Here’s a typical road movie: characters start at some point – geographically and metaphorically – with a particular set of characteristics that defines each character. As they travel, they chance upon few/several experiences that range from mildly funny to outright bizarre. At the end of the journey, all the characters would have had some kind of revelation and their life paths are altered forever. Road movies usually don’t have enough time to develop characters systematically. They are unraveled alongside what they experience on the road. So it’s mostly FYI. It’s silly to ask “what motivates this character to do that?”
For the most part Road, Movie stays true to the tradition. But even for a road movie, Road, Movie doesn’t seem to have the patience to construct a meaningful launch pad; for the events that set things in motion. The director seems to have been keener on getting some chuckles than to make sense of the protagonist’s characterization – his social class, education etc. Vishnu's (Abhay Deol) father is some kind of small business owner who makes hair oil whose smell isn’t all that flattering. He incessantly lectures about the virtues of his hair oil, point by point to his son – including its ability to make men virile – so that he becomes a good salesman (it happens once at the dinner table with all the family members present).
Vishnu plans a brief escape from this apparent torment by offering to help his uncle to deliver a 1940s Chevy truck to a distant town. Set entirely in Rajasthan, the truck and the narrative make pit stops at various plot points that are haphazardly developed. Like any road movie, Road, Movie keeps introducing characters as it progresses. Some are less fleeting than the others. The wisecracking boy from the tea shop (they are all wisecracking, aren’t they?), the older and wiser truck mechanic, and the wandering gypsy woman.
Many of the film’s initial scenes are quite sketchy and structured like an ordinary joke – “two priests and a stripper walk into a bar…” We don’t ask why the priests are with a stripper, we just wait for the punch line to be delivered. The director takes the same liberty throughout the movie. It tries to maintain a satirical tone while dealing with some edgy issues such as police brutality, water shortage and water mafias (a recurring theme from SWO) and the hostile landscape in general. It’s an effort that, perhaps, partly succeeds. Dev Benegal may have strong political views, but it comes across as contrived sermons in this movie (unlike SWO). The role of the moving cinema in all of this is mostly invisible until the end. It serves for a decent montage by then.
Leaving aside its politics and thematic depth, the biggest problem I had with this film was that it was slow. I kept staring at my watch. Maybe it was the damn truck. The jokes and some ‘interesting moments’ work best when viewed with a good theatre audience. In spite some amazing visuals and complementing background score, it failed to keep me engaged – it’s no Lawrence of Arabia. The scenery is simply too tiring for the movie’s pace. And as for acting and dialogues, it’s hit-and-miss. I also got the feeling that Abhay Deol’s ability as an actor is not too broad. He chooses relatively different scripts, but his characters exude the same demeanour – indifferent, uptight and fretful. Well, at least he seems to have a likeable personality.
Addendum: I went for the movie premiere at the TIFF. I’ve often felt that the term ‘creator’s indulgence’ is used loosely. But I think Dev Benegal was a bit self-indulgent with Road, Movie. His answers and body language, post screening during Q&A, suggested that, too. Maybe it’s the stupid ‘desis’ questions that elicited it. They pissed me so much that I’m thinking of doing a short podcast on it. I was eventually able to ask him about the recurring theme I’d mentioned earlier. I’ll try to post the video soon (it’s in really bad quality). Dev has said that he’ll post it too. I feel like saying a lot more about the evening, but I’ll stop here. I’ll say more under comments, perhaps.