By definition, the road movie is a ‘vehicle’ for either one or a small group of individuals who seek escape from the world they are living in to set out towards redemption on the road. But definitions do not do justice to the big wide world of the road movie. The individual may set off not necessarily to ‘escape’ the world he/she lives in but could also be a venture to escape from the law for some crime he has committed or thinks he has committed. It could be setting out on the road just for the adventurous spirit man is born with and/or acquires over time. But the road might not quite go straight. It might turn and bend and break along the way, creating obstacles and introduce challenges that easily cut right through the physical reality of both the road and the journey. This journey along a ‘road’ becomes the story of an individual or a group of individuals who aspire for some definite place and perhaps reach some place else. Alternately, a person might set off without any purpose at all and at the end of the journey, might find himself in a different context and perhaps, become a different man. Vijay Anand’s Guide based on a novel by R.K. Narayan is an example in point.

Road movies are a cinematic genre in which the action takes place during a road journey or a vehicle-based film. The title derives its origins from Joseph Strick’s Road Movie (1974). The roots of a road story go back further and deeper than this surface title. It links to earlier tales of epic journeys such as Homer’s Odyssey, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Veda Vyasa’s Mahabharata’s the final journey (Mahaprasthanika Parva) towards the gates of heaven the five Pandava brothers take along with Draupadi and a dog, symbolising dharma that follows them all the way. This chapter describes in great detail the journey of Yudhisthira and his brothers across the whole country and finally their ascent of the great Himalayas where each Pandava falls except Yudhisthira.

The question that arises in this milieu is – the differences if any, between a road movie and a journey film. The ‘road’ is a literal and physical truth. It is also a signifier of a journey, of travelling that could begin with a physical undertaking of a journey but reach far beyond the physical journey in metaphorical, philosophical and ideological terms. The road movie in India has characteristics that distinguish it as a genre specific to Indian philosophy and culture. For example, an Indian road movie has four basic elements – the road, the journey, the destination and the characters undertaking the journey. In an Indian film, the ‘road’ per se, may be absent and the character/s who undertake/s the journey define/s it as a ‘road’ movie. The characters are the most important while the road and the journey are secondary to the character. An example is Mehboob’s Mother India, one of the ten biggest hits in the history of Indian cinema in the 20th century. Radha, the protagonist, is mobile and moves from place to place for basic survival and to save her children from certain death. But there is no road, nor is there a definite destination she moves towards. The destination is abstract – safety and security for her children. It is the journey that is important. It is a physical and real journey of a single woman against adversity of destiny and circumstances that are beyond her control. She wades through slush and flood waters, she walks through open fields, she looks for food in the slush, pulling her kids along with her. She gets raped by a village moneylender and beats him up. For Radha, the journey and the struggle for existence are synonymous, with obstacles round every corner. 

A distinguishing feature that distances the road movie in Indian cinema and the road movie of other lands is the train. The train is as familiar a feature in Indian cinema as it is in Indian life. It is there in the titles of films – Railway Platform, Train, Burning Train, Calcutta Mail. It is often used as a strategic setting to establish a character such as in Baharein Phir Bhi Aayegi, or to establish the tragedy of Devdas in the film of the same name, or, as a story-telling sequence as in Aashirwad. More often, and sometimes more tellingly, the train becomes a socio-political-romantic setting through songs and music in many films.

A train can take a beloved person away from you. A train can also bring the beloved back to you…. A train can be an object of wonder for a child. For a growing mind, the train comes from there, and goes there: the train can stimulate the desire to know the world out there…. An oncoming train can be violent, even lethal, it can kill man or animal. An engine steamed up for a journey exudes brutish power…. A whistle is a sharp reminder, even a warning…. One could be lonely in a train compartment or a crowded platform, even though surrounded by many others… and so on.

The famous song toofan mail sung by Kanan Devi in Jawab (1942) in the Hindi version has no direct link to any train except as a visual expression for the song sung by the leading lady in a garden sequence. Though the lines penned by Pandit Madhur with music by Kamal Dasgupta appear simple, they draw parallels with the journey of life where everyone is buying ‘tickets’ to ‘go’ to or ‘come from’ somewhere and meet only for a short while. The historical value of this scene is that when the song ends. The camera closes on the engine’s licence plate that spells out EIR (East Indian Railway) 1360. SG 0-6-0 which belonged to the North British lines built in 1915.

Another distinguishing feature of the Indian train movie lies in its music. Almost every road movie within Indian mainstream cinema has a song track that is unforgettable. The scriptwriter and the filmmaker dot the storyline with as many songs as they can, to add colour and dynamism to the film’s adventurous text. 

Often, a theme song runs like a thread throughout the film in the background when no one is actually singing. Mahesh Bhatt’s Dil Hai Ke Maanta Nahin was more along the lines of the Hollywood genre of road movies as it was a plagiarization of the old Cary Grant-starrer It Happened One Night (1934.) Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge is a strikingly different version of a road movie where love between the girl and the boy grow over their adventures across countries and then settles down to stability when they realise their love for each other but the girl is to be married off to a man of her father’s choice. 

Halfway through its footage, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s musical blockbuster Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, dramatically changes from a cliché musical family melodrama to a road movie, defining a radical change in the relationships between and among the three protagonists of the film. When the heroine’s newly married husband takes her across Europe into Italy and Paris, the film becomes a road movie. The journey brings about a metamorphosis in the relationship between the newly married pair. At the end of the journey, the bride does not want to join her lover because she has fallen in love with the husband. Every single film is filled with hummable songs and a lively music track that recognizes the creative excellence and innovation of a range of music directors from R.D. Burman to A. R. Rahman, transcending borders of time, training, technology and experience. The three title songs of these three films are still hits among lovers of Indian film music.

