You’re at the traffic signal that’s a beacon of forbidden red. You’re not alone, there’s a sea of vehicles around you. The signal light flashes to amber, and this sea explodes into a tsunami of blaring horns, squealing clutch pedals, and a pack of drivers that would make Mad Max look like your favorite uncle driving his vintage (terrible, I know, but the only way to describe it). The drivers from the other junction are now in a game of Temple Run, swerving their way out of the race, even as the signal light turns green, meaning it’s now a free-for-all, each driver to their own. Amidst this chaos, there’s a siren noise cutting through the madness, an urgent scream that’s begging for space and pushing for a way ahead. What’s your first-cut reaction? Don’t bother, that was a purely rhetorical question. But no matter which way your thoughts (and car) screech, director Rajesh Pillai’s Traffic will make you think hard and proper. Based on his 2011 Malayalam movie of the same name, Traffic is based on a true story in Chennai, but transposes the drama to Mumbai and Pune.
Written by Suresh Nair, with story by Sanjay and Bobby, the movie gets the action whirring right away, as you’re introduced to a bevy of everyday (and some not so everyday ones) folks. Using the hyperlinked format of story-telling, director Pillai takes you across the two cities, introducing you to Godbole (Manoj Bajpai), a Mumbai traffic constable caught in the web of the anti-corruption squad; Maya Kapoor, a mother on tenterhooks (Divya Dutta), as her daughter is hooked up to a plethora of devices in the ICU, her heart hours away from imminent failure; Maya’s husband, famous star Dev Kapoor (Prosenjit Chatterjee), who’d rather be canoodling with the camera than be with his family; Reyhan (Vishal Singh) , a journalist trainee, on the brink of his first big interview for his TV channel, with who else, but Dev; Reyhan’s Hindu girlfriend, a divorcee (Nikita Thukral), with whom Reyhan wants to spend his life; Sachin Khedekar and Kitu Gidwani as Reyhan’s parents, who’re unaware of their son’s love life; Rajeev (Amol Parashar), Reyhan’s friend, who’s aware of his friend’s true love and intentions; Abel (Parambrata Chatterjee), a cardiac surgeon who’s about to celebrate his wedding anniversary; Gurbir Singh (Jimmy Shergill), Mumbai’s traffic commissioner, and a host of other characters.
If this sounds too overwhelming, it’s not. With a neat directorial flair, Rajesh Pillai choreographs a beautiful waltz of these characters with you, changing partners just at the right time so you don’t go too contemptuous with familiarity; and yet, snuggles a place for each one of them in your heart, and before you realize it, you don’t want bad things happening to the good folks. But, as in real life, they do. In a horrifying, gasp-inducing accident that takes place at a traffic junction (the Mad Max factor coming into play), Pillai deftly clicks on each of the hyperlinks, as the plot gets all his characters into play, each one of them affected by what the others do. And then begins the race to get a healthy heart of a brain-dead patient to the rapidly sinking Kapoor offspring.
What Traffic is, is not simply a thriller. It’s a capsule of life, where, one family’s tragedy becomes another family’s hope. And when it comes to transplants, that’s what it finally boils down to isn’t it? Pillai swings from the heartbreak of one family to the desperation of another, even as he ingenuously connects the two with a thread that’s part-thriller, part-fun. And what lends heft to Pillai’s enterprise is the cast, each of who rise to the occasion with aplomb and gusto. Vishal Singh and Nikita Thukral embody likeability, and they lend the right amount of niceness to their love angle. Amol Parashar is very nice as Reyhan’s friend, caught right in the middle of the accident and the race. As Reyhan’s parents, Kitu Gidwani and Sachin Khedekar are superb, their angst, their hope, their ultimate nightmare reaching out to you like nothing else in the movie, their performances the only two amongst three that break your heart. The third is Divya Dutta, who, as the mother of the dying girl, tears up and tears into you, with the intensity and singeing desperation that only a mother can have. She’s brilliant. Prosenjit as the haughty actor bathed in hubris, delivers an affected performance. He wears Dev Kapoor’s unctuous character with discomfiting comfort.
Parambrata Chatterjee, the eternally loveable and likeable actor, does it again here. Although his role brings up a rather intriguing detour in the journey, it’s also the most unsatisfying layer in the movie. But Parambrata marches on, unblemished by his role’s weak angle. Jimmy Shergill, the unsung and underused actor of Hindi cinema and flying high in Punjab – no, this is not a reference to Udtaa Punjab – is superb as the traffic commissioner, unwilling to be dragged into a mad project that’s got the Mumbai traffic’s odds stacked against the evens of saving a young child. A couple of times, he did seem a little underwhelmed by it all, but that just could me or the Mumbai traffic.
And there’s the wonderful Manoj Bajpai. As the constable on whose tainted shoulders lies the success of the entire project, he is remarkably common-man like. Even as he races against time, there’s no sense of histrionics in his act, just a humble sense of duty. Not once in the movie does he overreach; his body language is superb, his shoulders slightly hunched, his demeanor that of anyone who has his pension to think about. At the end of it all, when the media and the hysterical crowd swarms around the doctors and the delivery box, Pillai shoots Manoj Bajpai beyond the crowd, looking at the madness – the camera zooms into him, and that’s a beautifully telling shot – behind every success story will be a quiet pillar, who’s the true driving force (pun intended).
Traffic is not without its share of problems. There’s Bajpai’s accent – a nit, but a Mumbai constable named Godbole pronouncing “scooter” as “eescooter”? And there’s not a tinge of Maharashtrian accent in his delivery. Bajirao, anyone? Then there’s Jimmy Shergill’s nifty looking iPhone that looks a little too futuristic for the time the movie’s set in. (Yes, that really bothered me.) And of course, Parambrata’s story, that seems like a rather forced twist, even though it made for an awesome interval calling card. Finally, Vinayak Netke’s background score could have been tighter and breathless.
But, director Rajesh Pillai more than makes up for these problems. Along with cinematographer Anil Lal, he deploys some swishy camera angles of the highways. Pillai also employs Brian de Palma’s favorite – the split-screen technique that became the leitmotif for 24 – to engage in some high drama. And finally, he delivers a movie that’s sure to apply your heart brakes at the traffic junction. And you can’t help but think what a satisfying Hindi movie debut this was for him, and what he’d do next. And the answer to that question is truly heart-breaking – that this was the young director’s untimely swan song.
Watch the trailer of Traffic here: