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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How Old Are You?

How Old Are You

How Old Are You? is a completely different film from the last Rosshan’s Andrew’s film I watched, Mumbai Police. Rather than a complex murder mystery, this is a small domestic drama that nonetheless deals with weighty topics such as empowerment and never losing sight of your dreams. It could easily have become preachy given the subject matter but writer duo Bobby-Sanjay keep it light and close enough to home, making it easy to relate to the main protagonist. The title is perhaps a little misleading, since it’s not really Nirupama’s age that’s the issue, but rather her routine life which is slowly grinding her down. The film is the comeback for Manju Warrier and like Sridevi in English Vinglish she brings experience, maturity and a little glamour to a role which seems to suit her very well.

Nirupama (Manju Warrier) is a government employee who isn’t at all engaged in her work. She has no empathy for her clients and secretly reads magazines before going home to look after her family. At the start of the film she is rejected for a job in Ireland due to her age (actually that would be illegal in Ireland – you cannot discriminate against someone due to their age) which means that she won’t be able to accompany her husband Rajeev (Kunchacko Boban) and daughter Lekshmi (Amrith Anil) in their move overseas. Rajeev is fairly unpleasant, but in a way that doesn’t stand out as being unusual or even abusive. He doesn’t notice when Nirupama has changed her hairstyle, and when it’s pointed out to him, he doesn’t like it. He expects his wife to be there and make his dinner, but also to be able to work and earn money during the day. To cap it all off, when he’s involved in a motor vehicle accident he persuades Nirupama to say she was driving to make sure it has no effect on his visa application. But apart from his chauvinistic attitude he’s not a difficult husband. Rajeev and Nirupama seem to have a good relationship and chat amicably about their daughter and their respective workdays without any acrimony. Basically it seems like any other relationship where the wife does what the husband wants because that’s just the way it is, nothing more and nothing less.

However the planned move overseas puts a strain on their relationship, and Lekshmi in particular is obnoxiously bratty about her mother’s failure to get a job in Ireland. One day Lekshmi is part of a group of school children who get to ask the Indian President some questions and so impresses the President that he asks about the origin of her question. When Lekshmi explains it was from her mother, the President (Siddartha Basu) requests a meeting with Nirupama. Unfortunately things don’t go well, and Nirupama finds herself being ridiculed on social media and teased by her work colleagues. This makes her relationship with Lekshmi even more difficult and it seems that no matter what she does, nothing will ever be right. Part of the reason why I feel the film resonates so well is that most people have been in a similar situation at some time in their lives. We’ve all done something stupid, or something we regret and at the time it seems as if there is no way out of the mess without further embarrassment or loss. At any rate, I could definitely relate to Nirupama and her feelings of inadequacy, along with her increasing need for reading glasses and her discovery of grey hairs!

Nirupama’s notoriety allows a former University classmate to track her down and Susan (Kanika) is dismayed by her friends humdrum life. She reminds Nirupama that she was a firebrand and activist at University with plenty of ambition and drive to succeed. Along with the absence of her family who have moved to Ireland as planned, Susan’s memories provide the motivation for Nirupama to kick-start her life. She stands up to her husband and makes a new career for herself – in the process allowing the film makers to add in some valid points about organic farming and the benefits of city food production.

There is a side story involving an older lady who gets the same bus as Nirupama each day. Although the two don’t really know each other, Nirupama helps Madhaviyamma (Sethulakshmi) when she is ill, and gets more out of the relationship than she expected. I would have liked there to be more of Madhaviyamma and her problems, but sadly most of her relationship with Nirupama is skipped over. Mainly the friendship is a plot device to allow Nirupama to realise that she is not the only one with difficulties, and that in fact her problems are rather trivial compared to those of Madhaviyamma. Madhaviyamma also provides the inspiration for Nirupama’s business venture but there is not enough of Sethulakshmi, who does a wonderful job with her role.

There are a number of other familiar faces who appear as part of the support cast, including Vinay Forrt, as one of the office workers, while Thesni Khan and Jayesh Pazhanimala are good as friends of Nirupama. Kanika only appears briefly as Susan, and it’s a strength of the film that Susan doesn’t change Nirupama’s life for her. Susan is after all more successful with plenty of connections and the ability to give Nirupama a new job or bail her out financially, but instead it’s Nirumpama who comes up with the idea that turns her life around. It’s all Nirupama’s dream, her vision and she is the one who sets to and organises everything. With a little help from Madhaviyamma and her boss Seetharama Iyer (Devan).

Although mainly the film is realistic in the portrayal of relationships and in the intimacies of Nirupama’s life, the plot is occasionally rather too fanciful. The episodes with the Indian President seem unlikely, although the fuss and security around the visit is plausible, and the whole Immigration plot is generally rather nonsensical. Nirupama also seems to turn her life around rather more easily than I expected. However, the basic idea of a woman caught in a rut of her own devising is one which appeals, particularly when the character is played so skilfully as here. I felt most of Nirupama’s reactions were accurate in portraying how an average person would behave in similar situations, and her ideas and new business venture seemed to fit her general persona. It’s always good to have such a powerful female figure as the lead in a film, and How Old Are You? has a strong message and excellent cast too. Well worth a watch for Manju Warrier, Sethulakshmi and the idea that you’re never too old to change your life. 4 stars.

