Traffic (2011)

Traffic

When it first released in 2011, Rajesh Pillai’s Traffic was hailed as a new genre in Malayalam cinema and one of the first so-called ‘New Generation’ films. Bobby and Sanjay’s story doesn’t have a traditional heroic-centric plot, but instead uses a collection of everyday characters and a combination of a non-linear first half with a more traditional road movie in the second to come up with a novel action/drama. Despite the more Western style, this is still a very Indian film with references to wide-spread corruption, the power of celebrity and the chaotic nature of the Indian road system at the heart of the story. Interestingly, the film is based on real-life events in Chennai which are referenced in the film, proving that real life is often more dramatic than fiction.

Traffic begins with a car crash, then goes back a few weeks to introduce the main characters and the events that lead to their presence at a particular crossroads at 8.50am on 16th September. First there is Siddharth Shankar (Rahman), a movie star who has little time for his family, wife Shruti (Lena) and daughter Priya (Namitha Pramod). Siddharth has people who do things for him and he expects his celebrity status to smooth his way through life which, for the most part, it does. At one point Siddharth is interviewed while his daughter and wife watch, rolling their eyes at his generic answers which suggest he is a devoted family man. But when Priya gives the interviewer questions to ask about herself, Siddharth obviously hasn’t a clue, stopping the shooting and asking Priya for the answer before repeating it on camera. It’s an excellent example of the disconnect between the actor and his family, and illustrates his complete unawareness of the chasm he has allowed to develop between them. It’s not so much arrogance as a simple belief that he is the most important person in any situation, so when later, Siddharth is attempting to throw his weight around and suddenly realises that here is a situation where all his star-power is useless, it’s a major shock to his ego. Particularly when combined with a few home-truths from his wife in a rousing dialogue where she finally points out his shortcomings and failures as a father. Shruti has some of the best dialogues in the film and Lena does an excellent job in portraying her emotional upheavals as the story unfolds.

Secondly there is Reehan (Vineeth Sreenivasan), who has just scored the job of a journalist at TV station Indiavision and is scheduled to interview Siddharth on the day of the accident. Reehan has some issues with his doctor father (Saikumar) but seems to be finally finding his place in the world with his new job. He has a girlfriend Aditi (Sandhya) who is looking for her second chance at happiness with Reehan. The two seem very much in love although her recently divorced status and different religion mean that Reehan hasn’t told his parents about their relationship. All in all, they are a regular family and their reactions when disaster strikes seem completely normal, even down to Reehan’s mother obsessively replaying the last video she took of her son before his big interview. That interview was rescheduled by Siddharth and to make it in time Reehan asks his friend Rajiv (Asif Ali) to take him in to the studio on the back of his bike. As a result, they both reach the intersection in time for the accident.

Dr Abel (Kunchacko Boban) is a cardiac surgeon driving to pick up a new car for his wife Shwetha’s (Remya Nambeesan) birthday. Abel seems happy and contented with his life, and it seems coincidence that his route to the car show room takes him along the road to the intersection where the accident occurs. It’s not until later in the film that events in the lead-up to the accident become significant and explain his subsequent actions as he escorts a donor heart from Kochi to Palakkad.

Finally, there is traffic policeman Sudevan (Sreenivasan) who is about to restart work after a suspension for taking a bribe. Ironically, he himself has to pay off an official to get his job back and Sudevan is exquisitely aware of the irony of his position. He initially took the bribe to pay for his daughter’s education, but is upset and disappointed that she has little time for her father, preferring to spend time with her friends. It’s a fairly typical teenage situation, but for Sudevan who is smarting under his suspension, her lack of empathy with his sacrifice cuts deep. Sudevan too is on the road at the time of the accident with his wife (Reena Basheer) on his bike, but Sudevan’s involvement comes later when he gets the chance to redeem his reputation if he can pull off the drive of his life.

After the accident one of the casualties is left in a coma and not expected to survive. There is an ethical dilemma to overcome as the victim’s heart may be transplanted and used to save a life, but only if the family agrees. Naturally, there is plenty of drama as the family want to wait until the very last minute, even though there is no hope for recovery. On the other hand, the doctors know that time is critical and they need an answer as soon as possible if they are to have any chance to donate the victim’s heart.

Then there is the issue of getting the heart from Kochi to Palakkad, a distance of 180km with only 2 hours to make the journey over congested roads. Police Commissioner Ajmal Nazar (Anoop Menon) has to weigh up the risks to his men as they attempt to reach the hospital in time with the benefit of saving a life and racking up some good PR for his department. In the end, it’s head surgeon Dr Simon D’Souza (Jose Prakash) who manages to convince the Commissioner that he has the choice to make history if he can accomplish the journey. Obviously, a convincing argument as Ajmal uses it on his men too, with the result that Sudevan steps up to drive the heart and Dr Abel to the hospital in Palakkad.

