The first thing you notice about Dev Benegal’s Road, Movie is the color. The opening shot shows a hillside covered by tightly bunched homes, all slightly different shades of light blue, coming together like the strategic daubs of paint in an impressionist painting, coming together into something bigger. A row of bottles is next, each full of bright liquors, just out of focus in a wooden rack. This pair of images set the tone for the entire film: beautiful, saturated in color, and more than a little bit surreal and dreamlike.
Although Indian in origin, Road, Movie calls to mind the work of two western directors, Alex Cox and Alejandro Jodorowsky, and is sort of middle ground between the former’s Searchers 2.0 and the latter’s El Topo. Road, Movie is an off-kilter journey across a mystical, gradually vanishing desert landscape where nothing meets expectations, and the very goal of the journey itself is never completely clear, morphing and evolving over time.
Vishnu (Bollywood mega star Abhay Deol) wants out of his life, out of the family business, a dead end trade hawking questionable hair oil. When a family friend has to deliver a truck—a 1942 Chevy that once served as a mobile cinema, traveling the countryside, screening films—to the city by the sea, Vishnu talks his way into the driver’s seat. Vishnu is pumped to hit the road, even if it will only be for six days, as originally planned.
However, his road trip turns out not to be as simple as he originally thought, and he meets with a number of tangential roadblocks, some metaphorical, others very real. Along the way he picks up a young urchin (Mohammed Faizal) who is also looking to runaway from his life, and Om, a wandering entertainer (Satish Kaushik), who doubles as a de facto mechanic for their decrepit craft in exchange for a ride to a fair.
After a while it becomes abundantly clear that no one has any idea where they are going, and their path takes them deeper and deeper into uncharted territory. Their transformative wandering thrusts them into an escalating sequence of harrowing situations and strange circumstances. Under penalty of torture and probably death, the sheriff of a remote village blackmails them into showing a movie, projecting it upon the wall of a prison. On their search for water in the desert their path drifts across that of a beautiful gypsy (Tannishtha Chatterjee), and into the sight of a local waterlord, a violent, H2O-hoarding bandit.
Eventually the crew reaches the spot where Om’s fair is supposed to be held, a place that is so blanched and white that it looks like the characters have wandered off of the frame of the film and into a world where nothing exists. In the middle of all of this desolate nothingness, they have an “If you build it, they will come,” moment, where they set up their portable screen, and low and behold, an entire carnival spontaneously arrives, complete with circus freaks, magicians, masked strangers, musicians, balloons, and even spinning, brightly lit rides.
Within the surrealist confines of Road, Movie, none of this is all that strange. In fact, Benegal has constructed a world that is so comfortable being off balance that these proceedings actually seem like the natural progression of things, how events are supposed to transpire. Road, Movie is a lot of things. It’s a little bit musical, a touch bittersweet spaghetti western, a dreamlike road movie, as well as a smidge heroic. All in all, it is a weird mix of seemingly discordant elements and influences, but one that comes together to create something as wholly unusual as it is compulsively watchable.
Released by Tribeca Film, in conjunction with the Tribeca Film Festival, the DVD only comes with a pair of short bonus features, that while only three and five minutes, respectively, they are worth watching and enhance the film. The first extra is a short interview with director Benegal as he recounts the particular trials and tribulations of shooting Road, Movie. In particular the production continually battled temperatures that regularly topped 120 degrees, heat that actually melted the camera at one point.
The second is a quick collection of interviews with the main players from the cast and crew, including Benegal, Deol, and Chatterjee. At it’s heart, Road, Movie is a love letter to movies, to the transformative power of cinema and all of the things it can do.