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.

Advertisements

Jal Bin Machhli Nritya Bin Bijli

jal bin machhli

Back at the beginning of my Bollywood obsession, Temple lent me a double DVD of V. Shantaram films.  The first was the classic Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje which is still one of my favourite dance-based films and definitely well worth watching.  However the second film on the DVD was even more special – Jal Bin Machhli, Nritya Bin Bijli – a mix of interpretative dance, groovy sixties fabrics and more melodrama than I ever thought possible, even in Bollywood!  It’s one to watch for the dancing, décor and drama, rather than dwell too much on the rather ridiculous plot which allows almost everyone to declare their willingness to sacrifice themselves for love, or for dance, or for the love of dance.  In fact it’s amazing we get to the end without losing anyone, given how prone everyone is to explanatory declarations of their imminent demise.  But eventually, after dealing with treachery, betrayal, sacrifice and Hammond organ music, there is indeed a happy ending – or (and probably a better idea) just watch it for the songs!

The film opens with Alaknanda (Sandhya) attempting to follow in her dead mother’s footsteps and learn how to dance.  However her autocratic father Dr Verma (Iftekhar) has no time for such frivolous nonsense and bans her from dancing until she marries, presumably because it then will be her husband who has to listen to the incessant jangling of bells rather than him.

Jal Bin MachhliJal bin machhli

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately for her father, the family lives right next door to a huge mansion where Prince Kailash (Abhijeet) spends his days playing his Hammond organ and composing music for his resident dance troupe.  Despite an initial chilly reception, Alaknanda gets Kailash on her side by impersonating a dying fish she has rather callously flipped out of the water.  This song is an absolute must-watch as the spectacle of Alaknanda impersonating the fish out of water from the title really does have to be seen to be believed.  I could have done without all the shots of a fish in distress (or more likely a number of fish, as it’s rather a long song), so avoid if you prefer to see fish in their natural habitat.

After such a performance, the prince is completely won over and his sceptical dancers welcome Alaknanda with open arms.  I suspect because she seems just as crazy as Kailash and lets them all off the hook by possibly understanding what he is trying to convey in his choreography sessions.  At least she has no compunction in throwing her arms and lashing her hair around to a number of his compositions, immediately endearing her to the prince who realises that he has just found his latest muse.  Lord help us all!

jal bin machhliJal bin machhliJal Bin MachhliJal bin machhli

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are added complications when Dr Verma tries to arrange Alaknanda’s marriage, and Kailash’s mother Rajmata (Dina Pathak) attempts to match make between her son and Princess Roopmati (Minal).  The latter is a bigger problem since Roopmati and her uncle Chaman Rai  (Raja Paranjpe) are staying in the palace, giving Rajmata plenty of opportunity to throw the two together.  I really liked Minal as the scheming ‘other woman’ and I wonder why she doesn’t seem to have made any other films.  She’s truculent, bratty and petulant – all some of my favourite qualities in Hindi villainess and not at all reluctant to mow down everyone else in her path.

Jal bin machhliJal bin machhli

 

 

 

 

 

 

As Roopmati, Minal gets to wear some very groovy saris while pandering to Rajmata’s traditional ideas by wearing transparent robes over her trendy Parisian outfits.  She also has a tendency to break out into petulant dance moves when crossed, although her rocking out to records is definitely not the type of dance the prince admires. Naturally she doesn’t understand Kailash’s obsession with his music and is even less enamoured of his obsession with his Alaknanda. Her initial attempts to separate the two however backfire when she proposes a trip tiger hunting.  I can think of no rational explanation for this in a movie all about dance but then again there is no explanation, rational or otherwise for the rest of the story either!  The point of the trip is for Alaknanda to save Kailash from a tiger, upstaging Roopmati in the process and therefore setting the stage for Roopmati’s revenge.

After such excitement, naturally Alaknanda turns to dance and performs a wonderful snake vs. peacock number in a glitzy snake costume with authentic snake coloured hair.

The drama gets more intense as Roopmati and Chaman Rai sabotage Alaknanda’s performance leaving her crippled and unable to dance.  There are more complications as Kailash proposes, Alaknanda refuses him and our heroine escapes to live in a bandit camp and ponder her future.  Indeed, Alaknanda has to face more challenges than usual for a filmi heroine and she meets them all with a distinct lack of composure and plenty of head tossing and brow beating. Sandhya’s histrionics make it difficult to feel any sympathy at all for Alaknanda’s ever worsening plight and her petulant cries of preferring to die rather than live without dance are wearying.  Luckily there are plenty more songs thrown in to provide relief from the exaggerated and theatrical affliction, and the various misfortunes are all brightened up by some inspired costuming.

