‘Autohead’ Is A Bold Comment On Life In Mumbai

AutoheadRohit Mittal’s mockumentary Autohead, which is currently being screened at the Mumbai Film Festival, is Man Bites Dog on the streets of Mumbai. In the 1992 movie, a film crew follows a sociopath as he commits a string of homicides and provides a rambling commentary in between about everything from murder to music. In Mittal’s ballsy movie, a film crew tails Narayan (Deepak Sambat), an autorickshaw driver in Mumbai.

Sambat is utterly believable as Narayan, a character who’s amusing and thoroughly unlikeable in equal parts. They film his interactions with commuters and with Rupa (Ronjini Chakroborty), a prostitute for whom he occasionally solicits clients. Like many auto drivers, he angers people by refusing to ply. Sometimes he makes women uncomfortable by passing creepy comments. He claims to love Rupa, who treats him with amused contempt. She needs his clients but rebuffs him when he tries to get familiar with impressive volleys of abuse. They follow him around his one-room shanty, which he shares with a mostly mute individual and two others, who are never shown, and to an abandoned school where he goes to get drunk.

Throughout Narayan makes small talk on various subjects that almost always boil down to the female body, revealing a deep sexual frustration. The most memorable of these is a treatise on cunnilingus delivered in a roadside joint. His dirty talk is also a thin attempt to mask a deeply bruised ego. Verbal and physical abuse is routine for this man. Rupa yells at him, his visiting mother is an annoying nag, he’s slapped around by irate commuters and fellow drivers. He’s often at fault but that makes no difference to the injustice he feels is doled out to him.

The film crew, which has so far been a silent spectator, gets indirectly involved when they witness Narayan committing a crime. They think it’s television gold so instead of going to the cops, they keep filming. From the start it’s obvious where Mittal is going with the film. The idea is to show how poverty and an unforgiving city like Mumbai can turn a man into a monster. While Narayan is ostensibly the creation of street-level forces, the filmmakers are upper-class monsters. They’d rather sell their footage to a TV channel than do the right thing. Mittal goes a step further with a coda that reveals that Narayan is more complex a character than the filmmakers think.

It’s at this point that Mittal drives his film off the road. Narayan has already been established as an extreme character. But the end is an overkill that seems designed more for shock value. Yet this is a commendable film despite the fact that the theme – the city as an incubator of evil – has been dealt with in various degrees by scores of popular Hindi movies and non-mainstream cinema. What stands out is Autohead’s unapologetic portrayal of street-level violence, both verbal and physical. Far from being gratuitous, it’s the kind that makes you flinch as it seems real.

Autohead will be screened on Wednesday, October 26 at 8pm at La Reve (formerly Globus), Hill Road, Bandra (West). Get directions here.

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