By Pankaj Sachdeva
Akarsh Khurana’s Karwaan is a road-cum-coming-of-age movie set in Southern India. It is the story of Avinash (Dulquer Salmaan) who is estranged from his father. Avinash receives a call from a travel company that his father has died in an accident. When he goes to collect his father’s body, he finds out that someone else’s body has been exchanged with his father’s. He asks his friend Shaukat (Irrfan Khan) for his van to pick up the body but Shaukat offers to come along with him. On the way, they meet Tanya (Mithila Palkar) whose grandmother also passed away in the same accident in which Avinash’s father dies. All the three then embark on a trip together and as it happens in such movies, they learn some life-altering lessons that bring about a change in them.
Avinash is a repressed guy who had wanted to be a photographer but now works in a software firm because his father forced him to pick this job. He plays Solitaire in office and eats Maggi noodles by himself. He has an obnoxious boss at work who insults people regularly. His workplace has a board on which it is written, “Don’t complain. Unemployment feels a lot worse.” Another one says, “Never forget you can be replaced.” He seems to have made peace with his job. In this aspect, he is not different from the future Farhan Quereshi of 3 Idiots, Rahul Kapoor of Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, or Ved Vardhan Sahni from Tamasha. Some of the scenes of Avinash, such as his relationship with his father, his lost sense of identity at work, and his frustration of dealing with the difficult boss, are quite reminiscent of Ved’s scenes in Tamasha. By the end of the movie, like Ved, Avinash undergoes a journey of self-enlightenment and gathers the courage to follow his passion for photography.
Karwaan‘s philosophy is explained by Majrooh Sultanpuri’s famous couplet written on Shaukat’s van. It reads, “Main akela hi chala tha janib-e-manzil magar, log saath aate gaye aur karwaan banta gaya.” I started all alone towards the goal, people kept joining and it began to turn into a caravan. Something similar happens in the film as well. It starts with Avinash starting his journey to collect the body of his father, and he goes to meet Shaukat. Things take a turn when they find out that the body of Avinash’s father has been exchanged with someone else’s which causes them to undertake another journey. Then, they take another detour to meet Tanya. On the way, they also stop at another place to return the last remains of a woman to her family. Thus, Avinash starts alone but then he keeps meeting people along the way. He even runs into his ex-girlfriend from college. Log saath aate gaye aur karwaan banta gaya. And, this is how life works as well. We come to this world alone and then we meet people along the way. We make friends. We lose people. Many a time, circumstances change and we have to take detours from our chosen path. We run into surprises. We run into old flames. We fall sick and get broken. We heal and get repaired. We constantly adapt. Our life is also a caravan and is perfectly encapsulated in Majrooh Sultanpuri’s words. Thus, Karwaan is very much the story of life itself.
In life, things often come back to us in some way or the other as if we are part of some kind of a cosmic cycle. As Karwaan is about life itself, this cyclic aspect is seen in the film where the protagonists are faced with situations from an earlier point in their life that come back to them again. It brings a new perspective to them which prompts them to understand other people better. Avinash thought that his father did not understand him. After meeting with Tanya, he realizes that he is behaving with her just like the way his father used to behave with him—angry, unreasonable, and old-fashioned. He himself has become an old uncle who does not understand the young. In a wonderful moment, his friend Rumi tells him, “It is a never-ending cycle. Jab tak ek bete ko realize hota hai uska baap sahi tha, uska khud ka ek beta hota hai jo samajhta hai woh galat hai.” By the time a son realizes that his father was right, he has a son who tells him he is wrong. Being with a young Tanya, Avinash understands his father better when he gets an opportunity to be in a situation similar to his father’s. Life comes full circle for Shaukat, too. His father used to beat his mother who accepted it as her fate. When he learns that his crush Tasneem also has to bear the abuse of her violent husband, he tells her to not repeat the mistakes of his mother. She should run away from her husband and start a new life. He is reminded of his mother when he sees Tasneem. This cyclicity is seen in the relationship between Tahira and Tanya as well. At her mother’s memorial service, Tahira is giving a moving speech about her mother. She talks about how a mother learns to accept that her children grow up, become wiser, and then, leave. Tahira is talking about her mother, but she is also talking about her self-vis-à-vis Tanya for whom she is the mother. She ends her speech by saying that when her time comes, she hopes that her daughter will say kind words for her like the way she said for her mother. This whole aspect of the circle of life is something that the film portrays. Children will become parents and life goes on. In the words of Rumi, it is truly a never-ending cycle.
As parents and children play a significant part of the story, it is no coincidence that all through the film, the presence of children is given a special focus. When Avinash and Shaukat start their journey, a few children are playing near the place he stays. Later, when the three of them reach the wedding spot to give the last remains of a woman to the Nambiars, children are playing there as well. When it is the prayer service time at Tanya’s house, children can again be seen playing in that house. In the end, the entire family plays cricket with children. Parents and children are an important part of the film’s journey. At the house of the Nambiars, Avinash gives money to the house help so that he can buy shoes for his daughter. The daughter of the Nambiars wants to delay her wedding because of her grieving father. At another point in Kochi, when Avinash is reading his father’s letter, a father is playing with his little son. In another familial touch, director Akarsh Khurana’s own father Akash Khurana plays the role of Avinash’s father in the film and his brother Adhaar Khurana plays the role of Avinash’s boss.
