“Karwaan”… A bland, weightless road movie, but the cast keeps you watching

Posted on August 18, 2018


Spoilers ahead…

Nothing seems to infuriate the middle-class Indian father — or alienate him from his son — than the latter’s decision to take up photography as a career. We saw this in Wake Up Sid. We saw this in 3 Idiots. We see this in Akarsh Khurana’s Karwaan. This is just the first of many clichés in this road movie that seems to have been cobbled together from road-movie clichés. Avinash (Dulquer Salmaan) is unhappy. He’s the guy who wanted to be a photographer, but whose father forced him into IT, which is cinema shorthand for the most soul-deadening work ever devised by mankind. He demonstrates his soul-deadedness by wearing thick glasses with thick frames, which is cinema shorthand for “I’m depressed” and “I can’t be bothered to look good.” He plays solitaire on his office computer, which is cinema shorthand for “I am unmotivated and it doesn’t help that the boss keeps barking at me.” He eats alone at home, sitting in a dark corner lit just so we see the limp insta-noodles, which is cinema shorthand for everything from “he’s lost” to “he’s forgotten how to smile” to “when was the last time he got laid?”.

Karwaan gets on the road when Avinash’s father dies, and he has to pick up the coffin. You think with the old man off his back, he’d rethink his career… or at least, snap out of his existential funk. But if that’s how things happened, the road movie wouldn’t exist. After all, it’s not just about a road trip. It’s a journey through the winding lanes of… life, where a motivational poster lies in wait at every corner. If I sound impatient with this film it’s because it just doesn’t try. The events along the way — a wedding, a bit in an Ooty school, a run-in with a loan shark’s underlings — are chalk outlines waiting to be filled. Have you heard the Chhota sa fasana song? That’s Karwaan in a nutshell. Pleasant. Breezy. But also bland and utterly forgettable. When you hear the word banjaara, you know the next line is going to contain a rhyme in awaara — and sure enough, it comes. The familiarity isn’t the problem. The predictability is.

But it’s nice to see Dulquer in his first big Hindi movie. (It’s more fun to see him in Kerala, as someone who doesn’t know Malayalam. I wondered how he kept a straight face when a man kept pronouncing “Nambiar” as “Naambyaar.”) The film is gorgeously shot (by Avinash Arun), and though I was happy seeing so many south Indian locations, I wished it hadn’t been so touristy. There’s a charming (though, again, generic and lightweight) episode where Avinash runs into someone he knew from college. It unfolds in a house designed like a tharavad. I’m not asking for squalour — just that the film not feel like a spa. Sitting through Karwaan, I felt my life’s knots melting away — though that may be part of the appeal.

In these films, the introvert is usually contrasted with an extrovert. Karwaan is generous — Avinash is saddled with two live-life-large souls. My heart sank when Irrfan Khan (who’s typically entertaining, as Shaukat) is introduced while talking to his plant, but the ultra-colourful shtick gradually eases and becomes more tolerable, especially when he falls in love. He’s a man severely judgmental about women in revealing clothes, so when he sees a woman in a burqa, it’s love at first sight. He tries to impress her by reciting Kitna pyaara vaada… (an in joke; it’s a song from the 1970s Caravan), but she doesn’t watch movies. This is one of the few times the film attempts to flesh out a character. No freedom. No entertainment. And, it turns out, no happiness either. Heck, she’s the one who really needs a road movie.

She has a history of abuse that reminds Shaukat of the way his father hit his mother. This could have been its own movie, but as it’s just a subplot, the resonance is muted. Karwaan doesn’t trust us to make these connections. When Shaukat talks about his past to Avinash and Tanya (the third traveller, played by the chirpy Mithila Palkar), there’s a beat where we register that all three have had a bum deal when it comes to fathers. Then Tanya spoils the moment by stating how all three have had a bum deal when it comes to fathers. The healing is equally easy. One look at a box of belongings, one look at an unsent (and conveniently written) letter — and Avinash is freed of his father’s ghost. If only. But one line does ring true. In that letter, Avinash’s father confesses that he fears his son’s hate: “Uski nafrat se darr lagta hai!” For the first (and only) time during Karwaan, I sat up. The sting of the line is all the more given the warm, bubble-bath feel of everything around it.

These closing portions are more affecting because grown-ups begin to make their presence felt, with a maturity far-removed from the self-absorbed whininess of the younger generation. (Maybe my reaction is due to the fact that I am past the oh-poor-me stage, and now have little patience with my whinier younger self.) Amala Akkineni appears as Tanya’s mother. A youngster behind me was as startled as I was, but where I smiled at this unexpected bit of nostalgia, he blurted out, in a shocked voice, that the actress looked so… maternal. I wanted to turn around and say, “There, there… that’s the natural order of things.” We remember her singing Kalyana thenila opposite Mammootty nearly three decades ago, so it’s only right that she’s now a mother-like figure to Mammootty’s son. You don’t need a road movie to arrive at this epiphany.

Copyright ©2018 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi