Autohead is nothing short of an experience, and certainly one of the most interesting films I saw at this year’s MAMI film festival. The mockumentary’s strength is its stylistic storytelling which is as wholly absorbing as it is wildly entertaining. Director Rohit Mittal’s (who also plays the director in the film) use of the format is commendable in how he keeps the tension palpable and building, and helps credibly sell the film’s shock value on which it so hinges.
The film has some truly visceral performances. And, undoubtedly, among the best I’ve seen all week, particularly Deepak Sampat who plays the lead Narayan. And yet, for all its edge-of-the-seat thrills, which there are many, Autohead falls prey to the curse-of-the-second-half. It derails so drastically towards the end that I was left feeling robbed, and downright frustrated.
Autohead tells the story of a documentary crew that sets out to film day-to-day life of a Mumbai autorikshaw driver. Narayan’s story is told through the footage they collect. As they chronicle more of his life and activities, they uncover a lurking dark side within him. His behaviour grows increasingly violent, leading to grave consequences.
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The film’s greatest victory is in how starkly real it feels, its attention to detail and memorably natural performances, notwithstanding. It strikes a curious mix of exhilarating and weirdly fun, that keeps you consistently on edge, as much as it puts you at ease with its playful humour. Yet, it never fully lets you relax. A constant feeling of something grim lurks around.
Yet for all of the film’s victories, which there are many, the direction the story takes towards the end is disappointing. The nerve-racking steam the narrative builds up leads to a convoluted series of events, with all rationality thrown out the window.
Autohead makes some poignant and, at times, political statements about the inherent classism rampant in our society. Not to mention throwing light on the hardships of lowest common denominator of the society, and their heartbreakingly minimal rights. We see instances like a woman paying only half the price and walking away, knowing well Narayan being a rikshaw driver can do nothing. In another, more harrowing scene, we see an angered customer who thinks he is being taken on a longer route. He halts the ride mid-way further enraged by the fact that Narayan is a non-Maharashtrian and starts beating him. Such scenes are difficult to watch, and you can’t help but think what rikshaw drivers must face everyday.
Through this, the film explores the notion of cycles of violence in society, where those who are oppressed, later violently lash out at those they feel they have dominance over, shown when Narayan later attacks a chai wala for no apparent reason. And the cycle continues.
The film is also a lesson in the power of silence and restraint and how much more impact and tension a scene can have without the need for overpowering sound or melodrama. Something mainstream filmmaking severely needs to take a cue from.
In the end, Autohead may polarise the audiences. Some maybe sold over by the film’s style, approach and unique entertainment value. They may not feel as strongly about its narrative choices.
For me, content matters as much or regardless of the style, comedy or thrills a film offers. But despite flaws in the narrative, the film makes for an engaging experience and is recommended viewing.