COLOSSUS OF ROADS
Madhur Bhandarkar tries to capture the epic struggle of those on the streets, but “Salaam Bombay” this isn’t.
FEB 4, 2007 – WITH EACH NEW RELEASE OF MADHUR BHANDARKAR, it becomes clearer that Chandni Bar was both the best thing that happened to him and the worst thing that happened to him. The film put him on the map, sure, but it also became a bit of a hit, and therefore – rather unfortunately, for us – branded Bhandarkar as The Man Who Exposes The Seamy Underbelly Of A Facet Of Society. He did that with bar girls in Chandni Bar, he did that with the air-kissing set in Page 3, and he did that with the business types in Corporate. Now, in Traffic Signal, he does that with the ragtag community that makes its living from the motorists who stop at traffic lights. And he’s already announced that his next movie will be titled Fashion, so you know which facet-of-society’s seamy underbelly he’s going to expose next – and this makes me very, very scared. If Traffic Signal succeeds and if Fashion does too, and if Bhandarkar possesses the stamina of a Woody Allen and cranks out a film a year, will this be what our theatre schedules look like for the next few years: School, Hospital, Courtroom, Software, Restaurant? Is this what we’re going to have to endure in terms of plot points: the Machiavellian scheming in the staff lunch room over who will become the next headmistress, or the shattering revelation that a Computer Science graduate has on his resume that he is familiar with Java while the closest he’s come to that is at the local Barista?
My worst fears about Traffic Signal were confirmed as soon as the film began. We see cars stopping at a light, and we see what typically happens then. A lady uses the time to repair her makeup, and a man is told that his tyres are punctured and when he looks out his mobile phone gets stolen – and for a second, for just a second, I thought, hey, this isn’t so bad. Perhaps Bhandarkar has finally learnt to do this slice-of-life thing right, after all those earlier tries. But the very next instant, the camera pulls back and reaches the base of the traffic light, and it begins its climb up the pole and we stop at the red light, and then we see the yellow and finally the green, and the title helpfully flashes across the screen, presumably for those in the audience who are going to get all excited and turn to each other and squeal, “Get it? He’s showing a traffic signal and his movie is called Traffic Signal too. Get it?” After that beginning, you know Bhandarkar’s back to his old ways: not directing with a megaphone so much as a machine tool positioned near your head, determined to nail you down with his meticulous research. (What a pity that despite this research, we’re still left with an end credit that says, “And introducing Sudhir Mishra.” So the Hazaaron Khwaishen Aisi director’s earlier stint in front of the camera – as a cinematographer in Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Khamosh – doesn’t count?)
And all this research is laid out for us in the childishly expository manner of a How Things Work picture book. We learn, for instance, that begging is big business and that each signal has a “manager” who oversees his “employees.” In one of the director’s few attempts at staging things – as opposed to just pointing the camera at a setup and shooting – we observe one such manager in action, coming off like a theatre director briefing his actors about their parts. (“More (fake) blood on that bandaged wound here! That (fake) pregnant belly isn’t quite right; a few more swirls of cloth there!”) And it’s interesting how these conmen justify their livelihood. “Apun lete to unke paap dhote hain,” says a beggar of those who dole out alms, conveniently indicating that the ends justify the means. But after setting up these characters, the film leaves them stranded. Bhandarkar appears so thrilled with himself that he’s dug up and put on screen all these interesting types we never get to see in our usual masala movies that he forgets he’s also got to give them something to do. Except for a stray incident where we see two girls scratching each other’s eyes out – one of them sold flowers to a regular customer of the other one – there’s no sense of the desperation (or the heartbreak or the anger or the romance) in these lives.
A couple of characters get some back-story – one says that he came to Mumbai in search of a job, and when he was robbed of everything, he became a beggar – but the rest are merely ciphers. This may be intentional, Bhandarkar’s way of telling us that their pasts aren’t important – but then he isn’t terribly interested in their presents either. We meet Rani (Neetu Chandra), who sells ethnic embroidery at the traffic signal – but what else is there to her? There’s a romantic track that threatens to blossom between Rani and Silsila – yes, that’s the name of the “manager” played by Kunal Khemu, because he was born the year Yash Chopra’s ode to infidelity was released; I guess he’s thanking his stars he wasn’t born in 1988, the year of Paap Ko Jalaa Kar Raakh Kar Doonga – but nothing comes of that. There’s a potential heartbreaker of a subplot involving a child from Tamil Nadu who spends all his earnings making calls to the tsunami relief centre to find out if there’s any news of his parents – but nothing comes of that. There’s another interesting story in the druggie (a moving Ranvir Shorey) who’s a college dropout and who may be in love with the local prostitute (Konkona Sen Sharma) – but nothing comes of that either. Bhandarkar’s point may be that these characters don’t lend themselves to tidily-wrapped endings, that the randomness of these individual story arcs is a mirror of the randomness in their lives, but if this is how you’re going to go about it, why hire actors and why write a screenplay? Why not simply walk through Mumbai with a handycam?
At some point, Bhandarkar seems to realise this – that he’s making a movie, which means something’s actually got to happen. So he tosses in yet another half-baked subplot about an honest engineer and a flyover and the builder mafia (headed by the soporific Sudhir Mishra), and these contrivances suddenly turn Traffic Signal on its head. Where we were earlier seeing a bunch of have-nots passively accepting of their lots in life, we now have ourselves an angsty protagonist in the form of Silsila. This kind of transformation is in itself an entire movie, but Bhandarkar wants to wrap it up in fifteen minutes. And that’s because he wants time to make those bigger points – his patented look-what-our-country-is-like-today points. There’s a most embarrassing sequence where a social worker (khadi-clad, naturally) sees miniature Indian flags strewn carelessly about on the street after an August 15 celebration, so he goes about picking them up as the soundtrack erupts with – wait for this! – Vande Mataram. And in case you aren’t already shaking your head at the apathy that surrounds us – or whatever – Bhandarkar nudges us with this other scene where Mishra’s don examines a group of potential beggars with limbs missing, and when he’s told about two more who are healthy, he instructs an aide to call a doctor and have a few leg-pieces ready, referring, of course, to the fact that those two men are going to remain healthy no longer. The only thing Mishra doesn’t do is throw his head back and let loose diabolical laughter.
And did I mention the latest chapters in Bhandarkar’s ongoing rich-people-are-bad-people thesis – like the bit about the New York NRI who surveys the scene at the traffic light and sneers, “This country will live on charity,” or the aside involving the society lady who dumps the husband who can’t satisfy her and picks up a roadside Romeo afterwards? It’s at times like this I’m not sure whether to be happy that someone like Bhandarkar exists – someone who seems to want to do something beyond the scope of the masala movie – or frustrated that he does this so crudely and so cluelessly. (The amateurishness in some of the performances has to be seen to be believed.) Bhandarkar has clearly made it his mission in life to open our eyes to the cancers that are eating away at our society, our country, but then a filmmaker who wants to do this should be something of a pathologist, someone who knows how to slice into the cadaver of a rotted India and skillfully examine the insides for signs of how things came to this, and how similar ailments can be prevented in the future. But all Bhandarkar does with the already-bloated corpse is stuff it full with his indignation and then mount it at multiplexes for our viewing. The only thing he is interested in being is a taxidermist.
Copyright ©2007 The New Sunday Express