Avinash, Shaukat, and Tanya are the unlikeliest of companions. The three of them belong to different ages and have a different thinking towards life. Yet, they develop a friendship among them and learn something from each other. All three of them have absent fathers in their life. Avinash does not speak to his father because he did not let him follow the career of his choice. Shaukat keeps telling everyone that he never saw his father as he used to beat his mother and his father never understood the meaning of the word father. Thus, he never really saw his father in the true sense. Logon ko haq jamaana aata hai, rishta nibhaana nahi. People abuse their relationships, but do not care to nurture them. Tanya lost her father to cancer when she was young. Like the others, she too has not seen her father.
At one stage in the film, Tanya and Avinash have a conversation about Instagram. Avinash dislikes Instagram as he feels that it is ruining the science of photography and killing the joy of taking a picture. According to him, photography is about capturing a moment and not making a moment out of anything. Tanya replies that he is too old school and apps, such as Instagram and Snapchat, give an opportunity to everyone to become a photographer. In the end, Avinash resigns from his job and takes a picture of his screaming boss which he says will go on his own Instagram feed. Not only has Avinash ‘found himself’, but he has also embraced the idea of Instagram to move along with the times. This time, he made a moment out of anything. This is essentially what we need to do in life as well. Life is all about change, and we need to adapt to the rapidly changing world, else we will become obsolete. In the earlier scene, Avinash looks at Tanya’s pictures and he advises that her that the frames of her pictures could be better and she should focus on the subject. There were too many unnecessary elements in the frame. In some ways, he has to find the focus in his life as well and, therefore, when he has his exhibition, he calls it ‘Finding Focus‘, a nice little touch about focusing on the things that matter in one’s life.
The other thing that stands out in the film is the way how lightly it treats death. Though Karwaan does not have the poignancy of Mukti Bhawan, it treats death as a celebration like the latter. For a film dealing with two dead bodies, it is remarkably sanguine with not a touch of suffocating grief that that death brings with itself. Tanya and Avinash take drinking shots in the name of funerals as if they are celebrating death. As Avinash says, “Everyone has their own way of dealing with grief.”
On this journey, the characters give nuggets of advice to each other that help in their enlightenment. Avinash says that one has to take responsibility for their actions. He learns that it is alright to break rules sometimes and one need not be repressed all the time. Tanya learns that there is a difference between bagaawat (rebellion) and bevakoofi (stupidity). Shaukat gives his own pearls of wisdom in his typical deadpan style. They are funny and deep. He says, “Unhone hamein zinda dafan kar diya yeh soch ke ham mar jayenge, lekin unhe pata nahi tha hum to beej hai. Hamara dafan hona hamari viladat hai.” They buried us alive to destroy us but they did not know that we are seeds. Our burial is our redemption.
My favorite bit in the film was the part when Avinash runs into his college girlfriend Rumana, or Rumi. It is a wonderful moment when one unexpectedly runs into an old romantic partner. After college, Avinash disappeared without any closure but Rumi carries no hate against him. Her happiness of seeing him was more than the sadness of his leaving her. It felt like there are still some feelings between the two of them. Like the Sufi poet Rumi, she gives him the advice of letting go of his hate against his father. After meeting Rumi, Avinash goes onto the journey of his self-discovery (another similar touch from Tamasha that also had Rumi references). I loved that moment when Rumi’s husband Raghu tells her that he feared coming out as he thought that he might not see her there. He felt vulnerable that probably his wife might have run away with her old lover.
One discernible criticism of the film is its verbosity ruining what could have been subtle moments. For instance, after Avinash departs Rumi’s house, she says that he is going on a journey of self-discovery. Her husband Raghu responds that Rumi is the correct name for her and explains us the connection between her name and the Sufi poet. Something similar again happens in the scene when Shaukat narrates the story of his abusive father and at that moment, Tanya says that all the three of them have issues with their fathers. These verbose elements ruin the impact of these beautiful scenes in the film. For a film focusing on self-discovery, it should have the gumption to let its viewers do their own self-realization as well. In addition, the scenes involving Shaukat and the foreigners were jarring. It just did not go with the flow of the film. His character had a conservative outlook towards life, but these foreigner scenes did not add much to the film and were not even funny.
In terms of performances, Dulquer Salmaan and Irrfan Khan hold the film while Mithila Palkar was good enough. I have seen Dulquer before in Ustad Hotel and O Kadhal Kanmani, and there is something endearing about him and he has that star quality in him. He is understated in the right amount. His real-life persona reflects on the screen. One would want him as a friend in life. Karwaan has been lovingly shot by Avinash Arun and that shot where a Kathakali dancer smokes a cigarette is memorable.
Sometimes, I wonder how much economic liberalization has helped people to follow their dreams. Twenty-five-years ago, it might be even harder for people to choose unconventional careers. It is a point films that advise follow-your-dreams often ignore. Here, in Karwaan, there is at least an acknowledgment that money is a factor in making some decisions, perhaps, one can rather take early retirement as Avinash’s father suggests. Also, as Shah Rukh Khan once said, “Don’t philosophize until you’re rich first. I used to be poor, and I can tell you there’s nothing romantic about it. When young people, friends, say they want to be great creative novelists, I advise them to be a copywriter first, make a little money. Don’t be a struggling artist; be a happy one.” With the growth in the economy, some people can afford to follow their dreams. Avinash’s father wanted to be a piano player but could not be one, but his son is going to follow his dream.
At his father’s memorial service, Avinash is finally rid of his father’s spirit that was following him. He says that he does not know if his father was a good man or not but he now realizes that his father was not a bad man and in these days, being not bad is also pretty great. This perfectly describes the film as well. Karwaan is not bad and given the quality of some of the recent films, it is saying that it is pretty great.
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