From here on it would seem to be smooth sailing, bar some excitement as the car tries to traverse roads that weren’t built for speed or easy overtaking. But there are more unresolved issues that mean the car goes AWOL en route and the final outcome remains in doubt almost up to the final frame. Rajesh Pillai succeeds in keeping the tension mounting with the search for the missing vehicle and continues to build suspense even after the car is found, as the delay means that they may not reach the hospital in time.

The hyperlink approach of the first half reveals snippets of each character, establishing some sense of their personality and giving an explanation of why they are on the road at the time of the accident. Jumping from one character to another also sets up the foundation for various links between the characters that are revealed as the story progresses. Despite the piecemeal approach, the relationships are all well-defined and the very normalness of the characters ensures they are relatable and generally understandable in their subsequent actions. In fact, the only part of the story that seems overly contrived is the reason for Sudevan and his vehicle to drop out of contact but that is balanced by the use of Siddharth’s star status to get his fans to help with clearing the roads – a nice touch that seems entirely plausible and works well as a result.

The road trip follows a more linear storyline with a relatively predictable path, although Rajesh Pillai does generate thrills by adding crowded streets and poor road conditions to the mix. There are some flashback sequences that break up the journey too and keep the story from dragging. However, the end is quite abrupt and sadly not all the stories get a conclusion, notably the fate of the young woman who caused the crash in the first place and the outcome for Dr Abel and his wife. However, the resolution for Siddharth and Sudevan is nicely done and the idea of redemption through being given a second chance is explored well. I also don’t think it’s necessary that all the stories are brought to a final conclusion – this is more of a brief snapshot into the lives of a group of strangers and as such not everything needs have a clear-cut ending.

The attention to detail in the parallel stories at the start ensures the film gets off to a good start and the good mix of believable drama, well-portrayed emotion and plausible action keeps it engaging throughout. It’s a major plus that so many of the women are strong characters- Shruti, Aditi (and yay that her divorced status isn’t a major issue, just part of her backstory) and Fathima Babu as Reehan’s mother. The rest of the cast are all excellent in their roles and the background music from Mejo Joseph and Samson Kottoor suits the screenplay well. There are only a few songs and while they aren’t terribly memorable themselves, they are used well in the narrative giving more insight into some of the relationships and characters. Subsequent films have further developed the New Generation genre but Traffic still has plenty to recommend it and well deserves its reputation as a trend-setter. 3 ½ stars.

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Oru Mexican Aparatha

Oru Mexican Aparatha

I don’t know much about Indian politics and even less about Indian politics in the seventies, but that didn’t stop me enjoying Tom Emmatty’s directorial debut, Oru Mexican Aparatha. In fact, the political agenda of both groups involved in this college based drama seemed mostly irrelevant, as the film is more about the clash of personalities rather than any large differences in manifesto or ideology, despite the mainly Communist theme. What stands out about the film are the strong performances from Tovino Thomas, Roopesh Peethambaran and Neeraj Madhav, who rise above a somewhat patchy screenplay to deliver a passionate tale of student elections at Maharaja College in Kerala.

The film starts with a flashback to the seventies and the time of Emergency when students were among those involved in protests against the government. The government responded with lethal force resulting in the death of Kochaniyan (Tovino Thomas), leader of the student political party SFY. The flashback is overly dramatic and a little hard to understand for someone who doesn’t know the history, but it is an effective way to introduce the idea of revolution and the passion associated with student ideals.

Back in the present day, SFY has all but been eliminated from Maharaja college as KSQ, led by charismatic leader Roopesh (Roopesh Peethambaran), holds sway. KSQ are a more conservative party and they have numerous petty ordinances including bans on long hair and wearing lungi’s on campus that they use to let the party faithful throw their weight around. Mostly though, KSQ just want to hold on to power and keep their status as big frogs in a rather small pond. Roopesh and his friends decide who will compete in the annual college cultural festival, which is a major source of discontent in the college and seems to be the spark that will start a new revolution.

