Irrfan Khan Fest: Karwaan, Irrfan and His Character Steal the Movie From the “Hero”

This is a slightly frustrating movie, because Irrfan is so very good in it and his character is so very interesting, but instead the film expects us to care about Dulquer and his boring character. Still worth watching though, mostly for the Irrfan of it.

Can we just take it as a given that a lot of upper middle class men have the means and opportunity to make movies?  And therefore feel they are writing the most deep and important story ever when they write about dissatisfied upper middle class men who want to be artists because it is their story and they are the Center of the Universe?  And that this is reinforced by other upper middle class men who review movies and produce movies and so on and so forth?

Image result for karwaan film

Moving on from that basic premise, what does this mean in terms of the actual end product?  It means there is a deep understanding and sympathy for our main character, which isn’t a bad thing.  And it means the filmmakers are given the freedom to do the kind of in depth character study film that doesn’t usually get funded.  Because all the upper class men they go to for funding react with “my GOD!  It’s the most important story in the HISTORY OF THE WORLD!!!!  Tell me more about office worker angst and feeling trapped in a suit and tie, and PLEASE PLEASE add in something about father issues!!!  I will give you ALL THE MONEY.  Oh and please see if you could get a second generation actor who has never had to struggle for his art to play the lead, that would be just peachy”.

Okay, now I’m getting irritable again.  What I meant to say, was that a filmmaker with a deep grasp of his central character and supportive investors who let him make a true character study isn’t a bad thing.  It would be nice if those same films with the same kind of support could be made by female and lower class filmmakers, but oh well, we can’t have everything.

One of the questions I sometimes find myself asking halfway through a film is “what makes these characters deserve to have a movie about them instead of other characters?”  I don’t ask that question when watching, for instance, Dishoom.  Because, no doy, they get to have a movie because their lives are filled with song numbers and explosions.  Or even Fanney Khan, where the plot was so over the top that just by being a part of it, the characters deserved a film.  But a movie like this, where it is a character study of every day people who never get into car chases or anything fun like that, then I start to wonder.

(Obviously I want to watch a movie about these two)

And often these kind of “Come on DAD!!!!!  Why can’t you understand?  I just want to waste all your hard earned money pursuing my art because it makes me happy!” films do not pass that question.  Tamasha, for instance, I have no idea why I was supposed to be interested in that story.  There was a guy who was unhappy with his life, it expressed itself in kind of an odd way and messed up a perfectly normal young woman he was dating (who never got any backstory of her own), and then he became happy with his life and won back his girlfriend.  How is that a movie?  That’s just freshman year of college.

Wake Up Sid, that movie I love.  Because it’s not a story about Ranbir growing up (although that is the title), it’s a story about Ranbir realizing his privileges and earning his happy ending, and it is just as much Konkona’s story, not something we have seen before, a young woman with drive and direction finding herself in her own way.  2 States, that’s another good one, because art is what our hero does in between living his life.  The film doesn’t argue that merely wanting to be a writer and needing to work in the meantime is worthy of a film.  If anything, that is treated as the least interesting part of it.  Pyaasa, obviously, is on a whole other level.  That’s not someone who feels trapped by his regular life and wishes to be an artist, that’s someone who has never been able to NOT be an artist, it’s something he has to do just like breathing.

Okay, what about this movie?  Well, Dulquer fulfills the usual role of the whiney little office worker who is all “if only” instead of “I will”.  He’s……fine.  Doesn’t really break a sweat.  Not that there is much for him to do, some good dialogue delivery in a few scenes, and otherwise just sort of holding the center of the film.  He’s good enough now that he can carry a role like this and a film like this without thinking about it.  Mithila Palkar is equally good playing a far worse written character, so she really has to struggle to find the center.  And then there’s Irrfan.

Irrfan is essentially the whole movie. There’d be no reason to watch it without him.  He is the only straight up entertaining person on screen, the only one who feels like an amusing character instead of that irritating person who dominates the conversation with all their self-discoveries and personal philosophies at a dinner party.  And Irrfan is amazing, every line is delivered in a uniquely Irrfan way, every gesture and moment is perfect, even something as simple as throwing away a cell phone is done just right.

