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Without meaning to, a gentle yet obscure Gujarati-language film ignited a storm of controversy in India in September when it was chosen by the Film Federation of India as the country’s submission for the Academy Award for best foreign language film.
But upset film watchers need to get over their resentment. The Good Road — which had been pitted against Sony Pictures Classics’ festival favorite The Lunchbox for India’s Oscar submission — defies its critics by succeeding cinematically.
That doesn’t mean many people will get a chance to see it, though. The country’s National Film Development Corporation, producer of The Good Road, has not yet secured distribution either domestically or overseas; and despite winning a National Award, it has appeared at very few festivals. Still, it may gain some attention when it screens in the Panorama section of the International Film Festival of India in Goa this November.
First-time director Gyan Correa has amassed most of his filmmaking experience working on commercials, but there is none of that familiar TV gloss or rapid pacing here.
The rural hinterlands and endless roads of Kutcch, a remote region of Gujarat, are the setting for three intertwined stories told without melodrama and largely without music, all leading up to a surprisingly life-affirming conclusion.
A middle-class couple from the big city (Ajay Gehi and Sonali Kulkarni), en route to a vacation getaway, inadvertently leave their seven-year-old son (Keval Katrodia) at a roadside restaurant. A taciturn truck driver (Shamji Dhana Kerasia) and his sidekick (Priyank Upadhyay) become embroiled in an illegal scheme. A nine-year-old orphan girl (Poonam Rajput) gets lured into a roadside brothel.
Correa, who also wrote the story and screenplay, occasionally lets visuals trump content. He has deliberately chosen photogenic local non-actors for some key roles, with uneven success; and with cinematographer Amitabha Singh, also a veteran of TV commercials, he distractingly frames a few shots (such as one of a clutch of gaily dressed village women contrasted against a white salt plain) as if the image belonged in a travel brochure. In addition, the subplot of the little girl seems to resolve too abruptly.
But overall, Correa has done an admirable job of capturing the motivations of working-class people who are burdened with complex responsibilities and pressures. Why should they drop everything to help a yuppie family in a shiny SUV, anyway? “Fucking rich kids from the city,” spits out one villager. Several characters do bad things, but Correa skillfully conveys that these are desperate people with no other choice, doing what’s right and sensible for them.
In several instances, it’s clear that Correa has put much thought into his story and its myriad details. Would a seven-year-old kid be able to recite his dad’s 10-digit mobile number from memory? Yes, he would. Would onlookers actually ogle a truck accident without offering to help? Yes, because on India’s dangerous roads, that’s a good way to get wrongly blamed. Would a good-hearted truck driver deliberately mislead police who are searching for a lost child? Yes, for his own reasons.
The film’s sparse yet effective soundtrack, featuring acoustic Gujarati folk music; the colors of local dress and decor; and the gaudily painted trucks that are a fixture on roads across India lend another layer of interest alongside notable performances by Gehi and the bright, young Katrodia.
A feeling of unease pervades the early part of the film, as the viewer wonders how much peril will befall its characters. The problems they find themselves in could possibly end very, very badly.
But where some films show how darkness eclipses innocence, The Good Road ends up showing instead how innocence can illuminate the darkness.
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