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by Jay Seaver

"'Indian Taxi Driver' is the description you just can't avoid."
4 stars

SCREENED AT MONSTER FEST 2016: There are a few moments in documentary-style drama "Autohead" when somebody asks either the filmmakers or the subject just why they would be making a movie about this guy, and it would probably help matters a bit if they had some sort of ready answer. The most likely one is that they were looking for exactly the thing they got, a glimpse at something ugly and potentially dangerous, but there are only hints of that, although the "ugly and dangerous" part is well-done.

The subject of their documentary is Narayan, a Mumbai rickshaw cab driver who, in addition to the regular business of bringing random customers from point A to point B, has a regular enough customer in call girl Rupa to be referred to as her pimp, and a spots crush as well. He shares a single room with the less outgoing Mohan and two others who are currently visiting their home village. This is not exactly impressive to his visiting mother, and while he seems fairly relaxed in front of the cameras, that visit may have him a bit on edge.

The first scene of the film doesn't quite set the tone, but it points the audience in the general direction that things will go, with Rupa finding the idea of anyone doing a movie about Narayan bizarre - he's no Salman Khan, after all - and most of the gag at the moment being her half-flirting with the crew, implying that they would find he a much more interesting and glamorous subject. Her casually disdainful comments about Narayan quickly inform the portrait of the man, and it is a somewhat familiar one, the sort of guy who seldom refers to a woman as anything but "bitch" but takes her interest in him for granted. His problems aren't entirely with women; he often seems an indifferent cabbie who half-heartedly tries to run up his fares, but it's women that he most feels able to intimidate. He's hardly unique in this, as seemingly everyone in Mumbai tries to establish dominance in every confrontation, but he's the one who pushes it the farthest when he can and folds otherwise.

Deepak Sampat impresses in the role, introducing Narayan with a disarming openness and getting the way men like this trend to give the impression of adapting or negotiating their rhetoric without really changing much by smiling, looking sheepish, and seeming to back up physically join seeing that they've made someone uncomfortable. Eventually, he's less worried about making a good impression on the film crew or forgets about them, and we're able to see Sampat show Narayan as simultaneously pathetic and bullying that makes outbursts of violence inevitable and transformative. The coldness afterwards feels a bit simple as a result, not quite feeling like the shedding of skin that it might. It's a performance complemented by Ronjini Chakroborty as Rupa, whose words and actions may often be superficial and selfish, but not deceptive or aggressive; she invites where Narayan imposes. Jhanvi Dwivedi has something of a clichéd part as the mother who just wants her good-for-nothing son to come home and get married, but it's one that works.

The crew plays themselves, and that self-insertion may not be the greatest idea. It gives them the opportunity to talk about movies, including a telling discussion of whether the director or star is the one to "make" a film, with plenty of references to specific Indian flicks that the subtitles occasionally have to try and explain to the English-speaking audience. It's something that the plot has trouble with, though - once the on-screen filmmakers become complicit in Narayan's crimes, their real-life counterparts struggle with how to keep things going without dropping the first-person perspective; although there are moments when doing so plays into how class and ethnicity can play a large part in how indifferent people are to crime, there's a point where writer/director Rohit Mittal just runs out of ways for the crew's continuing involvement to make sense and lets presumed momentum get the film to the end.

That momentum does carry them just far enough, and I suspect it carries further in India, if this film's lines about documentaries being fairly unusual there are accurate. If nothing else, it's got a well-realized lead performance and a good build that should satisfy even if the local circumstances are different.

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originally posted: 11/27/16 22:15:43
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1/06/17 sc good 4 stars
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