What I can’t figure out is if Irrfan’s character was supposed to be this riveting or if it was an accident of casting.  Because in addition to Irrfan’s performance, his character is the only one with what I think of as “real” problems.  You know, of the life and limb type, instead of the “my boss is kind of mean sometimes” type.  So maybe Irrfan was supposed to be the hero all along?

I am leaning towards “no, coincidence”.  Because the way the film is structured, we start and end with Dulquer’s tragedy and triumph. Irrfan’s far far more unusual and dangerous and tragic story is only there to teach Dulquer a lesson.

Irrfan’s whole story, the tragedy of the truly good and generous underclass Muslim, only exists to bring out the really important story, that of the upperclass Hindu man who is torn about which of the many opportunities that fall into his lap he should accept.  Mithila serves the same purpose, because really most teenage girls just exist to remind young men what it was like to be young again.  Not in an icky romantic way, but in a “ah youth! I am so wise now” way.

But, on the other hand, the music is really good!  And so is the cinematography.  And some of the dialogue (mostly Irrfan’s) is funny.  And there are some somewhat amusing set pieces about the inconvenience of life in India today, until it crosses that line into “we are so much wiser than the silly people who care about these things” that always bothers me.  It’s okay sometimes to have a sincere emotion, you know?

Anyway, it’s Dulquer’s debut.  They successfully launched the over-privileged born into fame son of Mammootty on the backs of an actor who’s father was a poor tire salesman and who has been working for over 20 years after winning a scholarship to drama school, and a young woman who’s been working towards her acting dream since she was 20 by taking menial backstage jobs and scrounging for ad work. But then, those aren’t the actors who get lead roles and those aren’t the stories of artists that get made into movies.  Well, not by movies written by upperclass men.

(Zoya, I love you.  I don’t say it enough)

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

Whole plot in two paragraphs:

Dulquer is a dissatisfied office worker who used to want to be a photographer, he runs into an old friend who offers him a gallery show whenever he wants at his successful gallery, but Dulquer turns him down.  Dulquer gets a phone call telling him his father died while on a pilgrimage and giving him the shipping number for the coffin.  Dulquer goes to pick it up with the help of his lowerclass revolutionary Muslim mechanic friend Irrfan, but is given the wrong body.  He figures out the other body must have been shipped to someone else and calls up the woman in Kerala.  Irrfan offers to leave immediately and help him drive to the body swap location.  Along the way they get another phone call from the woman, asking them to detour and check on her daughter in her college in Ooty.  They pick her up, Mithila Palkar, surprised to find her casually talking about drinking and smoking cigarettes and sneaking out of the boy’s hostel.  They continue driving, but find a package in the coffin that belongs to the relatives of another victim.  They detour again to deliver it and find the family at a wedding.  Irrfan befriends the shehnai player in the wedding band, while Mithila and Dulquer talk about fathers (Mithila’s is dead).  And then goons show up and steal Irrfan’s van, injuring Dulquer and the shehnai player in the process. INTERVAL