Jal bin machhliJal bin machhlijal bin machhliJal bin machhliJal bin machhliJal bin machhli

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While Sandhya’s Alaknanda is irritatingly anguished, Abhijeet is fairly wimpy as Kailash and seems to deserve everything he gets with Alaknanda, although he does partially redeem himself with his bedside proposal of marriage.  His response to rejection is to shoot the heads off statues in his rehearsal room and then sob at the feet of a picture of his mother which seems to sum him up pretty well.  At least Dina Pathak and Iftekhar provide some much-needed class into the proceedings, but even they have a tendency to indulge in scenery chewing as the drama unfolds.

jal bin machhli

Jal bin machhli

 

 

 

 

 

 

V Shantaram seems to want to explore the passion of dance, but in Jal Bin Machhli he never gets beyond overblown and theatrical drama.  Alaknanda’s obsession for her mother’s dancing bells doesn’t translate into a believable hunger for the art itself, and seems to be derived more from an urge to flout her father.  Without that fervour, the focus is on the melodrama and while that is entertaining it’s not quite the film I wanted.  However there is still plenty to enjoy in the outlandish choreography by Praveen Kumar, including such delights as Sandhya dancing frenetically on a plate while balancing her way up a steep incline and demonstrating just how to dance while on crutches.  Just as good are the songs by Laxmikant Pyarelal who manage to incorporate the theme music from the Good the Bad and the Ugly into the stunning Taron Mein Sajkeh Apneh.  Despite all the drama and the totally bizarre plot, I still love this film for all the posturing and sheer silliness of the two lead characters and the sometimes bewildered support cast.  Worth a watch for the amazing songs and to really appreciate the Bollywood definition of melodrama, even if nothing else! 3 ½ stars.

Jal bin machhli

Narthanasala

This 1963 classic has an exceptional cast, featuring NTR, Savitri and SV Ranga Rao, under the lively direction of Kamalakara Kameshwara Rao. Narthanasala renders a chapter of the Mahabharata in an accessible and highly entertaining style. The story as shown concentrates on the Pandavas efforts to serve out the 13th year of their exile, and how they deal with their tribulations. I’m sure there are many versions of this tale and this screenplay no doubt varies from those in some ways. My knowledge of the Mahabharata is basic, but all the information you need to know to enjoy Narthanasala is contained within the film, so don’t let that be an obstacle.

Arjuna is honoured by Indra, but manages to tick off Urvashi (Padmini Priyadarshini) when he rejects her advances.  She curses him to become a eunuch. I cannot blame her for being mislead after watching him watching her in this dance:

And she looks furious!

The curse is mitigated somewhat by a time limitation granted in recognition of Arjuna’s essential manly goodness. This coincides with the 13th year of exile when the Pandavas must take refuge in a kingdom and remain anonymous for that final year. The set up of the characters and how they would conceal their identities was simply done in a conversation that pretty much spells out who’s who. There are spies and lures set to draw the Pandavas into the open, and the cat and mouse game with Duryodhana adds an edge of tension to the waiting game.

Dharmaraju (Mikkilineni Radhakrishna Murthy) is occupied as an advisor to King Viraat, and has little free time to spend with his brothers and wife.  The twins Nakula and Sahadeva work with the livestock and are absent most of the time. This leaves Draupadi (Savitri), Arjuna (NTR) and Bhima (Olympic wrestler Dandamudi Rajagopal) on centre stage.

Draupadi is beautiful and deceptively delicate looking. Her husbands make a big deal of her having to undertake manual labour, but she is more resilient than they are in some respects. Although usually deferential to her husbands, when she needs to stand up for herself she leaves no doubt as to the consequences of drawing her anger.  Calling herself Malini she goes to work as a ladies maid and beautician for Queen Sudheshna (Sandhya). She pleads with the queen that she be protected from tasks such as being sent off to entertain strange men and serve in other households, and Sudheshna agrees. Draupadi’s awareness of her vulnerability is clear, and despite her efforts she does attract unwanted attention.

How she attempts to deflect and ultimately stop this harassment is the main focus of the drama, and she tries many approaches before demanding her husbands step in. Krishna intervenes when called upon, but the solution lies with the human characters. Draupadi’s affection for Arjuna gives their complex life a strong emotional core, and their scenes had an element of romance that her interactions with the other husbands didn’t. She has a rare laugh when talking to him about their son. Savitri is, as I have come to expect, excellent in a role that demands both high emotion and restraint.

Arjuna is transformed into Bruhannala. He takes up the position as dance teacher to Uttara (L Vijayalakshmi) and embraces accessorising. He should have had those dance lessons as while Bruhannala’s expressions are flawless, his dance steps are not quite as graceful.

