Road, Movie: Wanders Aimlessly

Split Wide Open (SWO) is one of my all time favourites. It is one of the best thematically diverse scripts that came out of India. Looking back, that’s probably the only way you can go about a movie set in Bombay -- where Bombay is not merely where-things-happen, but a forceful shade that colours all the characters in its canvas. It's the only movie of Dev Benegal’s I had seen until I watched Road, Movie. I followed Dev’s blog for quite some time to see if he’s up to something. But mostly to know if the DVDs of English, August and SWO are available (something, I’m sure, Dev is tired of answering). I’ll probably write about the latter in greater detail after watching it again.

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.

English, Tamil: Ideology vs. Reality (3 of 3)

Bernstein states that the way 'a society selects, classifies, distributes, transmits and evaluates the educational knowledge it considers to be public, reflects both the distribution of power and the principles of social control.’ Habermas and Bernstein, among others, provide some crucial rubrics to understand the complex political processes that underpin the medium of instruction issue in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka -- and similar Indian states -- which carry strong political and ideological overtones. Habermas regards ideology as ‘systematically distorted communication’ and the ‘suppression of generalizable interests,’ where structural features in communities (including language communities) and societies operate to the advantage of the dominant and the disadvantage of subordinate groups. Ideology here is taken to be the values of dominant groups in society that permeate the social structure, with or without the consensus of all. Power, through ideology, is omnipresent in language. And language is a principal means for the operation of power. Going by Gramsci’s notion of hegemony – domination by consent of all parties, including the dominated – language is intimately involved in the manufacture of ideological consent and in turn where power resides.

Tamil Nadu provides for a very insightful case study in this regard. The MOI issue in Tamil Nadu is bound by issues of power, domination, legitimacy and social stratification. Historically, the Tamil region has had an uncomfortable relationship with the Indian union and it was one of the only states that problematized the notion of having a national language – to be used for all official communication and to be used as the MOI in all public schools – and was successful in undermining the idea altogether. But it also gave birth to a political discourse that was obsessed with a rigid Tamil identity. The Dravidian governments have insisted, since then, on the necessity to preserve 'Tamil heritage' and its purported uniqueness. They have expressed concerns over Tamil losing its stature among its own populace.

Even if one does not problematize essentialist notions such as 'Tamil heritage', it is untenable to assume that maintaining Tamil as the primary medium of instruction in public schools would achieve that goal. The government has not done any studies to establish if public schools have produced more ‘authentic Tamils’ than private schools. Both in terms of feasibility and ideological apprehension that Tamil will lose its foothold among its people, the governments’ concerns seem unfounded. The Dravidian parties (DMK and ADMK) have, over the decades, used Tamil to exploit a populist sentiment that is not necessarily reflected on people’s economic aspirations and the means to achieving them. However, this populist sentiment is not peculiar to Tamil politics alone. The mainstream media, especially films, exhibit a dichotomous behavior in which people who speak ‘pure’ Tamil considered to be true to their identity while indirectly maintaining that those who speak ‘good’ English are sophisticated. (This observation is all the more relevant for a state like Tamil Nadu.)

‘Symbolic violence’, Bourdieu says, is when structures of domination in a society are reproduced by imposing cultural values claimed to be universal. English, in this context, maybe argued as an elitist cultural value thrust on the poor and socially backward by creating an illusion of empowerment while simultaneously delegitimizing Tamil’s role in achieving the same. But it is in direct contradiction with macro, external realities such as the difficulties faced by Tamil medium students when they enter the university level and the labour market. The underlying problem is not whether or not English is desired by all sections of the society but whether the State should maintain its exclusivity.


English linguistic capital continues to be linked to cultural and economic capital and to reproduce the existing stratification of society and schooling. This practice has only become stronger over the years; the recent economic growth driven by the IT industry has re-invented the elite status that English language has long held in India. Students’ performance in private, English medium schools has also legitimized the power exerted by English, further increasing its desirability. Therefore, it is unrealistic to hope that students from Tamil medium schools will be able to compete on a level playing field in the future.

The MOI issue in Tamil Nadu, may also be interpreted through Gidden's structuration theory: where agency (parental aspiration) combines with structure (parents’ cultural background and the school system) to produce and reify social structures and behavior. The successive governments lead by the Dravidian parties, by the way of restricting the MOI to Tamil in most of the public schools, has repressed the agency of those who need it the most – the poor and the backward classes. The political elites of Tamil Nadu – primarily from the Dravidian parties – have created a landscape that has normalized several false dichotomies.

The purported significance of a Tamil identity, it can be argued, is no more than a hegemonic thrust of a moralistic ideology that marginalized the fundamental aspirations of a people who were already politically and economically disenfranchised, especially the SC/ST. The DMK’s vision of empowering the masses by reclaiming the Tamil identity has been farcical at best. It laid a heuristic obstacle by creating dead ends to students who were indirectly forced to go through Tamil-medium schools. Tamil’s virtual absence in universities and colleges stand testament to this claim. The language policy is underpinned by the oversimplification of Tamil ethnic identity to medium of instruction in schools. A point that needs to be contrasted with the fact the much of the modern exposure of Tamil, as a language and a cultural entity, has been fuelled by social and technological development rooted in English.

A State that envisions an egalitarian society – that makes policy reforms to accommodate lower castes by quotas and other such reservation systems – should also take into account the interests of the wider public in other critical issues. Regardless of what percentage of people choose English-medium schools – if given the choice – the state government’s role in forcing them one way or the other is questionable. In a state with such visible stratification based on caste structures, the State needs to democratize the educational system in a way that reflects the current priorities of the people.

©2009 english-tamil