Irrfan and the Shehnai player are both in the hospital over night, Dulquer and Mithila go to stay at a hotel next door.  Irrfan falls in love at first sight with the Shehnai player’s daughter who comes to visit him and spends the night reciting love poems to her and slowly softening her resistance.  Only to learn the next morning that she is not his daughter, she is his young third wife.  Meanwhile Dulquer and Mithila stay up late talking, Dulquer tells her about photography and his lost dreams of being a photographer.  Mithila gives her perspective of youthful hope.  And then Dulquer says he needs a toothbrush and suggests a trip to the overnight drugstore.  Where Mithila buys snacks and also a pregnancy test.  Dulquer is shocked, Mithila is angry that he is shocked, and runs off.  Dulquer follows and finds her back at the hospital where they meet a doctor who recognizes Dulquer as an old friend of his wife.  He insists on taking Dulquer home where the wife is surprised by pleased to see him.  The doctor and Mithila both fall asleep, Dulquer and the wife keep talking, she was his college girlfriend and he left her at graduation without an explanation.  The next morning, Dulquer and Mithila pick up Irrfan, now in a tiny nano car with the coffin strapped on top.  Irrfan tells them why the men were after him, his father borrowed money from them, his father was an alcoholic and an abuser.  They drive the rest of the way to Kochi and meet up with Mithila’s mother who invites them to stay with her and join in the memorial service the next day.  Dulquer finally makes peace with his father when he finds his box of things in his coffin and learns he was going to advise Dulquer to quit the job in a few years and pursue his art then, when he wouldn’t have to struggle.  Mithila also casually tells him that she isn’t pregnant.  Dulquer and Irrfan start the drive back to Bombay, stopping along the way to pick up the van now repaired.  And also learn that Irrfan’s lady love is at the police station to file a report against her husband for abuse.  Irrfan convinces her to take a chance and come with them.  Dulquer returns to Bombay and quits his office job. HAPPY ENDING. And the epilogue is Dulquer’s successful photography show, with Mithila and her mother and Irrfan and his wife, and Dulquer’s new girlfriend, the pretty flight attendant he flirted with in the office elevator.

Image result for karwaan poster

(At least the poster is smart enough to put Irrfan front and center)

So, if I am following this correctly, Irrfan is the son of an abusive father who stood up to him at a young age and was thrown out of his home as a reward.  He somehow pulled himself up to surviving as a mechanic, and is still generous and kind enough to drive Dulquer all over India.  Oh, and when he mentions Dulquer helping with gas money, ha-ha, everyone has a good laugh because why should Dulquer ever pay for anything?  Irrfan is even footing the bill for this whole trip.  Irrfan falls in love at first sight and woos a woman over the course of one night.  And then he magically meets her again and convinces her to run off with him, saving her life as he was unable to save his mothers.

Mithila is a teenager struggling with a possible unplanned pregnancy, whose beloved grandmother has just died and who is traveling across country with two total strangers.  She and her mother and grandmother ran a hotel together as a strong all female team.  She is strong enough to push down her own grief and deal with the practical matters of the journey, the only one smart enough to think about getting dry ice for the body.

And then there is Dulquer.  Who kind of wanted to be a photographer.  And was a jerk to his college girlfriend.  And isn’t very good at his current job but gets to keep it along with the very high salary that comes with it because his daddy set him up in the company.  His father, who never hit him, never raised his voice, supported him in comparative luxury, and then wrapped up and handed to him a job that thousands, millions of others, would kill for.  Oh, but he also wasn’t 100% supportive of Dulquer’s plan to be a photographer.

(Also, there’s pretty songs)

Now, which of these 3 people sound like they deserve to be the lead of a movie?  The brave suffering and still deeply good mechanic?  NO!  He’s too low class to matter, his whole wa-wa over an abusive father and moneylenders who want to kill him and the woman he wants to save from an abusive marriage merits merely a wry amused smile from our hero.  After all, the lower classes aren’t “real” people, they are just sort of Shakespearean fools sent to amuse us and teach us life lessons.

(Ha-ha, let’s watch Irrfan change a tire and instagram about it)

What about the young woman struggling with the possibility of an unplanned pregnancy?  And also handling this unexpected trip and the grief of her grandmother’s death? Well, she’s a woman!  They aren’t real people either.  They are unpredictable and sometimes wise and they exist to fluster men and send them on journeys like some kind of Lady of the Lake from King Arthur.

Obviously, the journey that matters is Dulquer going from being unhappy with his job and awkward with the pretty girl in his building, to quitting his job and dating the pretty girl.  Everything that Irrfan and Mithila go through is just for his benefit.  Seriously, we go straight from Irrfan convincing a woman to run for her life from an abusive husband even if that goes against society, laws, and her religion-to Dulquer quitting his job.  That’s the dramatic build, a woman running for her life is an 8, but a middle class young guy quitting his office job is the 10.

