Friday, August 3, 2018


Release date:
August 3, 2018
Akarsh Khurana

Irrfan, Dulquer Salmaan, Mithila Palkar, Amala Akkineni, Kriti Kharbanda
Hindi with English

As mix-ups go, this one is weird. A man loses his father in an accident but the body delivered to him is of the mother of a woman in another state. Avinash Rajpurohit was not fond of his Dad, but duty calls and he agrees to meet the lady to exchange coffins somewhere between Bengaluru where he lives and her home in Kochi. A few hundred kilometres separate the two cities but Avinash travels a lifetime on that journey he makes with his friend Shaukat and a young woman called Tanya who joins them along the way.

Writer-director Akarsh Khurana’s Karwaan is a quiet film. Apart from the tragedy that kicks off the narrative, nothing much seems to happen here yet a lot does. It is a story of rumination and awakenings, and as in life, here too, such things rarely happen with drum rolls and bugle calls.

Karwaan has made news for two reasons so far: because it has been released even as Bollywood actor Irrfan battles a debilitating illness and because it is the first Bollywood film featuring Mollywood heartthrob Dulquer Salmaan, DQ to his fans. The news now is this: Irrfan and DQ live up to their formidable reputations here, and are both absolute dears in this sweetly understated road flick.

Irrfan’s Shaukat is a garrulous fellow, exceedingly old fashioned in many respects and for the most part, immensely funny. “For the most part” because I felt uncomfortable with the humourisation of his racist attitude towards a white couple he encounters. I know I know, some of you will say white people do not need the protection of an Indian film critic, but excuse me for pointing out that othering is not okay even when directed at powerful communities, though of course I am not equating it with racism towards the marginalised. As for that cliched old defence, “this is just a portrayal of reality”, the answer is: of course conservatives do exist in the real world, but this is the only point in Karwaan where the storyteller’s own tone condones the character’s obnoxious behaviour. This is particularly jarring because in another area of his life, Shaukat proves to be a remarkably progressive fellow and challenger of an appalling status quo.

That discomfiting scene apart, Shaukat is amusing throughout. And Irrfan’s dialogue delivery is a killer as always. His is the more striking character of the two leads, but DQ rises to the challenge of playing the less obviously likeable Avinash, a role that on the surface also appears less challenging.

The promotions of Karwaan have hopefully given Bollywood viewers an idea of exactly how big a deal this young man is in Mollywood. His matinee idol looks, excellent acting and discerning choices have catapulted him to the top of his profession in just six years. Add to this blend his fluid personality, and you get the perfect package for superstardom across industries. His career path indicates that he may well get there considering that at 32 he is already a dominant force in Mollywood, has made his mark with a handful of films in Kollywood, and this year has forayed into both Tollywood and Bollywood.

DQ brings to Karwaan the attributes that have made him such a perfect fit in Mollywood, a film industry that pushes the envelope far more than India’s Big Three, Kollywood, Tollywood and Bollywood. He is handsome but not self-conscious, and in Karwaan as in all his works, he conveys the impression of being unaware of his hotness, which is such an attractive quality in a star, such an essential quality in a true actor and so crucial to his unobtrusively gripping performance as the self-effacing Avinash, forever held back by his internal turmoil and bitterness. Besides, his commitment to his work is evident in his Hindi accent, which is unbelievably good for a man who has never lived in the Hindi belt.

While the two male leads are more prominent in the story, Mithila Palkar holds her own in the presence of these established actors, playing the feisty teenaged Tanya. Kriti Kharbanda is luminous in a small role. Why do we not see her more often in Bollywood? And Amala Akkineni brings dignity and warmth to her cameo in a way only a beloved veteran can.

That said, the initial part of the writing of her character is one of Karwaan’s flaws. She sounds laboured while conveying grief in telephone conversations with Avinash, and the manner in which she entrusts her child to a complete stranger is bizarre, to say the least.

So yes, Karwaan is far from perfect. The first half feels insubstantial. Considering that this is a road film, I sorely missed glimpses of the cultures of the places the lead trio pass through. A Hindi film in this setting requires a suspension of disbelief anyway because Hindi is not the lingua franca of southern India, but the stray Malayalam dialogues and lyrics in Karwaan give it a natural feel. Dialogue writer Hussain Dalal also makes the wise choice of mixing Hindi and English in equal parts in Avinash’s lines, which gives them an easy flow. That said, it bothered me that the storyteller is so accepting of Tanya’s dismissive attitude towards the language of her home city – I get that north Indian supremacism has led to a situation where Hindi bhaashis travelling to other parts of India tend not to make an effort to learn the local languages, and in that sense Tanya’s arrogance is realistic, but the implied okaying of her arrogance by the film is troubling.

