Despite its billing as the first Gujurati film to be submitted for the foreign-language film Oscar, “The Good Road” does not appear to be an indigenous product of the Indian province in which it was filmed. Writer-director Gyan Correa was a veteran director of TV commercials in Mumbai who wanted, he’s said, to “travel outside my comfort zone” when making his debut feature. So he took to the road, hitchhiking with truck drivers across forbidding environments like the Thar Desert and the Rann of Kutch salt flats, looking for stories.
The result is a confounding mixture of skill and awkwardness, visually accomplished but often dramatically inert. It follows the stories of three sets of variously lost or stranded travelers in rural Gujurat, whose paths intersect and occasionally merge, a narrative device that bears a strong resemblance to those in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Amores perros” and “Babel.”
Despite Correa’s supposed firsthand research, the stories of “The Good Road” are disappointingly generic. A hard-working truck driver and his young sidekick are forced to do smuggling jobs for a criminal to make ends meet; a 9-year old runaway, hitchhiking to find her grandmother, seeks refuge at what turns out to be a brothel specializing in child prostitutes; and a well-to-do couple, complacently roughing it on a trip from Mumbai, are distraught when their son leaves the car to follow a puppy and gets left behind at a rest stop, setting off a massive police search.
The most powerful of the three concerns the runaway girl, Poonam (Poonam Kesar Singh), and her eventual entrapment in the brothel. Here, the revelation is not so much Poonam’s terror as the matter-of-factness of the enterprise, of the stagelike viewing area where the overdressed and made-up little girls display themselves, and the shiny, rapt faces of the potential customers, lined up to gaze at them through a wire fence. Is prostitution of this sort taken for granted as an aspect of rural culture in India, as the film implies? The questions raised are obviously important ones.
The urgency of the stories is heightened by the vistas Correa provides of the seemingly endless desert, an expanse of flat sun-baked scrub as terrifying in its way as looking over a cliff, a sort of horizontal abyss. Correa chooses expressive looming angles to enhance a menacing line of dialogue, shoots the trucks on their ribbon of two-lane blacktop as if they were undersea creatures gliding past, and employs momentary snippets of slow-motion that are perfectly timed.
Unfortunately, he seems to have fallen prey to the fallacy of the non-actor, the dangerous notion that casting non-professionals in key roles always results in something more humanly authentic. When the two truck drivers pick up the lost boy and begin arguing about what to do with him, the contrast is stark between the absorbing twitchiness of Priyank Upadhyay as the assistant and the toneless opacity of Shamji Dhana Kerasia as the senior driver, the former a college student who had studied acting and the latter a real truck driver who had never even seen a film. Expressiveness in front of a camera is not always something that comes naturally. Sometimes it has to be learned.
It will be surprising if this controversial Oscar entry advances very far in the foreign-language film race. There were certainly films made in India this year that would have stood a better chance of securing a nomination, but given the local politics that are often involved in each country’s selection, it may be relevant that “The Good Road” was wholly produced by the National Film Development Corp., an agency of India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.