Mithila’s pregnancy test scene was the first time I really lost it.  Because, has this scriptwriter ever, EVER, considered thinking of women as people?  This isn’t a thing someone would do!  If you think you might be pregnant, that is pretty much the most private thing in your life.  That’s not something you would confidently throw around on the druggist’s counter for shock value.  Condoms, sure.  Alcohol, absolutely.  Cigarettes, porn magazines, marijuana, all excellent shock value items.  A pregnancy test, that is not something to fool around with.  That’s not about “oooo, look how rebellious I am, I’m having sex”.  That’s more on the level of “do I have cancer or not?”  Not that a baby is cancer, but you know what I mean, it is life and body changing, far beyond any shallow need to shock a stranger.  Mithila’s potential pregnancy is about HER, not about its potential effect on Dulquer.  Dulquer’s response should not be what it is “oh horrors, a woman who is sexual active” but rather “oh horrors, what a tough thing you are going through, I am here to support you however you need because that is the only decent thing to do”.  If you must have something as ridiculous as Mithila buying a pregnancy test publicly with a man she just met, then the only way it makes sense is as a cry for help that demands a response.  I mean, why else would someone logically buy it then instead of waiting for later?

(See, Mani Ratnam gets it!  He gets how a pregnancy is about both potential parents, but the mother in a whole different way that has nothing to do with the father or anyone else.  Also, I love this song)

Maybe the scriptwriter doesn’t know how pregnancy works?  The egg goes from the Fallopian tube into a woman’s uterus.  And then at the end of her monthly cycle, it is expelled along with lots of blood and gross stuff during a woman’s period.  But if you miss a cycle, that might mean the egg was fertilized and therefore was not expelled.  Due to stress and diet and other factors, a woman can easily miss one period for no particular reason.  Some women are more regular than others.  But most women would be pretty sure a pregnancy is possible within a month, two at the most.  It is not something you would necessarily be concerned about until weeks have passed from the possible date of conception, it’s a very slowly dawning realization.  And if you are that concerned immediately after conception, you aren’t getting a pregnancy test at the drugstore, you are getting a morning after pill.  You can take a drugstore test in about ten minutes at any point.  There is no particular deadline, and no particular day when you are more likely to be accurate than another day.  It’s more just a matter of how you feel emotionally.  Either you absolutely have to know, in which case you are more likely to pick a test up ASAP and take it even if you have to use a gas station bathroom.  Or you are dreading the knowledge and putting it off and you waiting until you are in just the right place and just the right mood.  It’s not something you go “oh right, I’m at a drugstore, I might as well pick up a test, I hadn’t thought about it until just now”.  Or “better get a test now because there is some amorphous deadline that means I can’t wait a few days”.  The only way this scene makes sense is if Mithila was wanting Dulquer’s support and thinking this was the right place and time, which seems unlikely from her reaction.  Or if she really suddenly couldn’t wait to know, which is definitely not the case because she doesn’t take it until she is back home in Kochi.

Sure, there is an emotional journey that might make sense of all this, Mithila has been stressed and disconnected because of this worry, decided to buy the test while with Dulquer in order to get his support but when he reacted poorly reflexively started rebelling, decided to just put it out of her mind and forget it once the moment had passed, and finally took the test when home in Kochi and feeling safer.  But that would be an emotional journey that makes Mithila the center of the film instead of Dulquer.  So we don’t get that.  Just hours later, she falls asleep suddenly and the import is not “maybe we should worry about her and take care of her because of her emotional distress and potential medical issue”, but instead “oh goodie, Mithila is asleep, let’s leave her alone and go off to talk some more about Dulquer.”

Oh right, that conversation!  Dulquer’s old girlfriend apparently never got to really say good-bye to him after college, picked herself up, fell in love again, married a Malayali doctor, moved to a whole different part of the country and started a whole new life, but all she wants to talk about is Dulquer’s man-pain over his relationship with his father.  Does she have parents?  Does she miss them now that she lives so far away?  Who knows!  Doesn’t matter.

