Director: Rohit Mittal
Amit Verma Films/Stalker Films
Synopsis: A group of documentarians get more than they bargained for when their cinéma vérité subject—an auto rickshaw driver in Mumbai—reveals a side of himself that’s darker and more horrific than they could have ever imagined.
Overview: We expected the first murder in Rohit Mittal’s Autohead. We’ve seen Narayan (Deepak Sampat)—a rural immigrant to Mumbai who’s making a pathetic living as an auto rickshaw driver by day and a pimp by night—deal with tough customers. We’ve seen older ladies stiff him his fares, old men browbeat him for taking wrong turns, and fellow motorists berate him for his driving. But the businessman me meet at 40 minutes in was too much. Not only did he verbally abuse Narayan, he forced him to pull over to the side of the highway so he could humiliate and assault him. He may have been surprised when Narayan fought back and beat his brains to a bloody pulp, but we, the audience, weren’t. From the very beginning, we know that there is something very, very wrong with him.
The first scene of the movie is an extended shot of Narayan picking up a young woman named Roopa (Ronjini Chakroborty) in his rickshaw. At first, she acts a stranger. But slowly we realize that the two not only know each other, but Roopa, a cold-hearted prostitute, occasionally works under Narayan’s employ. Worse, Narayan is hopelessly, helplessly in love with her. As the film unfolds, we glimpse a portrait of a sadistic loner whose self-loathing and loneliness feed a masochistic dependency on Roopa’s abuse. He spends his off-hours getting drunk, attending cinemas, and watching pornography—he has a special preference for “white ladies with blue eyes.” Seemingly everything in his life feeds a deep-seated misogyny: his henpecking mother; the beautiful young women he drives who blow off his advances; and of course, the cruel Roopa. He lets off steam in bursts of spectacular cruelty—he jokes with one passenger about how much he hates dogs before deliberately running two of them over—and alcoholic binges where he rambles about the evils of the world. But when he finally cracks and explodes, he does so with lethal, horrific ferocity. And yet many of the best scenes in Autohead consist of prolonged takes where a static camera watches as Narayan looks about nervously with a strained smile on his face as he eats, talks with relatives, drives his clients. It’s the same capricious intensity that made Travis Bickle so mesmerizing; we know that we’re looking at furious rattlesnakes who could (and maybe even should) strike at any moment but, for some inexplicable reason, don’t.
Autohead is framed as a mockumentary much like Man Bites Dog (1992), wherein a group of stoic filmmakers follow a killer as he goes about his terrible work. But whereas the filmmakers in Man Bites Dog went into their project knowing who they were filming, the documentarians in Autohead come across their killer accidentally. When they see Narayan murder the businessman, they are shocked—not enough to report him to the police, but enough to realize that they’ve stumbled across a subject who could make them rich and famous. The subplots about the documentarians and their moral dilemma about whether they should continue their project as the body count increases felt rote and mechanical. It all leads to a well, duh! conclusion that any viewer with a brain could see coming a mile away.
But, aside from Sampat’s phenomenal performance as Narayan, what truly sets Autohead apart is its depiction of Indian society in the throes of modernization. Narayan might be as unrealistic a real-life villain as Hannibal Lecter, but the forces that created him are not. In the developing world, there are millions of dispossessed young men like Narayan who feel cheated of the future they feel promised by Hollywood, Bollywood, or Hong Kong. I’m reminded in particular of reports which say that, because of decades of the one-child policy, by 2020 there will be 30 million more men than women in China. What are those 30 million Chinese men to do? Stoically accept their fates as bachelors? Those who don’t realize that this will be one of the biggest problems affecting the developing world—including India—in the twenty-first century are fools. Autohead is an extreme, outlandish example of what might happen. Or is it?
Featured Image: Amit Verma Films/Stalker Films