Director: Akarsh Khurana
Cast: Irrfan, Dulquer Salmaan, Mithila Palkar, Amala Akkineni, Kriti Kharbanda, Akarsh Khurana
Karwaan is a very likeable film when it isn't trying to be liked. It's hard to go wrong with a road movie, especially one that is shot by Avinash Arun (Killa, Masaan). But it's harder to keep it simple and trust the "feeling" of a route. Some filmmakers insist on more than just the wind in their hair and Prateek Kuhad's breezy journeyman music. Coincidences, accidents, detours, errors – the screenplay of Karwaan is ridiculously contrived. Out of all the ways to unite three distinct personalities on a transformative road trip across South India, writer-director Akarsh Khurana (High Jack) opts for a parody-level plot.
It's almost as if Khurana wants to explore certain situations – for instance, say, a general conversation between two of them in a hotel room. But unlike Piku or even a Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, he doesn't allow the characters to organically reach this point. Instead, he invokes the surrealist overtures of a Finding Fanny – that is, the third person ends up in the hospital because he is injured while trying to stop his van from being stolen by gangsters, which then leaves the other two free to find a hotel to bond in. The scene between the man (Malayalam star Dulquer Salmaan, as Avinash) and the girl (a cool Mithila Palkar, as Tanya) is charming because it is a casual clash of generations. The actors, rather than their characters, discuss photography and pregnancy tests. We expect things because it is a hotel room. We learn much about them through their reactions. The lines (by Hussain Dalal) are perceptive and non-dialogue-ish. But the glue that binds such scenes together is…sticky.
The first hour is awkward, because it is designed as a black comedy with occasional slice-of-life moments. The makers attempt to locate humour in all kinds of death. Avinash is informed about the death of his estranged father (Akash Khurana) by a prototypical call-center employee; the travel company mixes up the coffins of two senior citizens who died during one of their tours; a crude manager plays the fool when interrogated by traumatized relatives; Bangalore resident Avinash mourns the death of his artistic dreams by working under a cartoonish boss in an IT firm; Avinash's friend Shaukat (Irrfan) laments the death of traditionalism when he sees Tanya's 'loose' values and short skirts; Shaukat mocks white tourists because he resents them for killing the identity of his country.
These are scenes that aren't broadly funny in real life. But the film is obsessed with Irrfan's deadpan wryness – he is inimitable, yes, but the camera relies on him too heavily to bring levity to inherently serious circumstances. Every flashback of Avinash's stern father is instantly followed by a Shaukat moment. The socioeconomic rift between Shaukat and Tanya is overplayed, too – she rolls her eyes and responds in English, while he mutters away and curses in chaste Urdu. He feels planted into most frames, but trust the actor to radiate the eccentricity of a desi Captain Jack Sparrow even when the director almost turns him into a '90s comedian. At times, the camera stays on him well after a scene is over, virtually willing him to give us a parting punch line. Not all of them land. Overdosing on Irrfan, however, is not a bad decision, given his curious affinity to Hindi road movies.
The second hour is the clincher. Here's when Karwaan "finds itself," because it becomes a slice-of-life movie with occasional dark humour. The makers give Shaukat more than just the bandwidth of a sidekick – he becomes the star of his own little short film in the hospital, and Avinash is left to simmer in his own coming-of-middle-age story. There's still a bit of meandering, what with the needless gangster track, but the film begins to address the finality of death.
The second hour is the clincher. Here's when Karwaan "finds itself," because it becomes a slice-of-life movie with occasional dark humour.
A cameo by the lovely Amala Akkineni as Tanya's mother goes a long way in helping the film settle on a grown-up tone. The coffins go from being narrative devices to being the narrative; they are made to look like they have in them the legacies of people who once lived rather than the remains of dead bodies. There aren't as many wisecracks, even though some characters disguise the depth of their words with self-deprecatory quips; dialogue writer Hussain Dalal (Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani, 2 States) excels at walking this thin line between informality and self-awareness. The songs start to feel like a car on an endless highway. And for once, we see the three of them in separate frames as individuals, consumed by their own thoughts. A movie might have been created out of their time together, but there is a sense of cinema about their time apart.
The film, to its credit, recognizes here that a road trip is little more than a memorable car ride. Perhaps even the director recognizes that the adventure, in fact, lies within – as opposed to the actual physicality of a journey. This is when Karwaan stops clowning around, stops escaping, stops evading and, much like Shaukat, stops trying to fill the silence with reminders of its free spirit. Most importantly, it just stops trying.