Starring: Manoj Bajpai, Makarand Deshpande, Antra Mali, Vivek Oberoi, Vijay Raaz, Ganesh Yadav, Rajpal Yadav, & Raj Zutshi.
Music: Sandesh Shandilya, Nitin Raikwar
Producer: Ram Gopal Varma
Director: Rajat Mukherjee
Time: 150 minutes; in Hindi
Though by no means a film of great aesthetic merit, Road will come to occupy a distinct niche in Hindi cinema as perhaps the very first film that might with some justification be described as a ‘road’ movie. That genre is easily recognized in the US, with, among many others, films such as Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, and Thelma and Louise among the more notable of this genre’s specimens.
Arvind (Vivek Oberoi) and Laxmi (Antra Mali) are city dwellers and star-struck lovers. They are very “modern”, to say the least, but Arvind very much doubts that Laxmi’s father, who is (we are told) the Commissioner of Police, will consent to have her daughter married to him. In Arvind’s SUV, they take a trip through Rajasthan: one can’t describe them as eloping, since they’re not the infantile lovers commonly encountered on the Hindi film screen; but one can say that this cool and hip couple decide to chill out in Rajasthan, even get married. One particular day, they encounter an abandoned car; a few kilometers down the same road, they furnish a ride to a hitchhiker who claims that his car broke down. Babu (Manoj Bajpai) insists on smoking, though Laxmi is asthmatic; he insists on changing the music in the car; and finally cajoles them into stopping for food. Before long, he has pulled a gun on them; Arvind is now left on the roadside, and Babu absconds with Laxmi and the vehicle. Arvind gives chase; he flags down a truck, whose amiable driver Inderpal (Makarand Deshpande) is enlisted in an effort to rescue Laxmi from Babu. The mission is accomplished; the girl is rescued. But, this being the Hindi film, it is wishful thinking to suppose that one hour into the film, it is over; though, imagination-wise, it is all but over. As Arvind and Laxmi continue on the road, suddenly Inderpal’s truck appears from nowhere, and the man behind the wheel is not Inderpal but Babu (who had earlier claimed that he didn’t know how to drive). Babu rams the truck repeatedly into the Tata Safari’s rear end; only when Arvind steers sharply, causing Babu to lurch and strike his head against the steering wheel, does it seem as if Arvind and Laxmi are free of Babu. As scenes of the car-chase variety go, this one is not bad.
The Hindi film being what it is, Babu is bound to resurface — for an agonizingly long time. There is a mildly tantalizing love scene as Arvind and Laxmi relax in a hotel room after the frightening escapades of the day, seemingly unnerved by all that has transpired. The front desk clerk at their hotel provides some desi humor. This being a road film, Arvind and Laxmi must perforce continue in their Tata Safari: but Babu has been hiding in the back of the car. Arvind is thrown out, and narrowly escapes being hit by Babu’s bullets; Laxmi stands kidnapped. Meanwhile, since Laxmi hasn’t returned home, her father, Delhi’s Police Commissioner, sends out a message stating that she has been abducted, and Arvind himself becomes the police’s key suspect. A police dragnet for Babu, whose existence the police appear to be unable to verify, has undesirable consequences for those unfortunate to cross Babu’s path. When Babu casually kills a man in whose vehicle he and Laxmi will flee, it dawns on Laxmi that she is the captive of a most dangerous, even deranged, man. Eventually, of course, one’s tempted to say all’s well that ends well: in the final scene, there is an encounter between Babu and Arvind. Babu, forgetting his own principle that no one is ever to be trusted, has allowed himself to believe that Laxmi would much rather be with him than with Arvind. As Babu prepares to fire the last bullet in his gun at Arvind, Laxmi deflects his hand with a swipe of her leg. Babu is smashed to something of a pulp by Arvind, and left on the desert plain. Arvind and Laxmi — easy riders, shall we say — continue, now on a motorbike, on their journey. Warning: Never pick up a hitchhiker.
Road does have the feeling of a road film, and Sudeep Chatterji’s camerawork, and his long pan shots, captures to good effect the flat desert terrain. The mildly interesting cinematic qualities of Road cannot, however, compensate for the weak script. Unlike most Hindi films, which make no pretense at fidelity to notions of authenticity, and have scant respect for detail, Road falls somewhere in the realist genre. What happened to Arvind and Laxmi can happen to anyone who picks up a hitchhiker — even to those who don’t give rides. Babu could be anyone: indeed, that is partly the point of the question he repeatedly poses to Laxmi. Suppose you had met both Arvind and me in college, whom would you have chosen. If, after all, Babu has a more striking personality than Arvind, isn’t it reasonable to suppose that Laxmi might have well have fallen in love with him? She even seems to falter in answering the question; and when it is posed to her again towards nearly the end of the film, as they seek refuge in a house, she admits to Babu that she would have chosen him over Arvind. This admission sends Babu into ecstasy; he thinks he has won her love. The audience might rightfully be tempted to think that Laxmi is only stalling for time, hoping that her admission will prevent Babu from subjecting her to sexual assault, but her answer should not be viewed as dissimulation. Psychopaths and serial killers do not come from the lower or marginalized strata of society; they, too, are a part of the fabric of middle-class society. It is their normality that ought to be unsettling; and Laxmi is unsettled by him. She expects to be raped, but to Babu her body is a temple into which he must be invited. He operates with a dangerously aggressive conception of “pure love”, something that Laxmi is unable to understand.
Interesting questions about Road can, consequently, still be asked. Babu is obsessive about Laxmi; it is his claim that he alone understands her, that together they constitute a universe of lovers. His character has by now been anticipated in many a Hindi film. Vicious criminals who kill on command, or do so because they stand at the helm of a large empire built on narcotics and smuggling, have populated the Hindi film over the last three decades. But Babu kills for nothing as debased as money, political influence, or desire to gain social acceptability. He is the kind of “outsider” who is a relatively new entrant into the Hindi film. Does his entry into the Hindi film signify the breakdown of family structures, the sense of ‘community’? Arvind and Laxmi represent one kind of “rugged individualism”; but so does Babu. Why and how did the kind of “rugged individualism” for which they stand make its way into the Hindi film, and what possible inferences can we draw about changes in Indian society. Does a film such as Road become possible in India only in a time of increasing mobility, and what kind of “trips” can now be viewed as within the realm of the possible? What kind of journey into the self is Road?