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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Guppy (2016)

guppy-poster

Guppy is the beautifully filmed début from writer/ director Johnpaul George featuring Chethan Lal and Tovino Thomas in the lead roles. The story is set in a small sea-side community in Kerala, and the scenery is stunning with vibrancy of colour in every frame. Cinematographer Girish Gangadharan makes the most of the beautiful location and with excellent music from Vishnu Vijay the film appears magical even before the wonderfully iridescent CGI guppies appear on-screen. The story follows the day-to-day life of Michael (Chethan Lal) aka Guppy and the problems that develop when an engineer comes to the colony, but mainly it’s the story of a young boy, his struggles to help his disabled mother and his relationships with the various people he interacts with on a routine basis.

Michael is known to everyone in his community as Guppy after the small fish he sells to supplement his income. He also works at a tea stall beside the local school where the owner Pappan (Alancier Ley) seems to be something of a father figure for Guppy as his own father is dead. His mother (Rohini) had a stroke after her husband died which left her paralysed from the waist down and Guppy looks after her as well as he can. His major goal is to buy an automated wheelchair for her so that she can get around when he is not there – and his fish sales are a vital part of that plan. The guppies are bought by local government officer Lalichan (Sudheer Karamana) as part of an initiative to help reduce the mosquito population by placing the fish in areas of standing water in the hope that they will devour the mosquito larvae. Despite knowing all about Guppy’s home situation and the plans for his earnings, Lalichan keeps half of the money for himself and only pays Guppy a small amount for each fish – a petty corruption but a common theme in his various deals with pretty much everyone throughout the film. It’s not just Lalichan either. Everyone in the community seems to inflate prices and expect bribes suggesting such corruption is normal and expected, even in such a small and remote village. Most disturbing is the acceptance of the practice as normal – shocking from my perspective that this is perceived as common practice and that no-one is even remotely bothered by it.

The first part of the film paints the picture of Guppy’s life – looking after his mother, working to raise money for her new wheelchair, breeding and selling guppies and hanging out with his friends.

There is a romantic interest in local schoolgirl Aamina (Nandhana) who wears a veil and is kept close to home by her grandfather Upooppa (Sreenivasan) which means all the local boys hang around at every available opportunity, trying to catch a glimpse of her. The other members of the community all have a role to play too and each slice of community life adds depth to the depiction of life in a small seaside village in Kerala.

Guppy’s relationship with his mother is beautifully depicted and there are some great moments, such as how he deals with his mother’s snoring, the way she prepares his fish food for him every morning, and the care Guppy takes each day in giving his mother her bath. Chethan Lal is excellent here, his emotions are perfectly displayed and the mix of joy and wonder when he feeds his fish, and excitement as he nears his goal of buying the wheelchair are superb. This is my favourite part of the film as each interaction gradually weaves the pattern of Guppy’s life, and although there are difficulties, there are also moments of happiness and camaraderie with his mother and friends.

Guppy is well liked in the community. His initiative in breeding the guppies is admired and his devotion to his mother is also appreciated by everyone who knows him, so it’s a shock when newly arrived engineer Thejus Varky seems to immediately take a dislike to Guppy. The engineer has been brought to the village by aspiring politician Onachan (Noby Marcose) and village officer Krishnan (Dileesh Pothan) to build a bridge over the railway but he doesn’t appear in time for the grand celebration prepared for his arrival. Which is a pity since it is rather special! Who could resist Michael Jackson, Amitabh Bachchan and Rajinikanth singing a Christmas song together?

Thejus is an odd character who immediately stands out from the rest of the village due to his motorcycle, his unusual dress sense and his bushy beard. Although Tovino Thomas is excellent in his portrayal of an egotistical and rather arrogant engineer, the character of Thejus doesn’t seem totally plausible – even after his full story is revealed later in the film. Thejus can be charming, as when he meets with his friend Krishnan or in his dealings with his landlord in the village, but all too often he is haughty and appears to look down on the villagers he has come to help. He is easily frustrated by the railway crossing supervisor Upoppa and rudely snubs his offers of tea and a place to sit, while his vendetta against Guppy is strangely childish and immature. Guppy’s reaction is a little more believable, given that an adolescent may be expected to act in an occasionally irrational manner, but this part of the film seems rather more contrived and filmy. However, the tension between the two is well-developed and despite a few unrealistic twists, the conflict between Thejus and Guppy becomes compelling.

