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25 January 2018

Traffic (2011)

Directed by: Rajesh Pillai
Music: Mejo Joseph, Samson Kottoor
Lyrics: S Rameshan Nair, Vayalar Sarath Chandra Varma
Starring: Rehman, Vineeth Sreenivasan, Sreenivasan, Sai Kumar,
 Kunchako Boban, Asaf Ali, Remya Nambeesan, Lena, Anoop Menon,
Sandhya, Roma, Namitha Pramod, Jose Prakash
Four strangers. One unfortunate incident. What happens when Chance plays a disproportionate role in their lives? This is their story, and that of their families and friends the story of how that one incident binds hitherto unknown people’s fates into a web from which they cannot escape. This is the story of a crime of passion and of compassion, forgiveness, and redemption.  

A woman driver. A couple of roadside Romeos. An accident off camera. And four disparate characters who are affected – directly or indirectly – by this accident: Siddharth Shankar (Rehman) is a self-absorbed superstar who doesn’t remember daughter, Priya’s (Namitha Pramod) events, or his wife, Shruti's (Lena) birthday. When Shruti calls him to remonstrate over his behaviour, he is impatient and dismissive. He's busy!
Rehan (Vineeth Sreenivasan) is just out of college and is appearing for an interview at IndiaVision. He dreams of becoming a journalist, and is pleased when he gets an internship there. We also meet Rajiv (Asaf Ali), Rehan’s friend, and Aditi (Sandhya), his girlfriend. 

Dr Abel Thariyan (Kunchacko Boban), a noted cardiac surgeon, is test driving a new car. It’s a surprise present for his wife on their first wedding anniversary. Only, he’s the one who will soon get a surprise.
And Sudevan (Sreenivasan), a traffic constable, has just approached the Party leader to help reinstate him in his job from which he had been suspended for taking a bribe. It’s his first offence, he pleads, and ironically, he has to give a bribe in order to get his job back.

For those fateful few moments, all these people will converge at a crossroad – their lives are about to be intertwined.
That accident we don’t see? That will leave one woman traumatized, one man seriously injured and on life support, another guilt-ridden. And while this is happening here, something that happens in its aftermath will be the cause of another 'accident'. 
Elsewhere, a young girl is in hospital fighting for life. Only a heart transplant can save her. The only hope is the heart of the dying man. 
The families of those ill/injured are at odds with what they seek. The ethical question of sacrificing one life to save another has to be answered within a few short hours...
...and when that question is answered to one’s relief and another’s grief, there’s another obstacle to that sacrifice not being in vain – there are no flights from Kochi where one person is on life support to Palakkad, where the other is dying.

The heart will have to be transported by road, but the logistics seem insurmountable – 150km in two hours across three cities with multiple by-lanes and one-way roads, over 50 traffic signals and a depleted police force. Commissioner of Police Ajmal Nazar (Anoop Menon), chosen to head the mission, dismisses the idea of saving one life by putting several others at risk. But the girl’s father can – and does – pull strings. 
When Nazar is finally convinced – the mission will create history he knows it’s going to be a race against time. The heart will not be viable for transplant if it doesn’t reach within a couple of hours. Nazar can lead the mission but he needs a driver. Sudevan jumps at a chance at redemption. 
Sudevan will have two passengers – Rajeev, trying to alleviate his guilt, and Dr Abel, who's running away with his own demons in tow. All three are seeking personal redemption. 

The route is planned; the police are deployed to ensure there are no traffic holdups; Sudevan is making good time, and Nazar is beginning to heave a sigh of relief when the van disappears. 
This is not a film for which one can summarise a plot. And I don’t want to expand on the synopsis to include spoilers. Traffic was a terrific film and touched an emotional core without descending into bathos. Starring an ensemble cast, where each one of them turned in a fantastic performance without a thought for the length of their role, the film was one of the first hyperlinked multi-narratives in modern Malayalam cinema. The late director, Rajesh Pillai (and writers Bobby & Sanjay) gave us a thriller that keeps us on the edge of our seats until it finally winds down to its predictable (because, true) end. Yet, all that predictability doesn't take away from the nail-biting tension with which we await each new twist. 

With the core of the film inspired by a true incident, Traffic weaves back and forth through the lives of the different characters and through time itself to gradually reveal a story filled with love, anger, intrigue, revenge, and Fate. As these various strands criss and cross, it knits a story from a series of episodes, each person offering a different perspective of the same incidents. The characters, too, not all of them personally known to each other, walk in and out of each other’s stories, sometimes as onlookers, sometimes as unwilling participants, all seemingly related in ways they do not comprehend, and in some cases, do not even know. 

Speaking of performances: Sreenivasan acts as Sudevan who is ridiculed by his neighbours (he’s plastered all over the evening news), and finds that his daughter is ashamed of him (ironical, since he accepts a bribe to pay his daughter’s school fees).
The man’s turmoil, his determination to salvage his reputation, to do something to gain back his daughter’s respect – all find play in the veteran actor’s mobile face and seamless performance.

Rehman, once the teenage heartthrob of Malayalam cinema, has matured from playing lover boy to handing in a nuanced performance in an emotionally-charged role. As Siddharth Shankar, the egotistic superstar, Rehman aced the role. 
He is a man who scripts every aspect of his life and his persona – his image is so precious (and so brittle) that, in a ‘live’ interview, when he’s asked who his daughter’s favourite teacher is, he orders the camera turned off so because he knows nothing about Priya's likes or dislikes. After ascertaining the correct answer, he casually orders the camera to be turned back on again and answers the question. (The looks on his wife's and daughter's faces is a mixture of amused resignation and sadness.)

It is not that Siddharth doesn’t love his wife and daughter. It is just that his world is so taken up with himself from ensuring that his make-up is just so, to using his family ss extras in his photo-ops and interviewsthat providing them with all the luxuries he can afford is his version of loving them.  
He claims he's a great husband and father. But, as always, there’s another’s perception – in one beautifully staged scene, Lena (what an actress!) explodes in fury and frustration. She speaks a bitter truth – this is his biggest failure. His breakdown, when it happens, and the subsequent scene where he hesistantly reaches to comfort (and seek comfort from) his wife, is a brilliant piece of being.
That one moment when he realises that not all his wealth or superstardom can save his daughter, that her fate hangs in another father’s hands – a father who loved his son, and was proud of him, no matter what the son perceived – that sheer helplessness of standing by watching his child die, Rehman was fantastic.

Kunchako Boban is in a greyer role than usual; usually cast in light-weight roles, this short performance of a man who uncovers a grave deceit, and takes an impulsive action that will have serious consequences, was a revelation. 
Asif Ali as the guilt-ridden friend, Vineeth as Rehan, Sai Kumar as Rehan's father every single one of them had a well-etched role, and turned in excellent performances. Yet, this film is not about any actor in particular – each character is the ‘hero’ of his own narrative on screen. And while the four male characters are the protagonists of four separate strands, the women are no ciphers. Whether it is Sandhya as Rehan's divorced girlfriend, Lena playing the long-suffering wife, newcomer Namitha Pramod as Priya, or even Roma as Abel's sister, each female character is nuanced enough to make us feel for them – collateral damage as they are to the actions of their men, and the (unintended) consequences thereof.

With a tightly scripted film that managed to plug all the plot holes and never let the nail-biting tension drop for a second, Traffic is – in every sense of the word – thrilling.  

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