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 The film seems out of date not just because India has changed dramatically in recent years, but because its mood is substantially 1970s existentialist arthouse.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.


seana graham said...

I have to say that whenever a projector appears within a movie, it is more often than not a signal that I am going to be bored to tears by some sequence that is fascinating to the director but not at all to me.

Girish Shahane said...

True. It worked in Cinema Paradiso, among other things because the projected scenes dovetailed with the plot.
But most of the time what is projected is not very interesting, and one doesn't really believe the director thinks it is magical either. It is not about the magic of the movies so much as 'the magic of the movies' if you know what I mean.

seana graham said...


Jabeen said...

If it relies on his memories, I must say he doesn't remember much!

I don't think changing the time period would have helped, this film just has the wrong attitude. The screenplay is like name-dropping. Travelling cinema, water shortage, mafia, hair oil, village mela - all of these are just phrases thrown out at the audience without any attempt to actually explore them in a meaningful way. Like we're supposed to be impressed just at the mention of these things.

It's most charitable of you to even think of Almost Famous as a comparison!

seana graham said...

I suppose the way they market it to the West is as 'picaresque'.

I think there was a time when "local color" and exoticism counted for enough to get people to buy tickets. Nowadays, though, an actual story is needed.

jaimit said...

WARNING: This movie has no story. If it reminds you of some one you know or something you have experienced.. go back to sleep.
so whats the deal... you get Abhay Deaol to sign some movie and the financiers just open the coffers and pay up? is thats it? who pays for this? why?

Girish Shahane said...

Jaimit, it's unfortunately true that signing a star is essential for getting financing in India. Road, Movie, however, is financed by non-Indians, and appears aimed at the international market rather than the domestic one, so there must've been calculations involved aside from the star.
As far as I know, Dev Benegal has developed a number of substantial projects over the past decade; strange he should get financing for this one and not the others. I'd have really liked to see his adaptation of Ravan and Eddie, for example.

Girish Shahane said...

I've been corrected; the funding for the movie came from India. I read the names of the producers (Ross Katz and Susan Landau), and of the mostly foreign tech crew, and assumed the money must've come from abroad.

Anonymous said...

This indeed sems to be aimed at the international market- how else do you explain no mention of a dialect coach in the long list of credits, and the fact that the Rajasthani nomad breaks into a Pahadi melody in the middle of the film?

The projected scenes are simply the ones for which DB managed to procure rights- most of them were from Gulshan Rai's production house, none of them of any iconic importance. And the water mafia seems to be imported from Split Wide Open straight into a desert scenario.
This was a slipshod product on so many counts, but i guess its pretentiousness has been its biggest flaw.


does anyone know if this movie is still playing in nyc?