Road, Movie is an independent Indian film — and that’s a bigger deal than you might expect. India has a massive, globally successful film industry, with a long and proud history. You’d think this would create fertile ground for experimentation on the side; but surprisingly, independent filmmakers there don’t have it easy.

This reality hit me with Bombay Summer (Joseph Mathew, 2008), one of my favorite recent films. Produced with American financial backing, it’s far more like an American indie romance than the sort of film normally made in Bombay — moody, evocative, naturalistic, with exquisite photography and nicely human characterizations. Yet it’s a very Indian film too in that it captures the everyday feel of the place and the lives of its people — both rich and poor — better than anything I’ve seen, and also pays tribute to classic Bollywood music and art.

So it was discouraging to talk to the director Mathew and hear how hard it is to find interest in India for such films. And indeed some Indian friends who saw it said they didn’t like it — it’s boring — nothing happens — and so on. Indian films face a different set of audience expectations, and fierce competition tends to rule out deviation from convention.

I was glad to see another Indian indie featured at this year’s Sydney Film Festival. And Road, Movie (written and directed by Dev Benegal) has certain things in common with Bombay Summer. It’s an Indian-American coproduction that manages to be atmospheric and human, gritty and romantic all at once. It also cleverly salutes Bollywood. And likewise it co-stars the wonderful Tannishtha Chatterjee. (I’d happily watch Tannishtha talk about the Bombay Stock Exchange for a couple of hours.)

But Road, Movie is more abstract than Summer, more playfully weird, with a magical tone borrowed from the likes of Michel Gondry and Wes Anderson, but also from the Bollywood classics carted by its protagonists across India.

Abhay Deol plays Vishnu, a hapless young man who’s stuck inheriting his father’s hair oil business. He’s happy to be handed an excuse to drive a beat-up old mobile cinema van across India to its new owner and delay his cringe-inducing fate. Along the way he picks up an orphan (Mohammed Faisal), a fat old ganja-smoking entertainer (Satish Kaushik), and a beautiful widow (Chatterjee); together they drive literally off the beaten path and into the unknown. Of course they find the inevitable comedy, danger, and romance, or it wouldn’t be a road movie. But Benegal takes the elements of that tradition and shapes a quirky film that continually surprises. It’s charming, often hilarious, but also marked by a deliberate, observational pace, and anchored in a ground-level view of life in India.

The device of the journey allows Benegal to comment on Indian society: the middle-class city kid Vishnu rejects his upbringing and, once out on the road, discovers India as experienced by the poor: wandering, sleeping out in the open, worrying about the next meal. He meets people who have never seen a movie, people who have to fight for drinking water.

But Benegal nicely develops a sense of shifting destinies; as the journey continues, the open road takes on overtly mystical qualities, and eventually the characters arrive in a desert place, far away from everything else, where time seems to work differently and anything can happen.

The spectacular desert locations in Rajasthan provide a glimpse of a different India than usually depicted onscreen. Rather than being crowded, noisy, ornate, and saturated with color, Road, Movie is wide open, quiet, spare, and beaten by the sun. It’s still very colorful (this is India after all), but in a muted palette suggesting watercolors. It’s a gorgeous film.

The van is really something; it’s practically a character in the film. An enormous rickety old aquamarine thing, every square foot covered with custom art and detailing in tribute to Bollywood, it carries a projector, a screen, and a dusty, badly-kept store of prints, along with a few amenities for living and Vishnu’s hair oil. It’s part mobile cinema and part magic bus. Thankfully Benegal doesn’t get bogged down in cute self-reflexive references to film history or the filmmaking process (something I normally can’t stand). Instead the scenes in which Vishnu projects movies in ramshackle settings for downtrodden people are a fresh tribute to the childlike wonder the movies can inspire.

With the van as a comic base, and buffered by terrific acting from the leads, Benegal takes the film in many directions, mixing up moods and styles and borrowing from films east and west. Jim Jarmusch is obviously a strong influence, having practically invented the absurdist indie road movie. (This film, however, is stronger than anything Jarmusch has done in years.) There’s a satirical action sequence reminiscent of Robert Rodriguez. One haunting scene filmed on a dry salt flat in Rajasthan is a neat reminder of the Turkish director Derviş Zaim’s metaphysical thriller Dot.

Benegal is trying to do a lot here and is mostly successful. Sometimes the symbolism is a bit heavy-handed, the plot twists a little too wacky. But I gave Road, Movie a mile of leeway for its originality and heart, and liked it on many levels. I sincerely hope my Indian friends will give this one a chance and help make the world safe for adventurous Indian cinema.

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