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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



Karwaan, Review: Falls just short of its destination

Karwaan, Review: Falls just short of its destination

Quite predictably, the two primary reasons for wanting to see Karwaan would be the Hindi debut of Kerala’s superstar, Mammooty’s son, Dulquer Salmaan, already a heart-throb, and a chance to watch the (these days) seriously ill Irrfan, in a major role. Director Akarsh Khurana’s second outing comes after the forgettable High Jack, released a few months ago, so that is not an attraction. Both, the debutant and Irrfan, impress, and the supporting cast stands by them. However, overall, Karwaan fails to reach an inspiring destination.

Karwaan derives its title from an immortal Urdu couplet by late Majrooh Sultanpuri, who was a literary poet and film lyricist, excelling in both fields. The couplet goes:

Maen akela hee chalaa tha jaanib-e-manzil magar

Log saath aatey gaey aur karvaan bantaa gayaa

which roughly translates as:

I set forth alone towards my destination but

People kept joining me, in a caravan formation.

The discrepancy in the spelling of caravan is a phonetic matter, but the Urdu word for caravan is the same as its English counterpart. In the film, this couplet is painted in Urdu on Irrfan’s van.

Avinash is an amateur photographer, works for a computer software company in Bengaluru, a job he loathes. Out of the blue comes a phone call from a tour operator that his father has died in a road accident while going for a pilgrimage to the source of the holy river, Ganges (Ganga). He is asked to collect the body from the airport, which he does. Over the last few years, the motherless child Avinash has grown apart from his father, mainly over his passion for photography and his father’s insistence on him taking up a secure job. As a result, Avinash is not in deep morning at his father’s passing away.

In a case of major bungling, the cargo company that transported his father’s body hands him the body of another victim, an old lady. Avinash discovers the blunder and goes back to the cargo office to get the right coffin, only to be told that they had received two bodies, and the other body has been sent to Kochi, also in South India. So, to get his father’s body, Avinash now has to take an old lady’s body to her rightful heirs, a couple that run a hotel, but it is a long way off.

His friend Shaukat, a cranky and idiosyncratic garage-owner, comes to his rescue and offers to drive him to Kochi, with the body, in a van, and to bring back his father’s remains. On the way, they have to pick up Tanya, the Kochi couples’ daughter, a smoking, drinking, sleeping around girl, barely out of her teens, from her hostel. Shaukat hates Tanya the moment he sets sight on her…or, rather, her skimpy shorts. But then, he is a true friend, and will not let Avinash down.

Writer and director Bejoy Nambiar had earlier written a film called Solo, which was in four segments—earth, wind, fire and water--all starring Dulquer in the lead. It was the only Tamil/Malayalam film he wrote. All the films he has been involved with since 2012 as producer/writer/director have been in Hindi. Right on the heels of Solo comes a Karwaan, which hs taken shape over five yeas, that addresses four stages in the characters’ lives: coming of age (Tanya), choosing a livelihood (Avinash), coming to terms with a major loss (both families) and chasing your dream (all the major characters).

Nambiar treats this work as part black comedy, part road movie and partly a case for tolerance and friendship, above all. His funereal humour is present in abundance, although we do not see any funeral. He also takes care to avoid showing the bodies in the coffins, though the actors do take looks. This might have been a Bejoy or Akarsh (screenplay) decision, but is rather thoughtful. We merely hear a stray remark that the bodies have been decaying rapidly.

Black comedy abounds, much needed in a film about alienation and death, and is woven in quite seamlessly by the writer duo. For his part, dialogue writer Hussain Dalal acquits himself rather well.

Introverted Avinash, garrulous and nutty Shaukat and extrovert Tanya land up at a wedding, with their coffin, and guess who s the groom to be? Bejoy Nambiar. Nambiar is the surname given to the emissary who comes to collect the old woman’s body in Bengaluru, a man who cannot speak or understand a word of Hindi and his answer to everything said to him n Hindi is “Nambiar”. Obviously, the wedding is cancelled, but the bar is open. So the terribly disappointed groom-to-be, invites the pall bearers (read van carriers) and other guests to indulge themselves in drink and food, and never mind the postponed wedding ceremony.

