Karwaan Is Low on Merit, High on Insensitivity

Racist, classist and misogynist, the film audaciously tries to find humour amid bleakness.

Karwaan, a slice of life comedy, is the kind of film that, at least going by appearances, cares for aesthetics. It features Dulquer Salmaan, the popular actor of Malayalam film industry, making his Bollywood debut, Mithila Palkar, a star on the indie circuit, known for several web series and sketches and Irrfan Khan, a terrific actor who can single-handedly elevate indifferent productions. Then there’s Prateek Kuhad, a famous indie composer, who has given music for the film. It is shot by Avinash Arun, himself a director of an acclaimed Marathi drama, Killa and whose previous works as a cinematographer include such films as Madaari, Drishyam and Masaan.

The film revolves around a fairly poignant premise: a son coming to terms with the death of his father whom he didn’t get along with. The son is Avinash (Dulquer), a software engineer in Bengaluru, whose father discouraged him from pursuing his passion, photography. Avinash’s father, travelling by a bus to Gangotri, died in a road accident. His dead body, though, has been mistakenly shipped to a wrong address. Avinash, as a result, has received the body of an old woman, travelling on the same bus, whose family lives in Kochi. Avinash and his friend Shaukat (Irrfan) travel to Kochi to swap the dead bodies and on their way pick Tanya (Palkar), the granddaughter of the deceased woman.

With a solid cast and crew and a story that audaciously tries to find humour amid bleakness, Karwaan doesn’t look like a typical Bollywood film. It seems to pride itself on dissociating from the crowd. And yet, scene after scene, the film displays its regressive intent, reminding you of the line, “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it still remains a pig.”

The film left me with several questions. The first, and the most basic, one was this: Why are some Hindi filmmakers so xenophobic? Why do they think it’s okay – and worse, funny – to deride foreigners? Why are their identities so fragile that the only way they can find any semblance of meaning is by poking fun at others, at something ‘un-Indian’?

In an early scene in the movie, Shaukat meets a “hippie couple” (according to end credits) and launches into a series of questions, all in Hindi obviously: “Why do you smoke up so much? Why do you dress skimpily? If everyone, like you, starts looking for salvation in Varanasi, then who will work?” Needless to say that the woman has no agency in the scene; Shaukat keeps making fun of her, and in the end, she clicks a selfie with him: very funny, very cute. In another scene, Shaukat randomly picks on two Englishmen at a wedding, saying how Indians are better at cricket than them, a sport they invented — a ‘joke’ so old that it deserves to be preserved in a museum. Shaukat goes after foreigners in a similar vein every time they come on screen and in each instance, the film considers it ‘funny’.

For a country that’s remarkably touchy about its citizens being marginalised in a foreign land – just Google the hullaballoo over the H-1B visas and you’d know what I’m talking about – its filmmakers regularly display brazen levels of inanity and racism. Bollywood has been historically indifferent to cultural sensitivity; foreigners have always been easy targets. It happened as recently in such films as Befikre and Jab Harry Met Sejal. Karwaan, in that case, is not very different from a standard regressive Bollywood movie; it is, in fact, emblematic of everything that is wrong with the film industry.

Because this film isn’t just racist, it’s also classist. Which brings me to my second set of questions: Why do some Hindi filmmakers think it’s okay to ridicule peripheral characters – that too in scenes devoid of context and without one good reason? The list of people targeted by Karwaan for ‘comic effect’ is long: a delivery manager in a Bengaluru cargo store, an inept professional, whose cluelessness is played for laughs; a house help who doesn’t understand Hindi; a blind beggar (for no apparent reason); an old shehnai player at a wedding. None of these scenes aid our understanding of the film or its side or main characters – they’re just there because they can be. It is also no coincidence that these characters belong to a particular class who cannot – and are not supposed to – have a say.

The makers can deflect this criticism by using Shaukat as a front, a driver, who is on the same class spectrum as the people he makes fun of, but by casting a star in such a role, known for helming many critically acclaimed movies, Karwaan has already elevated his status. What follows is a depressing, familiar pattern: a crass power equation between Shaukat and others evident throughout the film.

So let’s see, Karwaan is racist and classist. What more can go wrong? Turns out, plenty: this film is misogynist as well. The perpetrator here, once again, is Shukat. In an early scene, not long after his first racist dig, Shaukat says this: “Never trust a crying woman and a milkman.” When Tanya, wearing T-shirts and shorts, is about to get into his van, Shaukat tells Avinash that she “should cover her body”, for this is his “van and not a dance bar”. Avinash of course doesn’t call him out and instead pleads with him to let her inside the van. Tanya is repulsed by this behaviour, to which Avinash just says this, “He has a good heart.” Ah, classic.

And yes, for the film all of this is ‘funny’ – and not isolated instances of misogyny. Even when Shaukat falls in love with a woman, those scenes look more creepy than cute. (Exhibit one among several: Shaukat drinks water from the same cup discarded by his love interest.) One of the lines of a song, a rare example of self-awareness in the film, goes like, “Main aashiq hun, koi creep nahin (I’m a lover, not a creep).” What can one say? Some jokes write themselves better than others.

Karwaan can’t even get its geography right. At one point, fed up of all the travelling, Shaukat says, “Bahut hua dakshin Bharat darshan (enough of seeing South India)” – this coming from a guy who lives in Bengaluru. In between all this, the film even manages to plug a brand (Syska) endorsed by Irrfan.

Even if Karwaan didn’t have a plethora of problematic elements, it’d have still remained a shoddy film. The writing here is so pedestrian and so devoid of original thinking that it makes you time travel. Where have we seen the story of a directionless son pressurised by his father to give up photography? Wake Up Sid, in 2009; 3 Idiots in 2010. The story of Shaukat’s troubled childhood is a template story of domestic violence. The whole subplot of Shaukat hounded by the men of a loan shark looks painfully contrived. A shot of coincidence makes Avinash meet his college friend who later tells her husband that, “Now he’ll go discover himself.” Of course.

It’s no fun getting this angry at a film, but Karwaan keeps testing your patience and doesn’t stop. It is appalling that such a brain-dead film, so low on artistic merit and high on crass insensitivity, managed to find a release in 2018. Or maybe it’s not that surprising. We’ve encouraged this crap-show for long; Karwaan just switched on the fan.