What works well in the film is the story of Guppy and his mother. Guppy’s struggles to raise enough money for a wheelchair are realistically dealt with. I love that he first sees a fully automated wheelchair when watching the film Bangalore Days – up until that point he has no idea that such things existed. The love between Guppy and his mother is beautifully depicted and blends seamlessly into the general warmth of the whole community. The conflict between Guppy and the engineer is less successful but there are still some excellent scenes, particularly between Thejus Varky and Chinappa (Poojappura Ravi), the older man who runs the guest house where he has set up his tent, and his interactions with both Onachan and Krishnan. All the actors are good in their roles and their performances ensure that the occasionally convoluted storyline doesn’t get too bogged down with all the detail.

The excellent cinematography is another reason to watch the film. Even though the CGI fish are obviously not real, they are still wonderful to look at, and Johnpaul George weaves guppies into the story in many ways. The fish appear as painting on the walls, in lightbulbs in Guppy’s house and as decorations on his friend’s vehicle as well as swimming around in the drainage canal behind the school. The whole look of the film is just as colourful – whether it’s the brightly painted village, the stunning seascapes or the vibrant villagers, it all looks beautiful and instantly makes you want to move to a seaside village in Southern India!

What doesn’t work quite so well is the sheer number of characters and some of the extraneous plotlines that don’t really add anything to the main story. Each character seems to have to have their own small story and while some are quite fun, most only serve to divert attention away from Guppy and his story. However it’s hard to quibble too much, since the characters are generally fascinating and it gives even more of an opportunity to take in the beautiful scenery.

This is a lovely little film that takes a different look at adolescence, neatly giving Guppy rural innocence but enough street-smart knowledge to ensure that he can match wits with the likes of an engineer. Well worth watching for Chethan Lal and Tovino Thomas, plus the excellent support cast, and to savour yet more stunning images of Kerala. 4 stars.

Badlapur & Theevram

As I was watching Sriram Raghavan’s Badlapur I was struck by a number of similarities to Theevram, a Malayalam film I’d watched just a few weeks before, so it seemed appropriate to write about them together. Both are films based on a story of revenge where the hero is forced into action by his perceived lack of justice, and both star an up-and-coming young actor surrounded by an experienced and proficient support cast. While Badlapur focuses on the obsession of revenge and the destructive consequence to Raghu (Varun Dhawan), Theevram is a more straight forward drama with Harsha (Dulquher Salmaan) playing a game of cat and mouse with Police Inspector Alexander (Sreenivasan) as he exacts his revenge. Both are good films in their own right but while I prefer Badlapur’s more ambiguous storyline, Dulquher Salmaan just pips Varun Dhawan in his portrayal of a man driven to the absolute extreme for revenge.

The story of Theevram is told in a non-linear fashion, and is actually based on a couple of real life murder cases. Sreenivasan plays a respected police officer who has an unfortunate dislike of autopsy although there is nothing lacking in his detective skills. He’s paired with a younger officer, the more impetuous Ramachandran (Vinay Forrt) and the two make a good team. The film begins with Harsha’s revenge and it’s not until later that we discover why he has been driven to this extreme. At the start we don’t know if he is a good guy or a serial killer, as without any explanation he systematically tortures and kills a man in his plastic coated cellar. His actions seem to be at odds with his day-to-day life as a piano teacher, however once Inspector Alexander comes to call it becomes clear Harsha was the victim of a crime. Most of the film is shot with dull and muted colours, but once a flashback sequence starts, explaining what has happened to Harsha to turn him into this cold and methodical man, suddenly the colours are full and rich. A rather obvious metaphor but one which is very effective.

Harsha’s wife Maya (Shikha Nair) was murdered by a company driver Raghavan (Anu Mohan) for her complaints about his speeding with her in the car. Her murder is pre-meditated and brutal, with Raghavan severing her head from the body to attempt to delay identification. He’s quickly arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment for his crime while Harsha struggles to cope with life without Maya. However, just as Harsha is starting to get on with his life, the circumstances of Raghavan’s family life allow the murderer to obtain an early release from jail. Very early. In fact he only spends 4 years behind bars before being allowed his freedom. Harsha and his friends Dr Roy (Vishnu Raghav) and Nimmy (Riya Saira) decide that Raghavan must die for his crime and set about planning the perfect murder.

