Still awaiting a UK release date director Dev Benegal’s latest film Road, Movie has met with disastrous domestic box office results. That I guess is going to be the real tragedy of this impressive third feature from the nephew of Shyam Benegal. Both of Benegal’s first two films – English, August (1994) and Split Wide Open (1999) are currently unavailable on DVD and are referred to by some critics as having heralded the beginning of a new wave in Indian art cinema. It is difficult to try and position his latest film in terms of a wider body of work thus I am going to stay clear of getting into any kind of detailed analysis of his status as a contemporary auteur. A co-production between the US and India, Benegal’s film is one of the most magical films I have seen in a while. Combining the love of cinema with the conventions of the road movie genre, the story sees Vishnu (Abhay Deol), a symbol of the middle class Indian youth who has become trapped in the family business of selling hair oil travelling across the mythical landscape of Rajasthan’s deserts and roads so he can return a tired old Chevy truck to a museum. It is only when he picks up a young boy (Mohammed Faisal) and a mysterious aging man (Satish Kaushik in a wonderfully touching and steal scening performance) is he made aware of the Chevy he is driving houses a mobile cinema including reels of film and a rusty old projector.
The road movie genre means that the destination is less important than the changes and discovery a group of people undergo whilst travelling together as a displaced family. In many ways, this is a conventional road movie with Benegal using the allegory of cinema as a way of illustrating how it cuts across society, vanquishing problems and transforming the lives of people. Benegal's film is also hugely reflexive in that Vishnu's coming of age is manifested through two scenarios which have often been repeated in popular Hindi cinema: the villain and the love interest. Falling for the charms of a beautiful gypsy woman (Tannishtha Chatterjee) and heroically standing up to the despotic overtures of a rural bandit (Yashpal Sharma), Vishnu's transformation is both comically staged whilst in a way paying homage to the satisfying escapism of the Bollywood masala movie. A number of sequences stand out including the midnight Mela on the desert plains of Rajasthan and in particular the first occasion in which Vishnu and his helpers set up the mobile cinema, projecting the images of classic Hindi cinema (Deewar) on to the walls of a police station.
Abhay Deol is fast becoming the leading actor of his generation, having starred in a series of critically acclaimed offbeat art films including the noirish Manorama Six Feet Under (2007), Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008) and Dev D (2009). Road, Movie is another one Abhay Deol can chalk up on what is shaping up to be an impressive filmography. Another aspect to savour is the technically flawless shape of the film including magnificent cinematography by Michel Amathieu, an understated ambient score by Michael Brook and a rich production design by Hollywood Anne Seibel. In terms of cinematic influences, Benegal draws upon a range of classic European and American road movies including Wim Wenders definitive Kings of the Road (1976) and Cinema Paradiso (1988). Benegal's film is one of the most poignantly crafted Indian art films of the last few years and it deserves to be seen by a wider audience. The website for the film is a little movie in itself and is full of useful information related to the production context. Road, Movie is currently available through a DVD import from India but I am still hopeful it will get a UK release. A masterpiece? It might just be.