Why does Dev Benegal’s new film leave you with such a sense of deja vu?
Literary journalist Stephen Marche once wrote about the flood of international bildungsroman novels: “Every time I receive a copy of a new novel about growing up Russian or growing up Portuguese or growing up whatever, I have the same desperate thought: Can’t we all agree we’ve written this book before and that we don’t have to write it again?” This is, unfortunately, the feeling that Dev Benegal’s new film Road, Movie leaves you with. When Benegal stuck a comma into the genre, one hoped that he’d muddy the map a bit for this often tooneat genre. Instead, his only novelty in an entrenched arthouse narrative is to place it in Rajasthan and shoot it prettily from a truck’s hood and tyre rim.
At the movie’s centre is, of course, a phenomenon brimming with fascination for any filmmaker. During research, Benegal was astonished at how a travelling cinema parks itself in the middle of nowhere and just waits – and witnesses the slow day-long gathering of an audience. In our conversation, Benegal said he envisioned the colliding of two worlds: the road and the travelling cinema. He rumbles through both lazily.
Claiming the road movie as a favourite genre, Benegal says he “had a real desire to make a homage to it”, describing how he too ran away from his Delhi childhood to apprentice in travelling movie productions. It might hark back to the older narratives of saints crossing the desert (and Benegal is not unaware of this), but the road movie is a quintessentially American genre — the idea of journey, escape, undiscovered territory: Bonnie and Clyde to O Brother! Where Art Thou? to even Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Everyone from Susan Sarandon to Britney Spears has ventured onto the open highway, felt the wind in their hair and ‘found’ themselves. So does Abhay Deol’s character Vishnu, and one wouldn’t grudge it too much if there was any sense of Vishnu’s urgency. Why does the pilgrim need to progress? If Vishnu is running away from nothing and running towards nothing, then the somethings he runs into become trivial. Suitably, Vishnu runs away from a man in a mela whose offer of an oil massage reminds him of the petty bourgeois motivations of his father, an oldfashioned oil merchant. But mostly you spend long moments wondering why Deol is playing the louche instead of the script’s obvious douche. Gripping the truck’s wheel, his scowl comes off as a simper. Leaving the audience stuck on the road with a cipher.
The film is beset by this languor. The soft-focus shots of Vishnu’s calf-like father smelling the oil, the women singing songs while walking for water in the desert, are a marked departure from Benegal’s earlier pushes for gritty realism. Benegal says the movie’s original inspiration was Bob Dylan’s Mr Tambourine Man, and ‘Beneath The Diamond Sky’ was an early working title. While Benegal claims Dylan set the folksy mood for the film, we might get a better hint from the fact that the movie was produced by Ross Katz, Benegal’s friend of 10 years, who also made Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. India is about to see a spate of such slickly produced, genrefilling movies, using a kernel of something Indian with the same generic bland aesthetic – they will be the rage at film festivals around the world. We’ve all seen Road, Movie before. That’s the problem with clichés – they reek.