Saturday, March 13, 2010
Dev Benegal's Road, Movie
I'd have loved to like Dev Benegal's Road, Movie, because I know him personally and admire his earlier films, but I'm afraid it is a mess. The film is part coming-of-age story, part magic realist fantasy, part political critique, and none of the parts is satisfying or convincing.
Vishnu (Abhay Deol) leaves his stifling home, and his father's perfumed hair oil business, to drive an old truck from Jodhpur or thereabouts (no actual locations are mentioned) to a town on the west coast. The truck contains a mobile cinema of the sort popular decades ago. In the course of the journey, Vishnu picks up a young boy; an old, wise man who is a genius with anything mechanical; and a beautiful gypsy woman. The old man offers to keep Vishnu's truck in good repair provided he is driven directly to the fair to which he's headed. He takes Vishnu off road, on what he calls a short-cut not marked on any map, and they end up on a deserted salt flat, probably the Rann of Kutch, which proceeds to fill with itinerants and traders. The group encounters a vicious policeman and later the local water mafia, but manages to evade them by employing the allure of cinema and that of perfumed hair oil. Then the old man dies for no particular reason except that old men of this sort are marked for death in the movies; and the gypsy and boy walk away into the desert for no particular reason except they have served their purpose; and Vishnu drives his truck into the sea for no particular reason.
I'll give one example of what I mean by confusion of genres. When the group is arrested by the policeman, they screen film scenes to keep him entertained. A big deal is made at this point about stealing power to operate the projector. In the Rann of Kutch, though, where an entire brilliantly lit mela materialises from nowhere, there is no indication of how the show is being powered. One can accept any transgression of realism, but there needs to be internal consistency within a narrative, and no attempt appears to have been made in this direction.
Aside from Vishnu's mobile phone, which, in any case, plays no role in the plot, everything about Road, Movie could have happened in 1980. It would've been more appropriate in that period, because today even the remotest communities have had a taste of television. The magic of the movies isn't what it used to be. The film seems out of date not just because India has changed dramatically in recent years, but because its mood is substantially 1970s existentialist arthouse. Like many of those arthouse flicks, Road, Movie is tedious: its failure to capture the playfulness of the picaresque leads to its 90 minute running time seeming interminable.
Definitely a film only foreigners can enjoy.
Update: I've read up a bit about the film now, and it seems it relies on memories from when Dev was a teenager or a young adult. This fits very well with the time frame in which I located the movie. He should have made it a period film. The distanced irony that comes from looking at another era would've imbued the film with a contemporary spirit. I'm reminded of Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe's best film, which is about Crowe's tryst with rock music as a young writer in 1970 or thereabouts. It captures the mood of that period, when rock music and the sexual revolution were still young. It would've been absurd for Crowe to set the same narrative in the noughties.