Akarsh, along with co-screenplay writer Adhir Bhat, has delineated most of the characters very well, with one exception. Avinash’s own real-life father Akash Khurana comes across as a sourpuss, with very little to justify his behaviour. Moreover, almost all his shots are taken solo, suggesting that the shooting was done in a hurry, separately, with co-artistes not available. In the first scene of the movie, he is shown writing a letter in Hindi, which is archaic in 2018.

Irrfan gets beaten-up by loan sharks and the shehnai player falls of the roof of the van while playing his sonorous instrument, sitting there. A woman comes to visit the shehnai player in the hospital, warded right next to Shaukat, and while the old man is asleep, he pushes a romance with the burqa-clad woman through the cloth partition. Though it is at a tangent from the main plot, there is no denying that the episode is hilarious. In many ways, Shaukat’s persona is a tribute to the Hindi films of the 50s and 60s, where a comedian/sidekick was often a garage-owner or a motor mechanic. A few co-incidences make the tale less plausible, especially one that has Avinash and his just discovered college ‘friend’ reminiscing about the brink of a college romance, without flashback.

Dulquer underplays his part effectively. For a man whose mother tongue is Malayalam, he has worked real-hard on his Hindi. Is it perfect? Far from it, but enough to be accepted. In contrast, the Urdu-speaking Irrfan counterpoises the narrative, making Dulquer’s Hindi just that much suspect. Not done, with someone whose full name is Avinash RajPurohit. This role is different from most Irrfan parts, and for the better. Irrfan, with a hint of Bhopali accent, is a delight to watch, especially when he woos the young woman who visits the hospital where the two of them are recuperating. Such gifted actors need to be given challenging roles, not stencilesque parts.

Mithila Palkar has done two Marathi films and this is her second Hindi outing. At 25, she looks 18 and is never in awe of Irrfan or Dulquer. She also has no inhibitions in wearing micro dresses and bringing across a character who, after a pregnancy test, says that it is both bad news and good news! Bejoy Nambiar is a natural, speaking Hindi almost fluently. Akash Khurana is a veteran film and stage actor, with his intense looks and trade-mark diction. Beena, as the other victim of the tragedy, has just one scene in the bus, and that’s enough to impress.

Amala Akkineni is cast as Tahira, the woman in the hospital who is wooed by Shaukat, and falls for him, without taking even a good look. She says a lot without saying much, and the three revolutionary words that she shouts out as she elopes with Shaukat is a clap-trap situation. Kriti Kharbanda has a cameo as Rumana, the woman who has lost her mother. Addressed as Rumi for short by Avinash, he feels her name evokes that of the Persian poet and philosopher, Jalaluddin Rumi. Names of the actors playing the husband of the hotelier and that of the shehnai player were not available. The latter has done a fine job and is a scene stealer, who deserved billing, as did the former, who acts naturally.

Music by Anurag Saikia is loud and one piece is repeated too often. Cinematography by Avinash Arun and Film Editing by Ajay Sharma are competently executed. At 1 hour 54 minutes, the length is manageable. Karwaan’s ending is sudden, though whatever the writers and the director wanted to convey has already been said.

As the scenes of the inter-changed coffins came up on the screen, I couldn’t help recalling a British period comedy called The Wrong Box (1966), in which a coffin and a large box get exchanged, and in one of them, the man turns out to be alive. It was really very funny and the black comedy was so Brit. Karwaan is no copy of The Wrong Box, but it is possible that the germ of an idea came from the film, released over 50 years ago.

As a director, Akarsh Khurana shows marked improvement over High Jack, and is on the right track. Watchable for sure, his Karwaan had possibilities, but falls just short of its destination.

Rating: ** ½


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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