In Pather Panchali (1955) based on a 1929 classic by Bibhuti Bhusan Bandopadhyay, the remote village of Nischindipur did not have a railway station. The railway track lay some three to four miles away from the village. Little Durga and her kid brother Apu first listen to the distant sounds of an approaching train alongside a parallel track of approaching storm and thunder. One sees the camera pan across the kash flowers swaying in the breeze. The two kids rush towards the train, as the foreboding sounds of thunder are somewhat overshadowed by the chugging of the train.  One sees the train with the billows of smoke emerging from its engine rush into our view. We see little Apu with the paper crown on his head watching the speeding train from under the wheels of the train as the camera has moved to the other side to catch the wide-eyed, innocent expression on the boy’s face. The hope in little Durga just to get her first glimpse of an onrushing train first from the distance and then from close, writes in some subtle way, the story of her life or perhaps, her death. Her hope of seeing the train is induced in her little brother Apu who, the paper crown still perched on his little head, watches the train passing by from the other side of the camera. 

In Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge the moving train is used within a linear narrative but rounds off the road-movie-cum-love-story-cum-family drama to a happily-ever-after ending. The moving train at two extreme points of the film is used as a framing device – in the beginning and the end beautifully. The beginning shows the young girl suddenly encountering the hero Rahul as she jumps onto a moving train at the last minute. In the final frame, she joins him again as the train has begun its run outside the station, this time, forever in the presence of her approving family including the dictatorial, homesick, NRI father. 

Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se shows the evolution of the train, its use and picturisations more than three decades after Nayak.  The train runs along the Nilgiri Railway line and Santosh Sivan’s brilliant picturisation of Chal Chhaiyan Chhaiyan on lyrics penned by Gulzar and music composed by A.R. Rahman augured the beginning of an arrogant, self-indulgent, sensuous dance number shot atop a train imaginatively choreographed by Farah Khan and executed by Malaika Arora with support from Shahrukh Khan. 

Swades (2004) directed by Ashutosh Gowarikar has just one single scene showing the hero Mohan travelling in a third class compartment of a train. The small journey becomes a turning point in the life and ideology of this NASA scientist who drinks only bottled water. When the train halts briefly at a station, the passengers look out for refreshments and water. Mohan looks out of his window and struggles with his shock of seeing a little boy selling water for money. He finds it difficult to cope with the bitter reality that even water has to be bought in a country steeped in poverty. We never see him drink bottled water again. The train brings a metamorphosis in his way of thinking and the story takes a different turn from this point on. The film has a powerful message of progress but is brought across very slowly and subtly without recourse to melodrama.

Dhoom 2 (2006) directed by Sanjay Gadhvi has the most dramatically shot special-effects scene in which the protagonist lands sky-diving on top of a train carrying the British queen. He steals the queen’s crown by disguising himself as the queen and escapes the way he came. The scene hardly has much dramatic value but the inside of the train looks like a recreation of the Indian Railways Palace on Wheels. Trains are an iconographic aspect of Indian cinema that has been consistent since urbanisation took hold of society way back in the 1930s or is it purely a coincidence that most of the finest and much celebrated Indian films all feature the visible or aural presence of the train. 

In the Indian scenario, Partition films, and films tracing the individual’s struggle to survive against extremely adverse circumstances could perhaps, provide a parallel to The Grapes of Wrath. Gadar, M.S. Sathyu’s Garm Hawa, Train to Pakistan, Deepa Mehta’s 1947 – Earth, etc. are films where people are constantly trying to move away in search of new livelihoods and new roots when the earlier ones have either faded away or have been snatched from them, or when they are driven away by new political rules or by war.

The technique that is a part of the language of cinema has tremendous scope for imaginative, challenging and innovative experiments in a road movie. The filmmaker’s greatest challenge and opportunity for any road movie is the question of space. He needs to place his characters within the confines of narrow space like the inside of a car or van or bus. He can open it out widely to have the camera look at the horizon beyond from the perspective of a character whose journey is central to the film, or, from the audience’s point of view or just from a neutral point of view. Noted critic Stephen Bransford, in the Special Abbas Kiarostami issue of Senses of Cinema (2003) notes how three different manifestations of space – the space of social practice, mental space, and physical space – intermingle in three of Kiarostami’s films: Life and Nothing More (1991), Through the Olive Trees, and The Wind Will Carry Us (1999).

Technicians will all agree that these are extremely challenging compared to a film that has been shot entirely on static sets such as an apartment and its concomitants – the different parts of the apartment, the balcony with its plants if any, the kitchen, the staircase leading down to the entrance, the compound, the car park and sounds of children playing in the compound. A text book example of this is Sanjoy Nag’s Memories in March and Rituparno Ghosh’s Unishe April. 

The road as a backdrop; the road as a character; the road as a catalytic agent that can make people draw hitherto unknown feelings, strengths and weaknesses from within themselves mostly with positive and optimistic consequences; the road as the backbone of a story; the road as a space for action, accident, catharsis, love, hate and violence; The road movie in India or beyond, has shown all of this and more. The vehicles the road demands can range from a pair of sturdy feet with worn boots the likes of which we have seen Charlie Chaplin wore, to the Norton bike that Che Guevera used, to a running train that the restive girl Geet misses in Jab We Met, to a colourful and ramshackle old bus that needs to be serviced at every point in Nasir Hussain’s Caravan. The road movie in India, like everywhere else in the world, is more of a cultural phenomenon than a historical one.