(Possible spoiler ahead) Karwaan is also casual about facts in its reference to the Islamic practice known in common parlance as instant triple talaq, which was banned by the Supreme Court last year. The discussions around this development have all related to men divorcing their wives by uttering the words “talaq talaq talaq” but there is little awareness about women’s right to do likewise. This fleeting portion of Karwaan is clearly meant to be uplifting to liberal women viewers, but good intentions notwithstanding, because the issue is complex the scene is bound to create confusion or generate misinformation. It could easily have been snipped out without disrupting the narrative, yet was not, which suggests a deliberate prioritisation of populism over other concerns. (Spoiler alert ends)

In another fleeting reference, Karwaan would have done well not to suggest an equivalence between a man making a move to hit a woman and that woman’s intrusive impertinence towards him. The film could have also done with better editing to tighten a fight scene involving a bunch of bit part actors.

I wish these issues had been ironed out, because Karwaan overall is a heartwarming little film. For one, it is unusual in the way it does not deify parents but reminds us that like all human beings, they too come in a range of good, bad and ugly. “Logon ko haq jamaana aata hai, rishtaa nibhaana nahin (People know how to exercise their rights, not abide by relationships),” says a character when discussing parents who are jerks.

The film offers a nuance not often seen in Hindi cinema or Indian cinema at large, when it speaks of a generation gap between youngsters separated in age by perhaps a decade. It also does not see a romance as essential in every relationship between two attractive people of the opposite sex, though it acknowledges that such sparks are a possibility. And it takes a brave stand on domestic violence.

Karwaan’s effectiveness lies in the fact that it rises above its pre-interval indolence. Critics often speak of “the curse of the second half” afflicting so many films that start off well and then peter out. Karwaan is the opposite. It revs up post-interval, not merely in terms of actual physical events and encounters, but in the character graphs. What remains consistent from start to finish is cinematographer Avinash Arun’s inventive, expansive frames. My favourite of them all involves a low angle shot of DQ reading a paper framed against a backdrop of thick green trees.

As someone who has followed Dulquer Salmaan’s career from the beginning, I confess I was apprehensive when I realised that the Akarsh Khurana directing his first Hindi film is the same gentleman who helmed a fizzled-out firecracker called High Jack starring Sumeet Vyas earlier this year. Khurana is the only one who can tell us what went wrong with that film, because my fears were misplaced and he is in fine fettle in Karwaan.

As for DQ, his talent was evident from his Mollywood debut in 2012 but his more recent works like KaliKammatipaadam and Solo – an anthology in which he played four roles in four separate stories – have elevated him to a higher plane by offering gigantic proof of his versatility. Kammatipaadam also indicated his willingness to risk films with sensitive themes and an off-mainstream tone and, more important, his readiness to submit to a director who did not allow his stardom to overshadow the project although his presence could be counted on to raise its profile. Karwaan is not a bone-crushing beauty of the sort that Kammatipaadam was, but here too we have a director and star collaborating to give a script priority over all else.

As a Mollywood buff I obviously hope that DQ remains rooted – allow me to play on the title of one of his Malayalam films – in the neelakasham, pachchakadal and chuvanna bhoomi (the blue sky, green sea and red earth) of his home ground. As a Bollywood buff though, I am thrilled to welcome him to a new fold in the company of the delightful Irrfan and the charming Ms Palkar.

Ae mohtarma yu na sharma / main aashiq hoon koi creep nahin / ae husn pari, you don’t worry / meri shayaribhi zyaada deep nahin (Hey lady, I am a suitor, not a creep / Hey beautiful, don’t you worry, my poetry is not very deep),” goes a song in Karwaan sung by Papon, with music by Anurag Saikia and lyrics by Khurana. The words mirror the simplicity Karwaan aspires to, though it must be said that the film’s unassuming demeanour camouflages considerable depth.

At one point, a character in this film explains that he is not sure whether Person X was a good guy but it is clear that he was not bad, which in itself is quite something in this day and age. There can be no more appropriate a description of Karwaan: it is not earth shattering, but it is not bad at all. Which is another way of saying it is an intelligent, funny, thoughtful film and a pleasant experience.

Rating (out of five stars): **1/2

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
2 hours 

This review has also been published on Firstpost:

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