Road To Sangam feels somewhat like the Sabarmati ashram display of Gandhi's possessions. Meagre, yet laden.
This is hardly a commercial venture. The fact that it has won awards at 6 international film festivals at the least, puts it in the 'other' bracket. And yet, as you discover in the crisp khadi folds of this tribute to Mahatma Gandhi, its artiness isn't without substance. By no means.
Its dignified levelheadedness, coupled with an ample dose of gray matter, merits it much more than a total screen share of 2 shows in an entire city. Not surprisingly, the price it will have to pay for zero marketing effort - in this city, at least - is that it will hardly last a couple of weeks at the theatres.
Breathing conviction in every frame of its running time, Road To Sangam is a sort of commentary on the last lap of Gandhi's final journey that involves his ashes. It opens with a bunch of friendly Muslim senior citizens in Allahabad, going for morning walks together, joking around, and generally sharing a warm camaraderie all the time. They're all members of a religious committee headed by the hardliner clerics Kasuri (Om Puri) and Maulana Qureshi (Pawan Malhotra).
Trouble brews when, after a prominent series of bomb blasts in the country, certain Muslim youth from this little locality are arrested. Taking offence at the alleged injustice against innocents of the community, the committee calls for a bandh in protest.
Husmatullah (Paresh Rawal), a diligent mechanic and secretary of the said committee, faces an ethical dilemma when he discovers that a sarkari assignment of his is directly linked to the Mahatma. He faces alienation from his community when he mildly airs the call of his conscience to not shirk work, especially when it involves the man who fought for the independence of this very land.
The rest of the story is about how Husmat deals with it all - the bandh call and the unreasonable halting of businesses and daily earnings just because the representatives of one community felt hurt. Gandhi forms the backdrop of the story in the second half.
The movie speaks on other subjects as well - fundamentalist decisions, the Muslim identity in India, and Partition. Yet, there's no melodrama, or severity of emotion or language or ideas, in Road To Sangam.
The film comes across as a set of eloquent arguments centred round topic that rings rather neighbourly bells for most of the country. And in this context, it feels like a gentle, unruffled conversation - that can only happen amongst people who want to understand one another. And quite a few nuggets of wisdom abound among the various topics it visits.
It is only fair to say that Paresh Rawal single-handedly makes Road To Sangam the captivating watch that it is. He's the hero of the film, and literally soaks himself in Husmat, making everyone else seem like pastel-coloured wallpaper. However, Om Puri plays his usual - the grumpy cleric -, with boring familiarity and Pawan Malhotra's act and speech seems contrived. The other lesser actors put up a decent show, though are lackluster when compared to Paresh Rawal.
Gandhi's great-grandson Tushar Gandhi plays himself (not acting, but just appearing as himself, with quite a respectable amount of screen time).
The camera work is in tune with modern times. The authenticity of the locations and the general set design is firmly in place, but even given the neatly done up visuals, including some rather beautiful shots of Gandhi's samadhi, the nature of the script makes the final product end up feeling like a TV serial or a theatre production.
The background track shifts from rousing qawwali in the first half, to balmy bhajans - Vaishnava Janato and Allah Tero Naam, among others - in the second. The soundtrack feels contemporary, all the same, and forms quite the perfect accompaniment to the story unfolding on screen.
If you're keen on this one, catch it before it moves out of the theatres.