The late Rajesh Pillai’s final feature film, Traffic, appears to be this week’s most interesting Hindi release. A remake of his 2011 Malayalam thriller of the same name, which was a great critical and commercial success, it uses the conventions of hyperlink cinema to present an intriguing premise: how can an ambulance carrying a heart that can save another life cover 160 km in about two and a half hours while driving through city traffic?
This premise is inspired by an incident that occurred in Chennai eight years ago, wherein the heart of a young man who died in a motorbike accident was successfully transported to another hospital for the treatment of a dying young girl in 11 minutes, over a traffic-jammed route that would’ve otherwise taken 45 minutes. In this film, the setting has been changed to Mumbai and Pune, the journey longer, and filled with more obstacles and drama.
It is a solid set-up for a nail-biting thriller and this version of Traffic — which features dependable actors like Manoj Bajpayee, Prosenjit Chatterjee, and Parambrata Chatterjee (credited as 'Parambrata Chattopadhyay') in key roles — has all the ingredients to be a well-crafted, engaging film.
However, the ride isn’t as smooth as it should be, never mind what they’re showing on screen. Right from the beginning, I found the film’s aesthetic — a frantically cut, ‘pulsating’ thriller in the vein of several South Indian films and something that’d be directed by, say, a Neeraj Pandey in Hindi — quite jarring.
The young man at the heart of it all (completely unintended) is Rehan (TV actor Vishal Singh), a trainee journalist who is in a relationship with a young divorcee and nervous about conducting his first big interview. He is riding pillion, helmet-less, on a motorbike being driven by his best friend Rajeev (Amol Parashar) when a car jumps a red light and sends them flying. The shot of him landing on his head in slow-mo looked realistic enough to make me wince. The camera never shows us how the car manages to get away.
Rehan’s parents, played by Sachin Khedekar and Kitu Gidwani, arrive at a Mumbai hospital and learn soon enough that their son can’t survive. At the same time, at a hospital in Pune, Dev Kapoor and his wife (Divya Dutta) are told that their daughter, suffering from a heart defect, needs a transplant as soon as possible. The idea of the loss of one life giving an opportunity for another is a hefty one, and requires gradual build-up and well-rounded character development. That’s exactly what the recent Bengali film Shankhachil (also starring Prosenjit), which presents a similar race-against-time medical treatment scenario, does, taking enough care to set up characters so that we live with them and understand them.
But Traffic has many other characters to introduce and melodrama to deliver. Suresh Nair’s screenplay is in as much of a tearing hurry as the police car depicted in the film, sacrificing depth and believability — of characters as well as situations — for pace. Recurring time-stamps make the film feel like a thrilling strategy game, which definitely commands your attention, but gives little insight into how characters are feeling.
For instance, we are told that Rajeev, who seemingly feels guilty for having survived the accident, is insistent on coming along on the journey. Under the directions of a senior traffic commissioner (Jimmy Sheirgill), routes are cleared out for the police vehicle that tainted constable Ramdas Godbole (Manoj Bajpayee) has volunteered to drive. However, soon, unforeseen circumstances force them off their route, and time is in short supply. When a moral dilemma confronts them, with the clock still ticking, the way the characters react — not their actual reactions, to be clear — to the situation is too pat and unrealistic. Rajeev, in particular, is more inert and presented in too black-and-white a manner to be digestible.
A film like this should have been about the moments and emotions the characters feel during the journey. But the screenplay chooses filmi twists — including one slightly twisted narrative whose resolution is unbelievably tame — over these.
Some scenes could’ve done with more dialogue to convey internal conflicts; others revel in exposition and say too much. A set-piece towards the end is well-conceived and thrilling, but also depends on happenstance.
The aforementioned seasoned actors turn in largely stiff, wooden performances that belie their actual abilities. Bajpayee underplays but puts on a questionable Marathi accent (for the second time this year after Aligarh) and, crippled by inadequate character development, delivers a nothing performance. Bengali star Prosenjit, who was absolutely marvelous in Shankhachil, is a shadow of his usual self here as a star named Dev Kapoor. Chattopadhyaya, playing the surgeon Dr Abel, another passenger on the journey, plays a badly-written-but-complex character in a bland sort of manner. Dutta is wasted in a weepy, TV-serial-ish role that gives her precious little to do. Sheirgill is annoyingly sincere and is responsible for what I thought was the film's most unintentionally hilarious moment: when he punches the air and says "The mission is on!" in the clunkiest, most half-hearted manner.
A film like this should have been about the moments and emotions the characters feel during the journey. But the screenplay chooses filmi twists — including one slightly twisted narrative whose resolution is unbelievably tame — over these. It isn’t reason enough to hate the film, which is largely well-intentioned, but enough to sadly conclude that the film promises a great deal more than it delivers.
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