'Autohead': Filmart/Hong Kong Review

Hong Kong International Film Festival
'Man Bites Dog' meets 'Taxi Driver' in Mumbai.

Indian filmmaker Rohit Mittal’s debut revolves around a film crew following a cabbie’s meltdown into madness and murder.

More than two decades after Man Bites Dog, Indian cinema finally catches up with the mockumentary genre with Rohit Mittal’s s debut about a film crew’s spiraling shoot of a psychotic cabbie’s increasingly deadly deeds. A cross of Rémy Belvaux’s legendary 1992 film with Taxi Driver, Autohead is admittedly late in coming but better than never: This well-designed title actually reveals a lot about the multitude of schisms within Indian society today, while also taking a jab at the country’s infatuation with cinema and celebrities.

With its urgent guerilla-style mise-en-scene, sharp editing and acerbic social commentary — a mix which has already generated interest within India while at Goa’s Film Bazaar last fall — Autohead will certainly stir a lot of interest on the festival circuit as it finally bows at the Hong Kong International Film Festival next week. It remains to be seen how the Indian general audience will take to it, though, given its miserable representations of Mumbai and its auto-rickshaw drivers.

Autohead’s protagonist is Narayan (Deepak Sampat), a moto-tricycle driver being filmed by a three-person crew (led by Mittal, playing a director himself) as he whizzes around town. From the outset, Narayan also appears to be a bit off-kilter: he muses how he’s got talents nobody cares about, and that the documentary will make “everybody know about me.” He delights in talking on-camera about his sexual skills, while dismissing all women as merely gold diggers who have forgotten the “social revolutionary” potentials of love.

His misogyny stems from his troubled relationship with Rupa (Ronjini Chakroborty), who appears to be at once his girlfriend and an escort whom he transports to her clients. But she is not the only source of Narayan’s snowballing frustrations. A lowly-educated man hailing from a village in the Indian-Nepalese borderlands, he is shown — via footage shot from a pursuing vehicle or a Go-Pro camera installed within his auto-rickshaw — bullied by other drivers, chastised by passengers and constantly nagged at by his mother, who has arrived in Mumbai to check on him.

And then there’s his warped worldviews, shaped by and expressed through his consumption of films, a diet of mainstream Bollywood blockbusters and foreign porn which only consolidates his skewed perspectives on class, gender and sexuality. His adulation of celluloid heroes would result in him styling himself as an avenger leading a “Clean India Movement,” a savior who would usher in progress by getting rid of the trash in society — but only after he would get filthy rich first.

A mess of contradictions, Narayan soon turns increasingly homicidal — and the documentary crew show themselves as willing accomplices to all this mayhem, as they muse about being able to trump the “false news” being peddled on network TV while also being able to “get somewhere in life” with their raw footage of Narayan’s murderous rampage.

But just like in the 1996 Japanese film Focus — in which a seemingly meek interviewee turns the tables on the manipulative TV producers tailing him — Autohead sees the crew ending up in a much, much worse place than at the beginning. While mild when compared to the myriad features which have been produced worldwide about the exploitative nature of modern mass media — and that includes the 2010 Indian comedy Peepli Live!, about the frenzy surrounding a farmer’s attempt to commit a very public suicide — Autohead is still an audacious attempt to shine a light on a society where the moving image reigns supreme.

Venue: Filmart/Hong Kong International Film Festival
Production companies: Stalker Films, Amit Verma Films
Cast: Deepak Sampat, Ronjini Chakroborty, Rohit Mittal
Director-screenwriter: Rohit Mittal
Producers: Rohit Mittal, Amit Verma
Director of photography: Sunny Banerjee
Production designer-costume designer: Adamya
Editor: Avnendra Upadhyay
Sound designer: Ajit Singh Rathore
Casting: Randeep Jha

In Hindi

Not rated, 97 minutes