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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Chaappa Kurish

chaappa-kurish

Chaappa Kurish tells the story of two men: one a successful land developer who lives in a smart uptown apartment and the other a slum-dweller who works as a cleaner in a small supermarket. It seems unlikely that their lives would ever intersect, but when Arjun (Fahadh Faasil)) loses his phone and Ansari (Vineeth Sreenivasan) picks it up, their lives intertwine in an unexpected way with unintended consequences. Sameer Thahir’s debut film is a study in power relationships and how even a small amount of advantage can alter outlook, change relationships and even affect personality. While one man starts to gain control the other begins to lose it and the fall-out has far reaching effects for both.

The film opens by contrasting the lives of the two men. Arjun is woken in his modern apartment by the ringing of his smart phone and wanders into his spotless kitchen to have cereal for breakfast. Ansari also has a phone, but his is an old-fashioned mobile and his single room is a long way from Arjun’s luxurious apartment. He sleeps with his mattress on top of his shirt to press it for the morning, and has to pay and queue for his turn in a shared toilet. Breakfast for Ansari is a roti in a local café and his journey to work by bus and ferry is vastly different from Arjun’s smooth ride in the back of his chauffeur driven car. Their relative positions define their personality too. Ansari is quiet, pushed around by everyone who comes into contact with him and unable to stand up for himself. He walks apologetically – hunched over and hesitant, and he doesn’t meet anyone’s eyes even when they are talking to him. Arjun on the other hand is autocratic, demanding and very well aware that he is the boss.

Although Arjun is engaged to be married to the daughter of a family friend, he is also in a relationship with a work colleague Sonia (Ramya Nambeeshan). Sonia is a modern working woman who seems to be in control of her life but despite her apparent comfort with her relationship with Arjun, she is devastated when she discovers he is engaged and is organising his wedding. Her despair and sense of betrayal is made even greater when she discovers that Arjun has filmed the two of them together on his phone during their lovemaking session. Sonia has lost her lover and her self-respect in an instant and seems likely to lose her job too, all as a result of Arjun’s selfish behaviour. She threatens to tell his fiancée Ann (Roma) about their relationship and it’s during the resultant argument that Arjun loses his phone. As well as the video, Arjun’s phone contains details about his latest dodgy property deal and it’s a toss-up as to which concerns him more – the loss of the deal or the possibility that the video might make it onto Youtube.

Ansari picks up Arjun’s phone when it falls at his feet in a café, and in the spur of the moment decides to keep it. He has little idea of how to operate the phone and is frightened by Arjun’s demands for his phone’s return when he does turn it on. However slowly as Ansari realises Arjun’s desperation, he starts to feel the effects that holding even such a small amount of power can bring. His new found confidence spurs Ansari on to pay back his various tormentors but it also affects his relationship with his co-worker Nafeesa (Niveda Thomas). She doesn’t like the new Ansari and eventually persuades him that he has to return the phone – but it may already be too late.

Sameer Thahir’s story is simple but very effective as he takes time to establish his two main characters and how they each fit into their place in society. The contrast in the two men is well described and the characterisations of each are natural and realistic, while still maintaining their differences as each are at opposite ends of the social scale. The gradual transfer of power is subtly done but very effective and the alteration in each character occurs almost imperceptibly at first. Although the story is at times very dark, there is a strong sense of hope that runs throughout, mainly shown by Nafeesa who is the one bright spot in Ansari’s life and by the end it seems possible that both men have altered for the better. It’s a film that gradually draws you into Arjun and Ansari’s struggle for control while at the same time showing exactly how difficult life can be for those who lack confidence.

Both Fahadh Faasil and Vineeth Sreenivasan are excellent and their performances ensure the effectiveness of Sameer Thahir’s story . Vineeth Sreenivasan does a fantastic job with his portrayal of a downtrodden man who slowly starts to gain some confidence. His body language and demeanour is perfect throughout and his facial expressions brilliantly capture his thoughts. Ansari is a man who has had little to hide in his life and he lets his emotions play out over his face when he thinks no-one is looking. The furtive sullen looks gradually make way for sly grins and rising excitement when Ansari realises the power he has over Arjun and that finally he can tell someone else what to do. Everything just works to build up a detailed picture of a lonely underdog who has a miserable life but no real motivation to change anything and no awareness that change is even possible.

Fahadh Faasil is just as good in his role as a rich and conceited businessman who rarely thinks of anyone other than himself. His fiancée is an inconvenience and he avoids her phone calls whenever possible – although given how inane and annoying she is; I can understand his reluctance. Sonia is beautiful and convenient since she works with him and he initially treats her distress as an annoyance, until his friend John (Jinu Joseph) manages to get through to him just how much more Sonia has to lose if the video becomes public. It’s a classic picture of a self-absorbed jerk, but what makes Fahadh Faasil’s performance so good is the way he gradually changes and shows Arjun’s desperation so clearly. The realisation of what he is about to lose and his absolute frustration with the situation is excellently shown while his fraying grip on his composure is perfectly done.

The rest of the cast are good too. Ramya Nambeeshan doesn’t have a lot to do, but her outrage and then absolute despair are nicely portrayed and she is good as a woman brought to the very edge by emotional upheaval. Jinu Joseph and Niveda Thomas provide the stability and act as the ‘voice of reason’ to the two main protagonists while Sunil Sukhada brings a good dose of oily sleaziness to his role as the Store Manager of the supermarket where Ansari works.

Rex Vijayan’s soundtrack is excellent and this song is beautiful. The picturisation here isn’t the same as in the film where it’s shown over Arjun’s search for Ansari and his phone, but this does give a good overview of the film and the main characters.

There are a number of things I really liked about Chaappa Kurdish. The many differences between the two men are well characterised without being too clichéd and provide a revealing look at society in general. The slow shift in the balance of power is nicely done, even if in real life I don’t think Ansari would have have been quite so brave. I also like that Sonia has some resolution and that having a physical relationship with her boyfriend doesn’t mean that she is automatically a ‘fallen woman’ with no possible options. With all the positives there are only a few negatives. The climax is repetitive and goes on for too long – a shorter, sharper resolution would have helped and I would have liked a little more of Nafeesa and her relationship with Ansari. Overall, Chaappa Kurdish is an excellent début film from Sameer Thahir and definitely well worth a watch. 4 stars.