Road, Movie is like a happy dream. You wake up, momentarily unsure if what you experienced was real, but left with a feeling of contentedness.
Vishnu (Abhay Deol) is desperate to avoid following his father into the hair tonic sales business (“A drop of Atma Hair Potion, your hair springs into motion. Everything else is an illusion.”). He convinces a family friend to let him drive a 1942 Chevy truck cross-country, where the truck will be sold for scrap.
Vishnu is scarcely more qualified to drive an ancient truck across an Indian desert than I am. He doesn’t know how to operate the truck and expects to be able to phone for help when it inevitably breaks down. But in the desert, there’s no cell phone reception and no one to ask for help.
His savior is a kid of about ten, known only as The Boy (Mohammed Faisal), whom he liberates from a job at a roadside tea stand. The kid is a smartass; when Vishnu frowns at the quality of the tea he’s served, The Boy asks if he’d mistaken the stall for a Starbucks.
But The Boy is also hard-working and resourceful. After the truck breaks, he leaves, returning the next morning with Om (Satish Kaushik), a hobo who fixes the truck. In exchange, Om asks for a ride to the fair, though he only has a vague idea of where the fair is.
Om is as enigmatic as his namesake. He’s got a knack for solving problems, both mechanical and interpersonal. His bizarre directions must be followed on faith.
This rankles Vishnu, who has no respect for Om. In fact, Vishnu doesn’t respect anyone he meets on the road. He disdains the lifestyle of the desert dwellers, as though they choose to live in poverty and constant thirst.
Vishnu’s opinion begins to change after a cop pulls him over for having an improper license. The tiny police station is the only building for miles, and the cop is clearly starved for entertainment. Om, noticing that the truck once doubled as a mobile movie theater, suggests that they show a movie that night in exchange for their freedom.
They position the truck to project an image onto a wall of the police station. No one bothers to move the bicycle propped against the wall. Word spreads, and soon there are dozens of people watching a grainy film from the ’70s with rapt attention. Om explains to Vishnu that this is often the only form of entertainment in this rural area, and a rare one at that.
Vishnu opens up even more when the group happens upon The Woman (Tannishtha Chatterjee), a young widow wandering the wasteland. He offers her a ride, though it’s hard to believe his motives are purely altruistic, given how pretty she is. The growing group continues on in search of Om’s fair.
The rest of the movie is equal parts fantasy and road trip. The characters acknowledge that some of the events seem magical to the point of impossibility. But everything serves to open Vishnu’s eyes to life outside of the city: harsh but not without its charms. It gives him plenty to think about, as a young man trying to find his place in the world.
The fantastical elements of the movie aren’t limited to plot points. The scenes of the nomads watching the old movies projected from the truck are enchanting. The nomads’ sense of wonder and joy is infectious, reminding the audience how great the escapism that films provide can really feel.
As unpleasant as Vishnu’s adventure is at times, Road, Movie inspires that same sense of wanderlust that all great road movies do. As the truck rolled across the Indian desert, I started thinking about the trip to the American Southwest I’ve been meaning to take for years. Eventually, I began to wonder if, perhaps, Mobile-Movie Theater Operator in Rural India was a job I should consider. Impractical, yes, but a happy dream nonetheless.
Runtime: 1 hour 35 minutes.