Gyan Correa's Indian National Award winning 92 minute Gujarati feature film The Good Road is a story that is dispassionately told. Both the sound and the silence of the film enhance its magnificent, bewitching visuals but , stripped to its basics, the story tells of those who must make it together and those who must make it alone.
From their different socio-economic backgrounds in teeming, metropolitan Mumbai and heading towards a small town in Gujarat, are a city couple whose seven year old son Aditya goes missing for some hours, a truck driver Pappu and his assistant Shaukat, who are drawn into a deal that they lose, and nine year old Poonam, a wandering waif, in search of her grandmother's house. The highway through the white-hot scalding desert area (Rann of Kutch) in Gujarat makes it impossible for us, the viewers, to look or be anywhere else but with the characters. While the boy's story merges with the story of the truck driver, the girl's stands alone. No tidy endings.
As a senior schoolteacher, I was particularly struck by the fact that the children in this film were treated with such seriousness -- something I have rarely ever seen in Indian cinema. The Good Road comes as a relief from films in which children are seen either as exploited victims or brilliant achievers or simply emotional pegs to hang a story on. In some Indian films, (and I suspect, in others too) children are ploys for larger social issues and more recent cinema shows children with special needs whose struggles are obvious, recognized and resolved by someone else.
In The Good Road, we see children actually living and working their way through predicaments that are thrust upon them or that they find themselves inadvertently part of. If life is about learning to help oneself, we can all look to the children in The Good Road -- courageous, tearless and fearless creatures of the present.
When Aditya's parents zoom off without realizing they have left him behind, he does run after the disappearing car, but does not weep in despair and neither does the soundtrack wail plaintively for him. He knows his parents will come back for him and is ready to wait for them. Poonam actually chooses to follow the voices that lead her to the brothel run by Rajender Sir. When questioned by Rajender Sir, a complete stranger, she does not show any alarm. She simply says she is hungry and she wants to go to her grandmother. For the other girls at the brothel, Rajender Sir is the one who cares for them and while this is a chilling truth for the viewer, for the girls, this is the life that they know and live without any kind of mournfulness or defiance. Of course we know children should be in safe, nurturing, healthy circumstances. It is the maturity of the story that stops the film from straying off to deliver moralistic messages or from becoming a patronizing solution provider.
The Good Road allows its children to play for that purpose alone and not merely to amuse the audience with exaggeratedly cute antics.
Aditya plays with toy trucks but not long enough for the action to be considered a foreshadowing of events in the story. The girls at the brothel chant two lines in unison about grain that is lost in the wind. What could have otherwise been a trite underlining of their circumstances is left simply as a song that floats down to Poonam and draws her to the brothel. When Poonam plays a version of hopscotch or dances, there is no extension of the activity with a song or more girls dancing for the entertainment of the men who will claim them later in the evening. And it does not seem at all discordant that when asked to explain the meaning of 'an action song,' Aditya gives us an off key rendition of Hum Hindustani which he learnt in school. He has also learnt karate, but there is no comic demonstration of that to distract us.
We know that children occupy imaginary worlds as well as the one they are forced to be part of. The Good Road captures such moments of children concentrating on and illustrating what matters to them, irrespective of the trail and train of events in the story.
Are the children of The Good Road vulnerable? Of course they are. Aditya's hand reaches for Pappu's when they cannot spot Aditya's parents anywhere in a crowd. When Poonam sees the brothel girls preparing for the "stage" from which they will be picked for clients, she anxiously asks her friend Rinkle for reassurance that someone would really take her to her grandmother.
But the children are not sob stories. They are plucky little survivors. Aditya fights and bites Shaukat when Shaukat wants to offload the stray puppy Aditya had picked up. After Shaukat's repeated abuses and demands that Aditya be left on the highway, Aditya tells Shaukat that that is just what he would like to do -- get out of this truck. With wide eyes and the monosyllable "Na,"Poonam is firm in not being taken by any client and practically wills her way out of the brothel. Her friend Rinkle, just as determinedly, stays on in the place she has learned to call home.
There is another child too -- someone whom we never see or hear but are intermittently told about. She is Pinky, Pappu's niece and possibly Pappu's emotional compass -- the reason his eyes darken with emotion and the reason why he feels responsible even in his dull, taciturn way for Aditya, the child in his care on the highway.
Film critics have feasted on the flesh and flaws of The Good Road making much or little of its aesthetics and all that it is and isn't.
I believe that while The Good Road may not be a popular film, it is most certainly a good film and one which every teacher and parent should watch, definitely for the children and for far more reasons.