Image result for dulquer salmaan mother

(Also not mattering, Dulquer’s character’s mother.  This is a photo of him with his real life mother, because I couldn’t find one of his film mother.  There’s a faded photo of her that pops up every once in a while, but we have a whole Thing over Mithila’s father dying was she was young and that’s why she is so messed up and rebellious, but Dulquer’s mother’s presumed death is never even mentioned as mattering to him.  Mothers are meaningless, only parents with penises count)

I am aware that this is how a narrative works. Everything is centered on the central character, thus the term “central character”.  All conversations circle back to his/her journey, all events matter primarily for how they move his/her story forward.  But that only works if the central character is the most interesting character, if their story is the most important story.

If you started this with Dulquer learning his father is dead and also, say, that he has AIDs, then he would earn this.  That trumps, or at least equals, what everyone else is going through.  Or at least give some kind of reason for him NOT to pursue photography.  We literally have someone tell him “pick a date and I will give you a show in my successful gallery all you have to do is take pictures.”  And his entire journey is deciding “eh, since I am super well-off and have a gallery waiting for me, I might as well quit my job and go back to taking pictures.”  Where’s the conflict?  The high stakes?  The tension?  That’s all defused out into the other stories, leaving Dulquer’s the one I care about least.

But then, I’m not an uppermiddle class man, am I?  That’s the real problem, the problem is with me.  I am not a person who is supposed to be “real” according to this narrative, whose desires and interests are supposed to matter.

And I am sick of it!  I am sick of these movies that expect me to care about characters without giving me a reason to just because they are wealthy men.  And I am sick of all the terrible people in real life who think my concerns matter less, my body is about their reactions to it not what I choose to do with it, working class minorities exist only to work for them and are not allowed to have needs of their own, and the worst thing in the world is always what they are going through, not anyone else.

But then, that’s not really fair.  This is a well-made and well-performed film.  It has good songs, it is amusing, I highly recommend it.  Just, while you are watching it, remember it is a fantasy world and out here in the real world there are worst thing that can happen than feeling unfulfilled at your high paying job.

5 thoughts on “Irrfan Khan Fest: Karwaan, Irrfan and His Character Steal the Movie From the “Hero”

    • I always forget this is the review where I go down the random cul de sac of “entitled male suffering is the WORST”. But it’s also appropriate for today, because it is directly related to Irrfan. He humbly worked hard and did his job and didn’t complain about “artistic fulfillment”, just did the best he could with whatever he was given. The opposite of what I describe here.

      On Wed, Apr 29, 2020 at 9:45 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  1. I don’t know what it is about this movie that really hammers home how terrible this style of movie is, because it really isn’t the worst example of it AT ALL, but what you said is 100000% what I wanted to say. Middle class everyman characters with man pain are the actual worst and frankly I’d rather die than watch another one. The only reason I do watch them is because some other actor or actress I like is playing second fiddle in one of these. I don’t think any of my favourite actors has ever played one. I think the photographer in Made in Heaven irritates me so much because he’s basically this trope, too, and at the same time I like Bombay Talkie because it inverts the trope.

    ANYWAY it was fine, but how much more fine would it have been if it had focused on the teen and Irrfan going on a roadtrip? Also (6 millionth verse, same as the first) needed more proper songs.

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    • Thank you! This movie really is just SO infuriating, even though it isn’t nearly as bad as other movies like it. Maybe it’s because it is so close to good? Irrfan and Mithila are right there, with their far more interesting performances and characters, and the script is good, and the directing is good, if only we could remove the whiny man from the center of it, it could be a really good film. Unlike, say, Tamasha where there wasn’t enough not-Ranbir stuff to even patch together a film without massive fanfic assistance. In this one, you cut Dulquer’s character and move half his dialogue to Irrfan and half to Mithila, and it’s the perfect movie. That’s all you need to do.

      On Fri, May 1, 2020 at 12:48 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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