Theevram rather controversially takes the view that murder for revenge is perfectly justified if the legal system has failed to properly punish the offender for his crime. Writer and director Roopesh Peethambaran delivers a story of vigilantism where the cold-blooded murder of a criminal is depicted as a good solution, and even acknowledged as such by the police. I can’t say that I agree with this view or with portraying Harsha as a hero for what he does, but the story is gripping and the plot cleverly developed. The contentious treatment of Raghavan is perhaps a way to start a discussion about such issues, and it’s interesting that he isn’t a completely black character. Raghavan does appear to try to look after his disabled wife and seems to be trying to turn over a new leaf after his release from jail. However his behaviour towards Nimmy suggests that the change may only be surface deep and he still has a poor attitude towards women.

Badlapur is a darker film where the lines between right and wrong are blurred and revenge is shown to be a weight dragging Raghu down. The first few minutes are brilliantly filmed, with a shot of a street, with people going their everyday business and the only sounds heard the traffic going past and snatches of conversations as vegetables are bought and gossip exchanged. However in the background there is a robbery, and as the two criminals leave the bank they force their way into a car parked outside where Misha (Yami Gautam) is just loading in her young son and her groceries. During the subsequent chase Robin falls out of the car, while Misha is shot and killed. While one of the robbers manages to escape, Liak (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is left to face the music. After his wife’s murder, Raghu becomes a haunted and driven man, obsessed with finding Liak’s partner whom he believes fired the fatal bullet. However in reality the opposite is true. Liak was the man who, in the heat of the moment shot and killed Misha, although he never confesses, insisting that he was just the driver.

15 years later when Liak is diagnosed with terminal cancer Raghu is persuaded to plead for Liak’s early release in the hope that he will run to his old partner in crime. Raghu’s bereavement turns him into a cold, hard man who rapes and abuses Liak’s girlfriend Jhimli (Huma Qureshi) as part of his revenge. He’s so obsessed with the idea of finding the man behind his wife’s death that he lives a miserable life, alone and in fairly dismal circumstances. The tragedy has become what has defined the man and it seems as if only his plans for revenge keep him going.

Here, revenge is shown as something that corrupts. Raghu becomes more despicable than his enemy, killing Liak’s partner Harman (Vinay Pathak) and wife Kanchan (Radhika Apte) in cold blood. Liak himself is shown as a rather grey character, who seems to have more of a life than Raghu, despite spending most of it behind bars.

Dulquher Salmaan and Varun Dhawan both do an excellent job as young men devastated by their loss. The problem I have with Varun’s character is that it takes 15 years before he manages to achieve his revenge, and it seems unlikely that he could have maintained his rage so long. Varun tries hard but doesn’t quite manage to pull off playing a man in his forties although he does convey his preoccupation with finding Liak’s partner and his disconnection from normal life very well. Dulquher has an easier time of it, as his character only has to wait 4 years to exact revenge, and his protagonist is easier to dislike. Dulquher is also a man who has managed to move on with his life and although his world is duller without Maya, he would have been content to let Raghavan rot in jail if he’d just stayed there. His revenge is coldly plotted with great attention to detail but there seems to be little rage left – in fact little emotion at all.

Both films are made even better by their excellent support cast. Badlapur would have been less substantial and the revenge less ambiguous without the excellent Nawazuddin Siddiqui and his nuanced performance as the main antagonist. Sreenivasan doesn’t have such a consequential role, but his support and that of Vinay Forrt rounds out the story and ensures a satisfying plot. The films are brutal, both in the violence they depict and in the exposure of such deep despair but there are lighter hearted moments in both and it’s not all doom and gloom. There is just enough light to allow the shade space to deepen and both directors have paced their films well. The strength of both Badlapur and Theevram is in the portrayal of emotions and it’s heartening to see two young actors bring so much depth to their roles. I enjoyed both these films and recommend them for a combination of fine performances, strongly written characters and good storytelling. 4 for both.