Good in Bits Only
By MovieTalkies.com, 02 February 2007
Madhur Bhandrakar's Traffic Signal is quite in line with his previous film as it attempts to do an expose or give a 'behind-the- scenes look' at life at a traffic signal. Unfortunately in times such as these, where the electronic media has invaded every space and crevice of public and private life, there is no shock value attached to the film. As a documentary of the various indigenous enterprises thriving at traffic signals, the local mafia-politician nexus and the intricacies of hafta-driven system, it does very well indeed. But when it comes to telling a story, Madhur gets lost somewhere. There are many stories to be told here, some of which are touched upon. But on the whole, the film remains a plotless wonder. The intent is never very clear. And the weak ending doesn't help either.
Loosely, the plot is based upon the various enterprises that function at this particular traffic signal, supposedly in Kalbadevi. The inhabitants of this signal, flower sellers, beggars, eunuchs, prostitutes (male and female), con men, all pay their weekly hafta to a young man named Silsila (Kunal Khemu). He in turn pays hafta to the local goon, Jafferbhai. The chain goes on with Jafferbhai paying hafta to Hajji (Sudhir Mishra), the lynchpin of the entire begging network in the city. Haji has his connections with local politicians and the great Don in Dubai.
Silsila is the main protagonist and manager of the traffic at this signal. He is an orphan, who was born on this signal and this is his home. He is like the proverbial big brother for all those working at the signal. And then there is Noorie, the prostitute (Konkona Sen Sharma) and junkie-cum-conman Dominic and their little love story amid all the squalor and the crass. There are also other smaller stories like the one about the beggar, who poses as a mad man at the signal and then goes into a multiplex to watch a film with his girlfriend, only to bump into one of his main clients. There is a kid called Tsunami, from Tamil Nadu. He was separated from his family during the Tsunami and saves money and makes a call every week to check for news of his family. There are many such small stories of the inhabitants of the signal.
But there is a larger, insidious plot at work. And the director introduces the builder-politician nexus. The signal becomes the bone of contention between a builder and the state chief engineer (Manoj Joshi). The engineer is working on a flyover project. The builder wants the flyover to come right up to his building complex as that would enable him to sell off his flats at a high price. The engineer refuses as it is not part of the plan. The builder approaches the politician, who in turn approaches Haji. The underworld too comes into the picture as the builder owes them money. It is decided that the engineer will have to eliminated. Silsila and Jaffer become unsuspecting ploys in the plot to kill the engineer. With the engineer out of the way, the flyover is extended and the first casualty is Silsila's traffic signal. The film ends with Silsila trying to make a difference in the lives of his 'family' by giving evidence against Haji.
The film reveals the semblance of a plot in the second half of the film. The first part is totally given up to exposition and the sundry stories about the traffic signal dwellers. The first half is engaging enough and the credit for that goes to the colorful characters that Madhur creates. The most delightful is that of Silsila. And the most moving is that of Noorie and Dominic. The actors do an excellent job of fleshing out these characters. Kunal Khemu is quite the life of the film. He reveals his potential as he etches out the character of the tapori to perfection. He never goes overt the top and reveals a very sensitive side as well in his portrayal. Konkona plays the brazen prostitute well enough but it is Ranvir Sheorey who gives an amazing performance as the junkie in love with the prostitute. His portrayal of the hopelessness which surrounds the junkie Dominic is really well done. Having generally associated the actor with the comic genre, it was a revelation to see him play a role so different. The surprise package is director Sudhir Mishra in a cameo as Haji. This man can always make a career in acting as well. He is very good as the menacing Haji with his heavy-lidded eyes and silver mane.
Madhur manages to inject pace into the second half of the film. Finally something happens. Traffic Signal moves from being just a 'slice of life,' to drama, as the builder-politician nexus comes into play. This last bit gives the film that edge but unfortunately it comes a little too late in the film, or so one feels. The end of the film also fails to give any sense of direction to the film. It is in that sense, a little weak. Traffic Signal continues the string of exposes that Madhur began in his first film Chandni Bar and carried through to Corporate and Page 3. But a good feature film surely has to move beyond playing the role of investigator. That surely is the purview of the journalist.