India’s young, urban, middle classes have proved fertile fodder for films as diverse as Delhi Belly, Kai Po Che and LSD (Love Sex aur Dhokha) in the last few years. The latest addition to this burgeoning sub-genre, Mohit Takalkar’s directorial debut takes a different tack to explore this milieu: the existential road movie.
Early 20-something Shiv is a university graduate unsure where he’s headed. Disinterested in being more certain and unable to articulate or escape his malaise, he’s living a static, isolated existence at his disappointed parents’ home. Unable to do what therapists call self-actualisation or express his angst, he abruptly leaves town. Embarking on a journey around India, he fumbles from one place to the next, hoping to find the answer to his desperate post-grad blues.
While the tragedy of Shiv’s exit from the family home seems somehow both overstated and undercooked, Takalkar deserves credit for keeping exposition minimal. He’s also aware of how easily Shiv could be mocked: when he wonders whether there’s more to life than the material possessions he takes for granted, a friend points out he’s only able to question that as he already has those things. It helps make his meandering aimlessness more sympathetic, though The Bright Day could have done with a little more irreverence. It never mires in despondency, but is guilty of occasional arthouse preciousness. It does have some real tenderness though and Sarang Sathaye proves capable of a kind of raw vulnerability most Bollywood leads would be reluctant to show (an American comparison could be Vincent Gallo in The Brown Bunny). When he awkwardly confesses his love for a Canadian tourist he picks up (naturally, or maybe just to attract western audiences and backers, our traveller runs into a western girl also roaming India in search of the Meaning of Life), he’s happy to seem weak, feeble even, as someone desperately craving contact.
Attractively lensed, The Bright Day looks gorgeous. If occasionally prone to burnished, ultra-warm sequences that glow like an Indian tourism board video, it’s sensitive and intimate, offering a sense of place that makes it more than just a bounty of beautiful rivers, deserts, temples and palaces.
Talkalkar can’t totally resist sentimentality in its desire to convey the anguish and pain of Shiv’s search for meaning. But even when he has his lead slumming it with fruit traders, it errs on the right side of earnestness, with the last reel achieving a mood of meditative isolation that verges on the sublime.