Sunday, January 11, 2009
From the moment a little message to the viewer appeared at the beginning, stating, "We believe movies should be viewed as they are; therefore you will not see any watermarks on your screen during this film," I had a feeling I would enjoy the movie to follow. And I was right! Ah, Traffic Signal. How do I love thee?
Perhaps I should start instead with, "Ah, Kunal Khemu." Not that I was drooling over him the whole time (I'm not that much of a cougar, even though! that smile!), but he really made this movie for me. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Traffic Signal is a 2007 movie starring Kunal, Konkona Sen Sharma, Neetu Chandra, and Ranvir Shorey. It was directed by Madhur Bhandarkar and is the third in his series on corruption in Indian life, following Page 3 and Corporate.
Silsila (Kunal, or That Kid from Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke) is a Signal Manager. At the street light near where he lives in Mumbai, he basically oversees the many daytime small businesses and entreprenurial efforts that have sprung up around the signal: beggars, kids selling garlands and newspapers, eunuchs trading money for blessings, ethnic clothing sellers, and others. He makes sure everything runs smoothly, that the light doesn't change too quickly from red to green, that the road stays torn up to block traffic, and that the lower-level mafia boss he reports to gets his cut. In return, they give Silsila their loyalty and protection money. Silsila is an ideal manager--caring, compassionate, business-oriented, and easily negotiating the various conflicts that arise between the people under his watch. When Rani (Neetu Chandra) moves to his area from Gujurat, a budding romance starts to make his life complete. However, Silsila is caught in a web of business and mafia connections extending far hire than his little corner, and the threads are about to criss-cross in a way that will have a devastating impact on his business and his world.
At night, Noorie (Konkona, who played the main character in Page 3) comes out to ply her trade as a hooker at the signal. She's made friends with a local heroin addict, Dominic (Ranvir, utterly heartbreaking) who uses his educated manners to bilk the unsuspecting out of cash during the day and buys drugs at night. Noorie's friendly with the other female prostitutes but resents the newest kid on the block, a guy, just a little bit for adding new competition. Eventually, though, fellow feeling leads to a more positive relationship.
The first twenty minutes or so of the movie is taken up establishing the setting, then most of the rest of it consists of character sketches. There's the storyline of the little boy whose parents were washed away in the tsunami but calls every week to see if they've been found, the little boy who longs for the success and love the adverts for skin lightener promise, the beggar who buses in from a middle-class neighborhood every morning to work at the signal, the disabled guy, Silsila's best friend, who carefully chooses which religious figures to depict so as to offend neither Muslims nor Hindus, the corrupt but friendly cop, the drug-addled but still vicious mobster two rungs above Silsila on the ladder, and the girl who married above her but finds herself regretting the bargain with her impotent, philandering husband (That Guy Who Hosted That TV Show in Main Hoon Na) , along with a few others. There's only a little over half an hour's worth of plot execution, spread out in bits and pieces through the length of the film, with an intense final fifteen or twenty minutes.
From that synopsis, it sounds as if the film must be either confusing or boring or both, but I assure you it's neither. Madhur Bhandakar is a masterful storyteller, and infuses each scene with a combination of pathos and gritty humor. For me, the movie walked the delicate line between showing the realities in which the characters live and allowing me to still consider the film entertainment. When things onscreen get too grim, I get sad and more often than not end up running away, but that didn't happen with Traffic Signal. It was more The Constant Gardener than Stop Loss, if that makes the distinction any more clear.
Almost every single actor in the film delivers an awesome, real performance (the few off-key notes are few and far between enough to stop me from rolling my eyes). I particularly liked the special appearance performance of Engineer Jha (That Guy Who Played Pooja's Dad in Chup Chup Ke). However, each character arc alternately broke my heart and made me laugh out loud. Kunal especially lights up the screen, but this is a true ensemble effort. I'm trying to remember any Superfantastic Bollywood Moments, and I'm not coming up with any, but that doesn't mean there aren't any. There is an item number, though!
I can't remember the names of any of the songs, and the wiki entry on the film isn't helping me out, but they were really great and had lovely lyrics as well. Most of them overlay the action instead of actors lip-syncing, with the exception of the item number which featured a girl I didn't recognize. Here's what YouTube informs me is called "Yehi Zindagi:"
In short, Traffic Signal is worth every penny and then some. I'm looking forward to watching Page 3 and Corporate now.