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BERLIN — Dev Benegal’s “Road, Movie” takes you on a magical mystery tour into the heart of India and its robust cinema. It is, in fact, a road movie without the comma, but it is also about being on the road in a vast Indian landscape and about the phenomenon of touring cinemas that still exist in rural India.
The film is specifically Indian, yet designed for wider appreciation in festivals and, if all goes well at the European Film Market, in cross-over releases in international territories.
Vishnu (indie actor Abhay Deol) wants out of his family’s hair oil business badly enough to offer to drive an antique Chevy truck across the desert to the sea, where it has been sold to a museum. Keeping the ’40s era vehicle running is a major challenge though.
Along the way, he most reluctantly picks up three fellow travelers. These are a young runaway (12-year-old theater actor Mohammed Faizal), a chatty old mechanic (veteran actor-director Satish Kaushik) and a beautiful gypsy woman (“Brick Lane’s” remarkable Tannishtha Chatterjee).
The ragtag group encounters a corrupt cop and a notorious water lord, who steals the desert’s water to sell back to its dwellers at high prices. Vishnu soon realizes the truck was once a traveling cinema that still contains film cans and 40-year-old projectors. To keep the highway robbers at bay, he and the mechanic get the cinema up and running to show classic movies. Like Scheherazade’s 1001 nighttime tales, the movies may keep them alive in the outback.
Indeed, the entire movie can be seen as a tribute to the magic of cinema. The characters are types long encountered from cinema’s earliest days, while the film is dotted with references ranging from Bollywood to the Keystone Kops. The faces of enchanted villagers staring at flickering images on a makeshift screen recall the laughing inmates enjoying a cartoon in Preston Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels.”
Even the hair oil motif, which comes in handy to grease the old projectors as well as the vain highwayman — the old tradition is this that oiling the hair leads to virility — is accompanied by the classic Hindi song “Thel Maalish” (Oil Massage) from Guru Datt’s 1957 film “Pyaasa.”
Benegal pays tribute here not just to cinema, but the vanishing open spaces and farms of India, now being set aside by the government into Special Economic Zones.
“Road, Movie” enjoys vibrant acting by all its actors, accompanied by French cinematographer Michel Amathieu’s free-floating camera, Michael Brook’s jaunty score that embraces both Western and Indian musical motifs and hypnotically beautiful landscapes of the Rajasthani desert.
Venue: Berlin International Film Festval
Director-screenwriter: Dev Benegal
Cast: Abhay Deol, Satish Kaushik, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Mohammad Faizal
Producers: Susan B. Landau, Ross Katz
Executive producers: Vandana Malik, Sanjay Ray Chaudhuri
Director of photography: Michel Amathieu
Production designer: Anne Seibel
Music: Michael Brook
Costume designer: Amba Sanyal
Editor: Yaniv Dabach
Sales: Fortissimo Film Sales
No rating, 97 minutes
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