Of Cinema and Hair Oil

Road, Movie is a celebration of cinema’s unfailing power to bring people together

01 April, 2010

IN MOST ROAD MOVIES, stories revolve around aimless journeys of frustrated people not quite sure of what they are seeking. Instead of a tightly constructed plot that arouses anticipation, the road movie gives us the possibility of being witness to unfamiliar experiences, seeing exceptional people in strange circumstances. These movies are usually pessimistic because the protagonists try to escape a given reality—and the escape is difficult. Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) and Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise (1991) are two of the most celebrated road movies of all-time, and it is no coincidence that the lives of the protagonists in these two Hollywood films end tragically.

Dev Benegal’s Road, Movie is about a young man from a business family in Jodhpur who dreads joining his father in the family’s hair oil business and sets out on a journey across a desert.

Benegal first received acclaim with the adaptation of Upamanyu Chatterjee’s novel English, August (1994). That film, about the experiences of a young IAS probationer posted in a small town in Andhra Pradesh, adopted an unpleasant, sneering attitude towards the milieu it was depicting—a sense of urban sophistication lost among the uncultivated. Like Agastya in English, August, Vishnu (Abhay Deol) of Road, Movie is too sensitive for his environment and it is in a peeved state that he embarks on his journey. He volunteers to drive his uncle’s truck, a battered 1942 Chevrolet (which he later finds out is a travelling cinema) that has to be sold to a distant museum in a seaside town across the Kutch desert. The truck carries projection equipment and reels of film, from old kitschy Indian films to silent comedies of Hollywood.

While a road movie is most effective when dealing with actual towns or settlements which can give us a sense of the life lived in far-flung corners, much of Benegal’s film is set in the uninhabited desert. The characters Vishnu meets are not people who are rooted but homeless wanderers. Vishnu picks up three of them—a kid from a roadside dhaba (Mohammed Faisal), a burlesque mechanic called Om (Satish Kaushik) and a gypsy woman (Tannishtha Chatterjee). Keeping the three together is their dependence on the ramshackle truck, and most of their experiences centre around screenings of films arranged for passing locals. On their unlikely journey, the crew encounters antagonists such as corrupt cops and dreaded dacoits.

The film can be read as a celebration of cinema’s unfailing power to entrance people and bring them together. The comma between ‘road’ and ‘movie’ in the title is perhaps meant to suggest ‘road’ and ‘movie’ as separate experiences, knitting together spaces and people otherwise far apart. The most overwhelming sequences in the film involve makeshift screens put up for ‘shows’—with only the horizon to mark a space—and the night air in the desert ceremonially lit up by Dev Anand, Hema Malini and Amitabh Bachchan with their unfailing Bollywood magic.

Road, Movie moves slowly, and we wait for something to happen—something to interrupt the desert panorama with some action. The situations that Benegal sets up turn out somewhat synthetic—an encounter with a brutal policeman, which includes a sequence involving torture, and a local fair in the desert to which the wandering mechanic is headed, and a meeting with a ‘water lord’ who attacks them with his henchmen after they have ‘stolen’ from his well. Since the only weapons in Vishnu’s possession are cinema equipment and hair oil, it may well be expected that the two will come in handy. The policeman gets emotional when bits from Hindi films are projected on to a wall, and the ‘water lord’ won over when Vishnu gives him some hair oil to slick down his tresses. The film resorts to parody here as it turns out to be an impossible situation for the characters, poking fun at its own notion of a ‘water lord’ killing people for stealing water.

The high point of Road, Movie is the camerawork, and the cinematography by Michel Amathieu. Every frame of the film is dazzling, despite Benegal not giving his cinematographer enough creative opportunities. Road, Movie is rarely set in any human habitation, which would have lent more character to the images. The early segments set in a teeming Jodhpur are, visually, not less interesting than those in the desert. Amathieu seems to take interest in locales and images that Benegal—who would rather have panoramic views—finds commonplace. The music by Michael Brook aspires to be experimental, but the score might have been more at home in a Hollywood road movie. The parodic mix in the ‘water lord’ sequence, however, works perfectly, as it draws from the spaghetti Western oeuvre of Ennio Morricone.

Abhay Deol has become synonymous with the new Hindi cinema perhaps because of his subdued presence—very different from the strutting of many mainstream actors. It helps that he is slight of build and has not tried to cultivate the stereotyped Bollywood physique. Unlike actors from earlier art cinema—Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri—he does not try to ‘act’ but simply ‘is.’ His only drawback is that he does not convey a sense of ‘interiority,’ and this means that the more he has to play a person with hidden depths (as in Dev D) the more unconvincing he appears. Abhay Deol is just right for Road, Movie, though, because Vishnu is not a complicated person and the film does not give him any introspective moments. Satish Kaushik has been chosen to play the mechanic primarily for the character’s appearance—obese and unkempt—and his is certainly the easier role to pull off.

The film is curiously poised because while it does not seem like the usual Indian fare, it doesn’t deliver on many of our expectations from the road movie genre, which demands an understanding of the local environment. It is becoming increasingly difficult to assess and evaluate new cinema in Hindi because the rules it follows are so unclear.

Dev Benegal knows his cinema. His film shows a familiarity with Wim Wenders’ Kings of the Road (1976), about two mechanics specialising in film projection equipment, travelling along the border between East and West Germany and visiting rundown theatres. And the glittering mela segment from Road, Movie is inspired by Federico Fellini’s (1963). What the director does not understand, apparently, is the social milieu in India—the boy who works in a rural teashop constantly makes fun of the upper class Vishnu, which includes telling the protagonist at one point that that the teashop is no Starbucks. Social hierarchy is writ large in every interaction in India but the film is oblivious to it. The banjara woman and Vishnu are so urbane in their lovemaking they could be from French cinema. Such complaints about a film’s unfamiliarity with local social behaviour would not hold strong in mainstream cinema where the whole approach is make believe, but Road, Movie pretends to deal with real people and situations. If one were to make a comparison with a mainstream Hindi road movie, Road, Movie is false in a way that Bunty Aur Babli (2005) is not.

A stronger complaint against Road, Movie is that it has no sense of progression. Vishnu is in the same condition at the conclusion of his journey as the beginning of it. The mechanic dies in fits of laughter while watching a Harold Lloyd film, and the Banjara woman and the kid wander off in the desert because Vishnu has to go back to where he belongs. Since we see Vishnu and the woman as equals who love each other, what prevents them from coming together? Benegal appears suddenly aware of the inequality between a hair oil magnate and a tribal woman. Also, after the hair oil business has been so sneered at throughout the film, how can Vishnu return to it at all?

Dev Benegal has not been very productive after English, August, having made only one feature—Split Wide Open (1999)—in the many years following it. Road, Movie suggests that he has awakened to India as a wondrous cinematic space. But alongside, he has understood that mainstream Indian cinema as it once was is the experience that might bring people from different walks together, even if this experience lasts only for a few flickering moments.