'Traffic' review: Needless messaging spoils this Manoj Bajpayee-starrer

Anna MM Vetticad

May,07 2016 10:50 14 IST

The road to cinematic achievement is lined with films that made it to the interval mark and then were ruined by their own contrivances. Traffic is a case study in what not to do with your story after the half-way post.

Based on a Malayalam screenplay by Bobby and Sanjay, which led to the well-received 2011 film of the same name, this remake is adapted for Hindi viewers by scriptwriter Suresh Nair with dialogues by Piyush Mishra and Prashant Pandey. The late Rajesh Pillai directed both films.

Traffic is inspired by a real-life incident from 2008 in Tamil Nadu that was reported in the news media. The story of the Hindi film version, as far as can be told without spoilers, is this: A 12-year-old girl called Riya, daughter of filmstar Dev Kapoor (Prosenjit Chatterjee) and his wife Maya (Divya Dutta), is struggling for her life in Pune.

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Manoj Bajpayee in 'Traffic'. Youtube screen grab.

Meanwhile, newbie journalist and road accident victim Rehaan Ali (Vishal Singh) is on a ventilator in a Mumbai hospital. Doctors have virtually given up hope for him. His parents (played by Kitu Gidwani and Sachin Khedekar) agree to donate their son’s heart to save Riya. With time running out for her and all flights grounded due to poor visibility, the organ must be transported 160km by road in 150 minutes.

Anyone who knows the madness of Mumbai will understand what a near-impossible task that is. Constable Ramdas Godbole (Manoj Bajpayee) steps up to make the impossible possible with the support of his boss, Joint Commissioner of Police (Traffic) Gurbir Singh (Jimmy Sheirgill). As you would have figured from the trailer, Godbole and his companions are making good time when their vehicle disappears.

The rest of the film is spent figuring out what happened to them and whether they ultimately reach Pune before it is too late for Riya.

This should have been a no-frills thriller woven around a story of basic decency and humanity. The human element is well handled in the first half leading the way to what should have been a suspenseful second half. Those early gains are frittered away though by the desperation to be a film with a message.

Traffic’s USP is the manner in which relationships and power equations between characters are established: the father who is brusque with his son even though he loves him, the young man whose feelings for a woman are unaffected by socially prescribed barriers, a mother who rises above her own grief to recognise the pain of another woman, the arrogance of a celebrity even in the face of personal tragedy, influential people who pull strings undeterred by the human life at stake and a police constable seeking redemption in the eyes of his daughter after a high-profile bribery scandal.

All these points are effectively driven home without being trumpeted from a rooftop. The moment loudness overtakes subtlety though, the impact of the film is sadly diluted.

An early sign of this tendency comes when a doctor lectures JCP Singh about doing his duty and taking a risk to save a life. Police personnel make for convenient scapegoats in any given situation because they are unpopular figures in public perception in India, but the truth is that Singh’s concerns are valid and yet bombastically brushed aside by the self-righteous doc. As it happens, no one asks him if he would have made that call for a non-VIP patient.

Still, the first half of the film offers sufficient compensation for that brief scene of populist overstatement. The second half, however, fails to sustain the tone.

You may have noticed, without this review rubbing it in, that the child needing a transplant in this story has a Hindu name and her potential donor’s name is Muslim. Audiences are not fools and can be left to draw whatever conclusion they choose without the point being underlined, then circled with a red pen and further highlighted with a bright yellow marker.

Having initially assumed that viewers are intelligent and sensitive to our social reality, Team Traffic later succumbs to an inexplicable urge to idiot-proof their film.

Firstly, the reason for the disappearance of Godbole’s vehicle comes across as being contrived to introduce a message about how everyone deserves a second chance in life. Next, the entire inter-community component overshadows everything else in the film’s second half with its in-your-face messaging, as golden-hearted Muslims clear hurdles in Godbole’s path while a song discusses Allah and maula, declaring that religion and God are both the problem and its solution.

Also thrown into the mix for good measure is a well-meaning Christian briefly gone astray and doing penance for his misdeeds. The only thing left was for them to put a turban on JCP Singh’s head and have him deliver a sermon on Wahe Guru. Thankfully, that does not happen, though the closing credits are accompanied by another musical reminder about communal amity.

It is clear that in this film’s mindscape – as it is with most mainstream Hindi cinema – minority community members are strategically placed in stories with the specific purpose of putting out some sort of lesson, not because they just happen to exist within the country’s population.

Between the overt secularism of Godbole’s experiences on the road and the repetition of the moral of the story in the final song, the film gets back on track with a brief scene involving Rehaan’s grieving parents and his girlfriend Aditi. That fleeting interaction is heartbreaking.

In fact, the two most moving scenes in Traffic feature low-key, low-volume phone calls: Maya Kapoor speaking to Mrs Ali, Dr Ali reaching out to Aditi. Divya Dutta, Kitu Gidwani and Nikita Thukral (as Aditi) are particularly wonderful through these moments, making the film their own despite the presence of the ever-dependable Manoj Bajpayee and Jimmy Sheirgill in much larger roles (both men are effective too).

If you have known the death of a loved one, you will understand how excruciatingly hard it is to let go. The only thing worse than the anticipation and fear of loss is loss itself. The feel of cold, lifeless flesh that will never be warm again is like a knife through the heart. Drama is intrinsic to these situations and to the larger, multi-cultural Indian reality, without the crutch of high-decibel songs or explicit moralising.

If Team Traffic had understood that, this could have been a great film. As things stand, it is an uneven, unsatisfying ride.