Paul (also Tovino Thomas) is a first year who shares a shabby hostel room with his friends Subhash (Neeraj Madhav) and Jomy (Vishnu Govindhan). He’s reasonably apolitical but notionally belongs to the SFY party, mainly due to Subhash’s dedication to the Communist cause. Subhash is a committed party member and is determined to bring SFY back to power in the college, despite a general lack of support and an obvious uphill struggle.  His main manifesto appears to be a protest against the bullying tactics of Roopesh and the members of KSQ rather than a strong socialist agenda and apart from a few pictures of Che Guevara and a tendency to brandish red flags the group as a whole initially appear to have only a glancing acquaintance with communism. Paul and his friends are concerned with the usual college activities and their opposition to KSQ seems more to do with Sharks and Jets style rivalry rather than any serious political leanings.

Subhash on the other hand is a socialist and is committed to the communist party which gives him some legitimacy in his fight against KSQ. His strong political beliefs start to affect the other members of the group, especially when they are pushed around by Roopesh and his cadre. Once college elections are announced, what started off as a push-back against a group of bullies escalates into a full-blooded revolution as the walls of the University ring with chants of ‘Vote for Change’ and blue starts to make way for red around campus.

The first half of the film meanders, sometimes rather aimlessly, as the different characters are introduced. For the most part the friends spend their time drinking, chasing after girls, getting up to the usual college mischief whenever the opportunity presents and then drinking some more. Paul is chilled and laid back, and cares more about his budding romance with Anu (Gayathri Suresh) than changing the world, or even just his small corner in Kerala while Jomy is just trying to cope with studying in general. For a political drama it takes a long time for the politics to be introduced and many of the scenes revolve around the friends sitting and drinking but discussing anything of significance. The romance between Paul and Anu also seems rather pointless, while the inevitable break-up is bland and also serves no purpose. I was expecting a spark of some kind to set off political leanings in the group, but neither the romance, nor the break-up achieve anything other than dissatisfaction with the poorly realised character of Anu. Tom Emmatty seems to have an aversion to writing female characters since the few that do appear have little to do and even less impact on the story, to the point where their non-participation is noticeable and impacts negatively on the story. Perhaps making Maharaja college single-sex rather than co-ed would have been a better decision since the focus is all on the male characters anyway.

The second half is much better when the fight between KSQ and SFY begins in earnest and the candidates for the elections are decided. Roopesh Peethambaran is excellent as the scheming leader of KSQ who will stoop to any lengths to hold onto power. His facial expressions are perfect and capture his fleeting thoughts as he plots and plans in response to SFY’s attempts to gain voters, while ensuring that he does display some good qualities and an inner strength that explain his hold on power in the college. Tovino Thomas is suitably charismatic as he runs for college president and his transformation from apolitical student to passionate believer in SFY is very well done. It’s another stellar performance from Tovino after his excellent work in Guppy and it’s impressive just how different he appears here.  Neeraj Madhav is just as good as the idealistic leader of SFY who has to put aside his own political ambitions for the good of the party. Again he gets every nuance just right, and his indecision as he puts his friend in danger is realistic and convincing. Together these three along with Manu, Vishnu Govindan and Jino John bring campus politics alive and infuse the film with the spirit of the revolution so that the lack of response from the college authorities and even the local police doesn’t even register until the final credits start to roll. What it lacks in the beginning, the film more than makes up for in the final scenes with impressive performances from the main leads and excellent dialogues that reverberate with the fervour of revolution.

The story and screenplay of Oru Mexican Aparatha may not be consistent but the three main leads are, and it’s their passion in their respective roles that makes the film so exciting in the second half. More emphasis on the politics and less on the usual college escapades and drinking in the hostel would have made for a more even storyline but the drama of the second half and excellent characterisations make the film well worth watching. One to enjoy as a different take on college life and a reminder that a revolution can start anywhere.

Maheshinte Prathikaaram

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Maheshinte Prathikaaram is the début film from Dileesh Pothan, who has previously worked as an actor and as an assistant director on a number of Malayalam films. The experience has stood him in good stead as Maheshinte Prathikaaram is a well-crafted and entertaining film with a good balance of drama, comedy and romance. Screenwriter Syam Pushkaran has based the story on true events in his home town, building a simple tale of revenge into a more complex plot with plenty of interesting characters and situations. Fahadh Faasil stars and is excellent in the lead role, but the support cast are also good and with Shyju Khalid’s superb cinematography and Bijibal’s steady hand on the music, Maheshinte Prathikaaram is well worth a watch.

Mahesh Bhavan (Fahadh Faasil) is a photographer in Kattappana where most of his work involves taking passport photographs with a well-rehearsed spiel, although he does occasionally attend weddings and funerals and other such functions too. He’s a generally happy bloke, if rather quiet and somewhat set in his ways, possibly because he lives with his ageing father Vincent (K.L. Antony Kochi). Fahadh Faasil is always excellent as an ‘average bloke’ and his performance here perfectly captures the day to day life of a small-town businessman with plenty of details that ensure the character has plenty of charm. It’s the small touches that resonate so well, such as his bathing in the river, feeding his dog or fishing pieces of egg shell out of the bowl when he is cooking. Mahesh is a well-developed character and as such it’s easy to understand why he behaves the way he does for most of the film.

