India's Oscar nominee The Good Road shows life on a Gujarat highway

Editor's note: This piece was first published on 17 July. We have republished this piece as the film has been chosen to represent India in the best foreign film category at the Academy Awards 2014. 

Director Gyan Correa is easy to talk to, particularly if you want to hear about his first film, The Good Road, which won the National Award for best Gujarati film earlier this year. Unless you bring up words like 'politics' or 'progress' or, worse, mention Gujarat's chief minister. "None of this has anything to do with the story I'm telling," he said exasperatedly. "But it's like the media wants to drag Ishrat Jahan, Narendra Modi into every conversation. My film isn't a comment on any of that. It's a film inspired by and about Kutch, that's it."

Kutch in Western Gujarat is India's largest district. The region and its culture have fascinated Correa for years. "Kutch is a mini India," said Correa. "It's staggering the kind of cultural diversity that's in there, and the peace. The caste and social dynamic works very differently in Kutch. There is huge segregation, but there is very little discrimination and there's a respect between communities. India might burn, Gujarat might burn, but Kutch won't."

A still from The Good Road

A still from The Good Road

Correa, who wrote and directed The Good Road, was certain that his film couldn't be set anywhere but in Kutch. "I felt Kutch supported it best," he said. "The topography, the people, the language, music, costume, everything about it made it ideal."

The Good Road offers a glimpse into three very different and disconnected lives. A truck driver planning his last journey, a boy separated from his vacationing family by accident and a girl trying to escape the red light district all end up on a national highway because of their circumstances. The road they travel literally brings the three characters together. "I'm fascinated by the highways," said Correa. "Historically, that's where we've always met, whether it was to fight wars or trade or travel, or escape, make new lives."

Correa spent years "letting the story grow inside me" and then wrote the script over the course of approximately three years. His script was also selected for Script Lab, organised by NFDC who also produced The Good Road. Well-established as an ad film maker, there's nothing unusual about Correa's decision to try his hand at feature filmmaking, but choosing to make a Gujarati film is less predictable. "Regional cinema is cheaper, it allows you to be more experimental," said Correa. "And there's more of a direct connection with the audience than the trade. It's kind of freeing."

He chose to shoot in the village of Bhirandiyar in Kutch, which meant that he had only a few months that were suitable for shooting since summers in the area are brutal. Another risky move by the first-time director was to cast non-actors in his film. "I wanted my film to be real," said Correa, explaining his decision to cast non-actors. "It's easier to turn a truck driver into an actor than for an actor to turn into a truck driver. How do you sum up the 40 years of experience of driving on the highway?"

With the exceptions of Sonali Kulkarni and Ajay Gehi, the people acting in The Good Road are doing so for the first time. For instance, Shamji Dhana Kerasia, who plays the truck driver named Pappu, is actually a truck driver by profession. Correa auditioned approximately 200 drivers over the course of five months before choosing Kerasia. The film's shooting and dubbing schedules had to work around Kerasia's driving schedule. In case you thought the truck driver would be struck by the glamour of movies, he wasn't particularly moved. "I think the longest he can handle us [the film crew] is a day," said Correa with a chuckle. "I remember when we were doing the dubbing and we asked him to come in, it coincided with an assignment to deliver lignite. He was much more excited about the deal he'd struck to deliver that lignite than he was about either the dubbing or the film."

Correa's hoping Kerasia likes the final film, which the actor-truck driver will see this Friday, at the film's premiere in Ahmedabad. "In many ways,The Good Road is the story truck drivers told me. I've spoken to so many of them and it's from what they told me that I got this story. We keep hearing about truck drivers as these faceless guys who just go around whoring and spreading STDs, but for me, they make up a system that really shouldn't work but by and large does. They make between Rs 6,000 to Rs 10,000 in a month and they deliver goods worth lakhs. They have an enormous sense of responsibility and their story is incredible."