three unwanted companions: a smart-mouthed chai-wala boy (Faisal), a roly poly movie-loving mechanic (Kaushik), and a banjaran searching for water (Chatterjee). And that’s pretty much it. Together the three bicker and make up, experience the thirst that accompanies the parched, stark beauty of the desert, bring joy to the inhabitants of the wilderness with their impromptu ‘fillum’ shows, and, in a sequence with a climax so screamingly absurd that it is either a darkly comic stroke of genius or a dramatic travesty, they also stump the local water baron; let’s just say that Atma Hair Oil is involved.

In a somewhat underwritten part – it certainly doesn’t have the flamboyance or verbosity of Dev. D – Deol still manages to infuse Vishnu with depth and a microscopic amount of pathos minus the sentimentality. If that sounds unlikely it should be indication enough that the actor is thriving in the niche he has carved out for himself, and his confidence as a screen performer makes intriguing (and appealing) a character that is at first wholly difficult to empathise with. The supporting actors are adequate though not nearly as interesting as the protagonist; Chatterjee, however, looks and sounds too urbanized for her part. Towering above everything else is the stunning imagery; D.O.P Michel Amathieu creates some truly gorgeous compositions with the ochre and teal of desert and sky. But with its loose, aimless, almost sleepy screenplay, and complete lack of masala flourishes, Road, Movie is really not for an audience that likes its movies to goose-step to an obvious finish line. You have been warned!

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