Mahesh is in love with his childhood sweetheart Soumaya (Anusree), but due to her job they only meet occasionally. When Soumaya returns home for her grandfather’s funeral her father approaches her with a marriage offer from an NRI living in Canada. He has a good argument too – presenting the offer to Soumaya when she is washing clothes the old-fashioned way and asking her if she wants to stay in the same town all her life, or if she would prefer a more comfortable life overseas. Soumaya’s indecision is beautifully written and it’s obviously a difficult choice for her, but finally she decides to follow her head rather than her heart and end her long-standing relationship with Mahesh. There is much here to enjoy, from the way Soumaya realistically agonises over what to do and her method of finally breaking the news to Mahesh, to Mahesh’s stoic acceptance, his appearance at the wedding to reassure Soumaya and his despair when alone. The relationship and the two characters are well portrayed to ensure the situation is kept believable but light without dipping into melodrama.

At the same time, Mahesh is dealing with the day-to-day running of the studio, helped by his father and his friend Baby Chettan (Alencier Ley Lopez). Baby runs a printing shop adjacent to the photography studio and has a good relationship with both Mahesh and his father. Baby is assisted by Crispin, aka Crispy (Soubin Shahir) and between them Baby and Crispy share most of the comedic dialogue in the film, although the rest of the cast also add some humour as the story progresses. Thankfully, instead of relying on slapstick and crude jokes, the comedic dialogue here is often subtle and relies on the characterisations carefully built up in the preceding scenes for its full effect, while overall the comedy fits perfectly into the main narrative. It’s effective and genuinely funny too, although I suspect I still missed a lot due to relying on the subtitles.

Events become more serious when Mahesh is involved in a fight with Jimson Augustine (Sujith Shankar) and loses badly. The build up to the fight is one of the best scenes in the film, as is the end where, in a move to save face, Mahesh vows to stop wearing his chappals until he has revenged himself on Jimson. However by the time Mahesh discovers exactly who is his nemesis and that he works as a welder, Jimson has moved on to Dubai for work. Rather than back down however, Mahesh continues to go barefoot, although there are times when it looks as if he regrets his vow, particularly when there doesn’t seem to be much chance that he will achieve his objective of revenge any time soon.

Mahesh also takes a hit professionally as his attempt to take a studio photograph for university student Jimsy (Aparna Balamurali) is less than successful with Jimsy ridiculing his work. However, her comments inspire Mahesh to stretch his photographic skills and in the process, he falls in love with Jimsy too.

Although initially the character of Jimsy is irritatingly brattish, she redeems herself later, turning out to be a pleasant young woman with a good understanding of how to nudge Mahesh out of his comfort zone. She’s frank and unafraid to speak her mind, and Aparna does a good job of ensuring her occasionally prickly character is still friendly and approachable when appropriate. She’s good in the more romantic scenes too, although here again her character is refreshingly down to earth and pragmatic. Plus any film with a flashmob scene wins my approval!

The entire concept of the fight and Mahesh swearing not to wear shoes until he has his revenge seems incredibly juvenile to me, but I can see that Mahesh feels his masculinity has been questioned by his defeat. Mahesh is not a natural fighter and has never been in trouble before, so his resolution to beat Jimson does make sense, even if the concept of a rematch seems a fairly pointless way to demonstrate he can fight. Sensibly, he responds by taking karate lessons and although they may not help much when it comes to fighting Jimson, at least it gives Mahesh something to do while he waits for his nemesis to return. I love that Jimsy and her mother appear to have the same opinion as me about the potential rematch, while Baby Chetan and Crispy are rather more encouraging, although they too try to persuade Mahesh to start wearing shoes and forget all about Jimson.

Maheshinte Prathikaaran

The story flows well and the blend of comedy, romance and drama ensure that there is never a dull moment. The film looks beautiful too with gorgeous shots of the Idukki region and local wild-life, even on the rainy days which seem to be the most common.

The songs and background music are also well suited to the narrative, adding more light and shade to the story. With excellent performances from all of the cast, particularly Fahadh Faasil and Alencir Ley Lopez, and a funny but still insightful screenplay, Maheshinte Prathikaaram is a refreshingly different and thoroughly enjoyable movie. 4 stars