Dev Benegal’s aptly titled “Road, Movie” is a modestly amusing dramedy that is all the more pleasant for its fleeting detours into cheeky fantasy. Following a disaffected young man’s cross-country trek in a truck once used by an itinerant projectionist, the pic surprisingly soft-pedals the intriguing concept of bringing movie magic to isolated communities. Instead, the plot focuses more on comedic and romantic complications, along with a few melodramatic interludes to ratchet up interest. Notably bereft of Bollywood-style excess, this low-key India-U.S. co-production may find receptive auds in limited theatrical runs before hitting the homevid highway.

Unenthused about the prospects of following his dad in the family business of hawking hair oil, Vishnu (Abhay Deol) agrees to deliver his uncle’s rattletrap truck to a museum hundreds of miles away. For years, his uncle drove from village to village, screening movies from the back of his vehicle. But Vishnu has little interest in operating a traveling cinema until he’s persuaded to do so by passengers he picks up en route: a robust geezer (Satish Kaushik), a runaway urchin (Mohammed Faizal Usmani) and a lovely gypsy (Tannishtha Chatterjee).

Dangerous encounters with brutal cops and a water-controlling warlord generate mild suspense during the journey. For the most part, though, Benegal maintains a light touch, so that that there’s seldom a sense of real danger. Indeed, one seemingly dire situation is resolved with a sly stroke of broad comedy that borders on magical realism.

At another point, multitudes inexplicably appear to construct an elaborate fair (complete with carnival rides) in the middle of the desert. Much like the lead characters, auds have no choice but to simply accept the literally fabulous phenomenon.

Deol makes a credible transition from self-centered malcontent to selfless comrade, and the supporting players — especially Kaushik, who shakes the dust off a cliched character with a jolt of garrulous charm — are well cast. There is an unexpectedly bittersweet taste to the pic’s final minutes, but that, too, is part of the appeal of this road trip.

Michael Brook’s effectively eclectic score is the pic’s standout production value.

Road, Movie

India - U.S.

  • Production: An Indian Films (India) presentation of an August Entertainment (U.S.) production in association with Studio 18. (International sales: Fortissimo Films, Amsterdam.) Produced by Susan B. Landau, Ross Katz. Executive producers, Vandana Malik, Sanjay Ray Chaudhuri. Co-producers, Sopan Muller, Fred Berger. Directed, written by Dev Benegal.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Michel Amathieu; editor, Yaniv Dabach; music, Michael brook; production designer, Anne Seibel; costume designer, Amba Sanyal; sound, Vikram Joglekar; associate producer, Maulik C. Mehta. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 16, 2009. Running time: 95 MIN.
  • With: <b>With:</b> Abhay Deol, Satish Kaushik, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Mohammed Faizal Usmani. (Hindi, English dialogue)
  • Music By: