Director – Akarsh Khurana
Cast – Irrfan Khan, Dulquer Salmaan, Mithila Palkar
There is an early scene in Karwaan in which Irrfan Khan – or Irrfan, as he insists on being called and credited – subtly sets the tone for the film we are about to see. It’s set in a lonely dhaba, late at night, when even the hungry are fast asleep. It is an important scene, in which pivotal decisions are made and everyone – the actors and the audience – is required to be on their toes.
Dulquer Salmaan is making a phone call, and he’s absolutely killing it – he’s emotional, vulnerable and relatable. He’s pacing about with a worried look on his face, unsure of what the future holds. But in the background, noticeably out of focus, is Irrfan. He’s sitting on a chair, alone, lit with the murky amber that can only be found at dusty roadside eateries. He isn’t speaking. He isn’t moving. He isn’t even blinking. And yet, it’s impossible to take your eyes off him.
That, in essence, is the overwhelming emotion that Karwaan leaves you with. As much as it is a story about fathers and their children, and as much as it is a story about Dulquer’s character, Avinash — Irrfan is on a different plane altogether, operating with such virtuosic exuberance that is difficult to admire the many other achievements of this film.
He plays Shaukat, a fast-talking streetwise smartass, who fits comfortably into his compendium of characters – a lovable oaf with a heart of gold. Such is the electricity of his scenes that it almost seems as if Irrfan, in a fit of inspiration, came up with his own lines after having been thoroughly disappointed by the ones handed to him. Fate brings Shaukat and Avinash to that dhaba – they’re friends, before you begin to wonder – but it is their inherent decency that sends them on a life-altering journey of self discovery.
Avinash is experiencing the fallout of a life unfulfilled, hopelessly working at a soul-sucking corporation — the sort of place that has the words ‘Don’t complain, unemployment feels worse’ printed in large, bright letters on its walls. He once used to be a bright young man, an artist with ambition. But now he has lost all feeling. He quietly soaks in his boss’ bullying, he can’t muster the courage to talk to the girl he has a crush on, and he has all but abandoned his dreams of becoming a photographer.
Then, one night, alone in his apartment, he receives a phone call. His father is dead, the chirpy lady on the other end tells him. A road accident, she says. Avinash can collect the body from the airport, and have a great day ahead. But in a darkly humorous mix-up, the wrong body is delivered to Avinash. His father’s body is in Kochi, with a kindly woman who informs him that he must travel all the way – Avinash is in Bengaluru – to pick him up.
So for help, and transport, he turns to Shaukat. Together, they embark on a long and gorgeous road trip across south India, making a quick pit-stop at a boarding school to pick up Tanya, the teenage daughter of the lady they’re supposed to meet. She’s played by Mithila Palkar, who is remarkably resilient, despite the famous and formidable talents of her co-stars.
But as terrific as she is – and as frighteningly brilliant as Irrfan is – Karwaan is very much a Dulquer Salmaan vehicle, forgive the pun. He has an effortless charm about him, a warm presence that is perfectly tempered by Irrfan’s rather flamboyant style and Mithila’s adorable Manic Pixie Dream Girl act. And as someone who isn’t necessarily all that familiar with his work – Karwaan is Dulquer’s first Hindi movie, he is a Malayalam film star – it does make me want to discover his other films.
His character certainly has the more fleshed out arc, amplified by the rather difficult relationship he had with his father. But as much as Avinash hated him, he’s driven by a sense of unspoken duty, and fuelled by his fear of one day turning into the man himself.
There is very little to fault with Karwaan, which has been directed with surprising tenderness by Akarsh Khurana, who has also penned the lyrics to several songs on the eclectic soundtrack (which is quite incredible, by the way). It is shot with an unusually painterly eye by Avinash Arun, and besides an unnecessary romantic subplot, has only one awkward aspect that needs to be addressed.
The film has a Malayali playing a Kannadiga, a Marathi playing a Malayali, and then there is Irrfan doing whatever the hell he’s doing. And yet, they all speak in Hindi. I haven’t yet decided if this is a testament to India’s multiculturalism or a vague head bob in the face of it.
Karwaan arrives at a rather complicated time, a realisation that is made all the more upsetting by the film’s overarching theme of life and death, and particularly the scene in which Shaukat is introduced. With characteristic theatricality, he says, ‘Hume zinda dafan kar diya yeh soch ke ke hum mar jayenge (they buried me alive thinking that I’d die)’. This translation is quite literal – apologies for that – but it’s worth noting the line’s subtext.
By talking about the hardships of his life, and his unstoppable survival instinct, it is almost as if Shaukat is mocking death, taunting it for being a weak opponent. It is, of course, a cruel twist of fate that this line has taken on new meaning in light of recent events. But there’s strength to be derived from Shaukat’s words, and he’d be the first one to boast that they’re almost poetic, wouldn’t you say?