Mumbai Police (2013)

Mumbai Police

I’m a big fan of police procedural dramas and crime films in general, so naturally this 2013 film from Roshan Andrews made it onto my ‘must-watch’ list. And I’m happy to report that the film more than lived up to expectations, with a genuinely surprising ending and a good build-up of suspense along the way. It’s a difficult film to discuss without revealing crucial plot elements, particularly since those are partly what make this film so good, but I will do my best to discuss the film without getting too spoilerish.

The film starts with an accident that causes ACP Antony Moses (Prithviraj) to lose his memory. This is particularly inconvenient since he had just discovered the name of the criminal who had assassinated his friend ACP Aaryan John Jacob (Jayasurya) at an awards ceremony. Despite not remembering who he is, let alone anything of the crime, Police Commissioner Farhan Ashraf (Rahman) asks him to re-investigate the murder, presumably in an attempt to bring back Antony’s memory. Farhan is another friend and the tenuous link to the title of the film is that the three were collectively known as the Mumbai Police due to previous time spent together working in Mumabai. The friends had a reputation for drinking and carousing, particularly Antony who is now known by his nickname Rascal Moses, a label that seems to colour Antony’s reception by colleagues and suspects alike.

Antony has also been instructed not to let anyone know that he has lost his memory and as a result he makes a number of crucial errors in his first days back on the case. Not all of these relate to the investigation, such as his failure to recognise the Superintendent of Police, but he falters in his interactions with the rest of the investigating team who seem to suspect that something isn’t quite right.

Roshan Andrews uses flashbacks to the original investigation to show that pre- and post-accident Antony are two quite different people. Pre-accident Antony wasn’t a particularly nice character as he wasn’t averse to using force and various other dubious tactics to achieve his desired outcome. Post-accident Antony is quieter, more introspective, and seems to be genuinely interested in finding the actual culprit for his friend’s assassination rather than the first available scapegoat. Prithviraj does a great job of highlighting the differences by completely changing the physical mannerisms of the two Antony’s; changing his walk, stance and mannerisms to accentuate the difference. He’s helped by the physical signs of the accident but there is a distinct personality change too which makes Antony a fascinating character.  I kept waiting for a moment where he would remember his former life and revert back to mean and nasty, however post -accident Antony is quieter and more introspective, and seems constantly bemused as he struggles to come to grips with his memory loss. The reactions of Antony’s colleagues, particularly police constable Rakkhee (Aparna Nair), are used to provide more insight into his character both pre- and post-memory loss while Antony’s complete lack of emotion about his best friend’s death post-accident provides a good contrast to his passion and fire before he lost his memory. The greater objectivity should be a boon but instead seems to make Antony even more unsure of how to proceed and his colleagues find his lack of empathy odd. Antony has no recollection of his friendship with Aaryan and only knows that such a relationship existed because he has been told about it by Farhan. In fact, everything Antony currently knows about anything has come from Farhan and this leaves Antony suspicious and unsure of exactly what to believe – particularly when the evidence starts to point to a cover-up. It’s cleverly written to ensure that the audience really doesn’t know who to believe and who is covering for who, which further adds to the suspense and classic whodunnit flavour of the film.

Antony’s self-discovery proceeds in line with the police investigation and piece-by-piece the story is slowly revealed. There is an interesting side plot that involves tensions between the navy and the police force but overall writers Bobby and Sanjay keep to a fairly simple storyline focusing on the friendship between the three men and the investigation into the murder.

Just as the careful detailing of the investigation helps build tension, the sudden reveal of the killer and the reasons behind the murder make it even more surprising, even though re-watching shows that the clues were there all along. But then that’s just as they should be in any good detective story, and the smoke screen raised by the myriad other discoveries of the investigation is cleverly applied. The only thing that didn’t quite ring true for me was Antony’s reaction, which was just too overdone and rather too ingenuous to be convincing. However it’s a small quibble and the rest of the story more than makes up for Antony’s unrealistic response.

Technically the film looks fantastic and the background score by Gopi Sunder is effective in maintaining the desired atmosphere throughout. The performances are all well nuanced, as would be expected from such seasoned actors, but each has been well cast and fits their role perfectly. Mumbai Police is an engaging thriller which works mainly due to the gradual buildup of tension which flourishes due to Antony’s memory loss, and the ever present threat that the other shoe will drop and either the killer will come after Antony, or he will regain his memory and revert back to his old self.  Does either happen? You will need to watch to find out!

The film is entertaining for all the right reasons as Antony struggles to find both his past and the killer against a background of confusion and loss.  The ideal of the final revelation and the ultimate reason behind Aaryan’s death is excellent even if it is a little far-fetched, and the execution could have perhaps been a little better. It’s still a clever and honestly shocking conclusion.   I found Mumbai Police to be a slick, well-packaged and modern thriller that’s definitely well worth a watch for both the storyline and the actors who emphatically bring their roles to life. And you can’t ask for much better than that. 4½ stars.