Indie pioneer filmmaker Dev Benegal talks about the journeys
and inspirations behind Road, Movie, his first feature in a decade
The road movie genre includes both the idea of journey, of escape – quintessentially American – and the religious pilgrimage and saints crossing the desert. Were these on your mind while making the movie?
(Sighs and then laughs) You seem to have read my mind! I love genre. I’ve grown up on it. Road movies are one my favourites. I know for sure that A Hard Day’s Night was an all-time favourite. I also love the british film Radio On. I had a real desire to make a homage to the genre. In my own life I ran away from Delhi and apprenticed in travelling movies productions. The travelling cinema is a strange pilgrimage, with no god in sight at the end but a huge movie screen – the cinema becomes a modern-day temple. So I had two things on my mind – a homage to genre and the idea of travelling cinemas. I’ll be publishing a book about travelling cinemas by the end of this year.
Your producer Ross Katz also produced Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation, and Road,Movie has a feel of an international aesthetic. Was that deliberate? Did you think about the difference in expectations between an Indian audience vs. a Western audience?
When I wrote the movie I wasn’t thinking of any of that. The real inspiration was [Bob] Dylan’s song Mr Tambourine Man. That’s what inspired me – “to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free / Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands”. ‘Beneath the Diamond Sky’ was an early title for the movie. There’s a certain [similar] stillness and solitude in Kutch and Rajasthan. When I watch movies alone I get the same feeling. But when I was watching with 4,000 people, I still had the same feeling. It informed how I shot it, how I looked at it. Ross has been a friend for 10 years. I didn’t set out to make an international movie. Dylan was the inspiration for the mood, tone, world, characters. He informed the style without being there. There’s a folksy quality, raw, unpredictable, harsh.
Weren’t you tempted to put the Dylan song in the movie?
No, I wasn’t. I do quote it in an absurd manner in the end which probably most people will miss – Vishnu says “Forget about today until tomorrow.”
The song from Pyaasa – Sar Jo Tera Chakrai was also in my head. [I remembered how] My son would hate getting his hair oiled. That song wouldn’t disappear from my head. It has something with the darkness of the world Vishnu is escaping. There’s little dialogue. To paraphrase John Ford, the greatest landscape is not rajas and Kutch, it’s the eyes of my actors. I saw the world through their eyes.
A few years ago you said you find India the most exciting place to make movies?
Yes, Indian audiences are far ahead of where we think they are, at picking up subtleties. I’ve seen it with this movie’s screenings too.
The film’s look is barren and the story is picaresque, catch as catch can. Did you put more emphasis on the story or the visuals?
Both I and my director of photography were clear that this is not a National Geographic movie. Prime to us are the characters, their journey, their emotions. I tried to foreground that with carefully chosen images.
There is deliberate melodrama all throughout the movie – the oil massage sequence with the water dacoit, the cop sequence, even the death sequence with Satish Kaushik being wrapped in the cinema’s projection cloth, the mela gathering around the cinema…
I was looking at our idea of what movies are and our idea of watching them. There’s the classic bad guy, the woman, the old mentor. The journey is classic, as with Greek characters. The film tips its hat to movies as well. These things you mentioned – the over-the-top speech of the bad guy and ruthless cops comes from the tradition of old Westerns. But you do find it in the Indian countryside. It’s not devoid of it, and yet it has a certain…people have said it seem like magical realism. It might seem unreal but it happens everyday. During shooting I was caught by such a cop. I remember sitting for hours with the travelling cinema, and almost about to leave, but stayed for some [inexplicable] reason, and a few people [eventually] appeared on the horizon. Then they stretched a bed sheet to project on, and by night there were 3,000 people. The next morning no one was there. It did happen.
Abhay Deol plays his typical guy – languorous, louche, lounging, but this time you also made him slightly mean-spirited.
He’s got a lot of spine. He’s willing to take on characters who’re not nice. Vishnu is not a nice guy, he’s closed in, selfish. That change in him though the journey was critical to the story. He had no qualms about it. One could sense his freedom from anxiety at the end. I didn’t want him to be a classic hero, he’s an accidental hero. Abhay played it in an intelligent manner. It’s clear to me that all the jokes are on him. He’s a likeable character, and [Abhay is] wonderful at vulnerability, draws upon it. He reconciles at the end with things, but there’s a gentleness with which he does it.
Why the big gap since your last movie?
[Laughs] I was about to say I hope you’re not going to ask that question!
Let me ask something else that you’ve probably been asked a lot about – what’s with the comma in the title?
You know, someone asked me whether this is a vaasthu thing, and I cracked up! I wish I’d thought of that. it’s an ironic play on the genre. It’s also a little reference to my first film. It’s about two worlds colliding – the travelling cinema and world of the road.
Are you still working on a Ramanujan biopic?
Yes, it’ll be one of my next movies.
When can we expect your next feature?
Not in another 10 years! [laughs]. I’m hoping to begin later this.