For me, there are few things as frustrating as watching a film with potential fritter it away. Karwaan is that film. Look at what we have to play with – an instantly intriguing story line by Bejoy Nambiar about two bodies being swapped. Two incredibly skilled and charismatic actors – Irrfan and Dulquer Salmaan. Their presence is enough to elevate the frame. A DOP – Avinash Arun – with the eye of a painter. Trees, rivers, roads, even roadside food stalls – all seem to find a textured beauty when he turns his lens on them. And a genre – the road movie – which by design, blends comedy, tragedy and transformation. In these films, the journey is the destination.
Somehow director Akarsh Khurana takes all of this and turns it into a listless, stilted film. The culprit is lazy writing – Akarsh and Adhir Bhat have written the screenplay. Hussain Dalal has done the dialogue. Ironically the characters keep moving from one location to another but the film itself doesn't move. The characters are so sketchy that we can barely invest in them emotionally. Dulquer is Avinash, a silently suffering IT man stuck in a dead-end job – a large sign in his office says, 'Don't complain, unemployment feels a lot worse.' Avinash wanted to be a photographer but his overbearing father crushed his dreams. I thought 3 Idiots and Tamasha had exhausted the 'follow your dreams' angle but clearly I was wrong.
Irrfan is Shaukat bhai who is a bit of a mystery. He is a flamboyant but conservative Muslim garage owner. We aren't told why he's ready to drive Avinash and a body all across South India. But he declares his undying love and loyalty. Mithila Palkar is Tanya, an angsty millennial who agrees to go on a very long drive with two men she doesn't know. Clearly, Tanya occupies a world very different from the rest of us Indian women. The three drive through the Western Ghats to Kochi, where Tanya's mother runs a hotel. All three have daddy issues, which get solved without much hand-wringing. In one scene, Tanya tells Avinash, "Let go of this hate now Avi." And it's not a spoiler to tell you that a few scenes later, he does. The slim story is furthered by having our leads randomly bump into people – like Avinash's old college friend, gangster types who are chasing Shaukat, a shehnai player at a wedding. It feels like these are stitched on only to stretch the drive.
Akarsh is an experienced hand at the road movie genre – he wrote four of the five episodes of the web series TVF Tripling in which three squabbling siblings traveled across Rajasthan and Manali. But here, he isn't able to adequately weave the colors, sights and sounds of the journey with the internal conflicts of his characters. Irrfan gets the best lines and he delivers them with his trademark laconic wit. He makes you laugh and tear up. It's such a pleasure to see him on screen. Dulquer has the same ease in front of the camera. There is no strain in his expressions. He plays Avinash as repressed and unhappy without trying to project heroism. Dulquer is content to be ordinary. There is a refreshing lack of vanity in him. Against these two, Mithila comes off as somewhat raw but I liked her petulant, sprightly energy.
If the story had more depth, these three could have worked magic. But Karwaan stays on the surface. Which, it must be said, is beautiful – this film will make you want to book a trip to Kerala. But it could have been much more.