NTR looked knowing and effeminate as the eunuch, always slyly amused at fooling everyone around him. It falls to him to come up with the scheme to keep Draupadi from harm and to keep the Pandavas safe until the end of their exile.

The stolen conversations between him and Draupadi have an undertone of longing. When they touch there is chemistry; Arjuna, the husband missing his wife, is suddenly visible despite the fripperies of Bruhannala. When NTR re-appears as Arjuna he is quite regal although maintains the air of amusement. His scenes with Uttarakumar in the chariot are fun and he enjoys the consternation caused by his transition from Bruhannala back to Arjuna. It’s a warm, appealing performance, and the knowing looks to camera drew me into the asides and secrets.

Arjuna is more philosophical about Draupadi’s situation and is prepared to manage each crisis as it happens. Bhima cannot contain his fury; he just wants to tear Keechaka apart.

He knows his own flaws and is guided by the more calculating Arjuna and Dharmaraju’s sense of justice. His powerful physique is an asset to the family but may also be the thing that gives them away. There wasn’t a lot of subtlety needed for this performance, but it wasn’t just posturing and roaring.

SV Ranga Rao is Keechaka, the queen’s larger than life brother, a jovial bully. His inability to control his lust does more than threaten Draupadi. It also jeopardises the safety of all the Pandavas who may not maintain their disguises under such insult, and threatens the kingdom as he forces the queen to give Malini over to him. He is literally blinded by desire.

How else could he mistake Bhima for Draupadi? His performance is excellent as he manages to be likeable and hateful. I was cheering when he got his just deserts.

Relangi Venkata Ramaiah (a.k.a the ‘Clap Your Hands Behind Your Back guy’ from Mayabazar) is lots of fun as the pompous, cowardly but endearing Uttarakumar. He has delusions of being a great warrior and leader, and his preening and posturing amuses me as much as it does the Pandavas. He is followed around by his attendants, one of whom is Allu Ramalingaiah with perfect but unobtrusive comic timing. Uttarakumar is nice to his sister, and never gets angry or mean with the cooks despite their unfortunate comedic tendencies, so I like him.

L Vijayalakshmi is perfect as his sister Uttara. I really enjoy watching her dance and she has a sprightly, flirty, quality that enhances the role. She and Abhimanyu have a romantic subplot but really her purpose seems to be dancing and being decorative. This is only the third film I have seen her in, and I hope to find a few more.

The songs (original music by Susarla Dakshinamurthi) blend into the story and I wish they had been subtitled, as often they are used for exposition or introductions. The dancing is lovely, and the sets and costumes are opulent.  The decorations are extravagant and yet allow the performers to be the focal point. It’s also a ripping good story, and the pace of the direction matches the tempo of the drama to perfection. It’s just gorgeous.

4 ½ stars! (a small deduction for too many squeaky comedy cooks in the kitchen)

Heather says: Narthanasala is just delightful to watch. The film’s all star cast are excellent and the sets and costumes are fabulous. Since I’m not very sure about all the characters in this part of the Mahabharata, I really appreciate the opening scenes where everyone introduces themselves and explains who they are, the alias they are going to assume and what they are going to do for their time in exile. Very helpful.

The stand out performance for me is by NTR. He is excellent as Arjuna in the film’s opening scenes and his transformation into the eunuch dancing teacher Bruhannala is brilliant. It’s not just the delivery of his lines or his posture, but his whole demeanour which changes, and he is wonderfully feminine. He also has the best costumes and totally awesome eyelashes! This looked like such a fun role to play and NTR had the right amount of playfulness and hauteur to make it work.

Savitri is as beautiful as ever although I was a little confused about her character as Malini. Since they were supposed to be in hiding it seemed rather odd that she would say that she had 5 husbands and needed shelter for a year. Surely that gave the game away as to who she really was? It didn’t seem to be a requirement of their exile since none of the other characters seemed to reveal quite as much about their identity. However, I only have a very limited knowledge of the Mahabharata, so this could just be an essential part of the original. The film drags a little in the middle while waiting for Draupadi’s rescue from the funeral pyre, but the previous scene with Bhima in drag pretending to be Malini was excellent. Dandamudi Rajagopal is very good in his portrayal of Bhima/Valala and as a professional wrestler he certainly looks the part. Unlike Temple, I love the minions in his kitchen who I think are really very funny, always fighting and squabbling and behaving more like troublesome children. The comedy with Uttarakumar is very well done as well, in particular the scenes with Arjuna when he goes out to fight the Kauravas

The dancing is lovely and although the fight scenes were quite stylised they are enjoyable to watch. I loved this line from the battle between the Kauravas and Arjuna towards the end “He greets the elders with his arrows. That is what makes him so adorable!” And NTR was! I really enjoyed this film – 4 ½ stars.