'Buddha In A Traffic Jam' may be shallow and daft, but it isn't propaganda
Caution: Spoilers ahead
One thing that we can choose to recognise about Buddha In A Traffic Jam is the sincerity of writer-director Vivek Agnihotri's intent.
The film is about a subject that is fiercely topical - the alleged links between India's premier educational institutions with militant ultra-leftist movements and organisations. So, he stumbled upon the smartest way to promote the film. It doesn't mean that he's blindly biased in favour of the current ruling party, particularly since the film depicts events set in 2011 (dubbed over as 2014 in the film). Simply put, the film must not be dismissed as mere propaganda.
The problem, however, lies in the broad strokes that the film paints so many varied ideologies and schools of thought with. It skims the surface of a number of issues, without ever seeming on solid ground with any of them. The film is a political one, and it does take a stand. However, the stand over-simplifies issues and reduces it to surface level conversations and depictions of purported enemies of the nation and its people.
So; liberals, feminists, intellectuals and the mainstream media are all collectively labelled, simply as 'Maoists'. At one point, a character goes into a feverish monologue about a deep-rooted conspiracy wherein Naxals and Naxal sympathisers have infiltrated society with clinical precision and secrecy. "They could be anyone and everyone. They're spread all over the country," she gasps. (Naxalites alternatively go by the term X-Men, the director would have you believe.)
In its bid to expose the nexus between academia and Naxalism - something that no sane thinker or intellectual will deny outright - the film pretends to be the moral voice of a nation that's on the brink of some sort of awakening. This awakening, it claims, is the rise of entrepreneurship-fuelled capitalism. Utopian socialism, it insists, is redundant.
Unfortunately, in its blinkered view of genuine civil rights movements like feminism, (and its ignorance of the debilitating effects of the caste system in Indian society, even in this day and age), the film loses out on the potential to be that rare right wing voice of consequence. Because capitalism, in its ruthless need to look upwards, will always depend on reinforcing clichés, stereotypes and labels, through its cultural arm, advertising. And through it's militant arm - the global arms market - capitalism will continue to abet violent fundamentalism across the globe, quite like the communism that it so vehemently stands against. (These analogies are an over-simplification as well, but the film doesn't offer the substance to demand a higher quality of discourse.)
The film also repeatedly falls back on rhetoric that prefers to gloss over ground realities in favour of the imagined superiority accompanying rigid nationalism and condescending patriarchy masked as 'loving your nation as you would your mother'. One can tell that the writer-director doesn't consider the possibility that a human being could be an individual with a mind of their own; that they can choose to believe what they do without being slotted as an 'ist' or under an 'ism'.
Watch how the director treats a Naxalist professor's impassioned climactic speech to a student who he failed to recruit. The agitated demeanour; the self-contradictory lines; the careful choice of camera placement revealing the stand of the director himself. He'd like to believe it is a deep, insightful and objective view. Instead, it falls prey to the classification syndrome. You can't have freewill, he goads you to believe, gleefully building a mirage similar to the joy we feel when drawing room conversation throws up the fact that FDI numbers are up.
That Vivek Agnihotri is entitled to the right to hold his view and make films about it is beyond any doubt. A pertinent question to ask, however, would be this: will a film that takes the exact opposite stand as Buddha In A Traffic Jam also pass this government's censor board as easily? Who knows.
Nothing, though can redeem the film from its sheer lack of heft. We live in an age where loony fringe elements claim to be the true voice of the people of India. Vivek Agnihotri certainly doesn't seem to belong to that category. Yet, even his film claims to be a bold, different voice that represents the will of the people of India. Disappointingly though (quite like Agnihotri's debut film, Chocolate) this voice is just not different from that of the usual suspects.