Saturday, February 03, 2007

Traffic Signal 

Even those who live in Mumbai and have a fair idea of how street life works, would find Madhur Bhandarkar’s Traffic Signal revealing—how the whole parallel economy works from the beggar and hawker to politicians and Bhais in Dubai.

It does seem too simplistic and a bit clichéd, because a lot of recent films have touched upon the cop-politician-gangster-builder networks, but Bhandarkar’s style of creating a microcosm of urban lower class life dependant on a traffic signal is gripping.

From beggars getting made-up (sauce squirted on a dirty bandage), to boundaries being set for the various ‘operations’, from the local thugs arranging for a road to be dug up for long periods of time so cars slow down, to cops being on the take and well-meaning NGOs trying to help street kids--- a lot of day-to-day information is packed into the film, in an interesting way.

Silsila (Kunal Khemu— with an easygoing charm), the hafta collection ‘manager’ at Kelkar Marg signal is the face of the film, but there are no heroes or villains. Bhandarkar packs the film with innumerable characters, from the denizens of the signal, to rich people in the cars who pass by everyday.

Some of them, like the squabbling older man-young woman couple or gay designer are caricatures, but even in such a crowd of mostly unknown faces, Bhandarkar manages to create empathy for some--like the little ragpicker who spends his hard-earned money to phone his tsunami struck village, or the other little paper seller who smears fairness cream on his face. And amazingly, he keeps the film moving at a dizzy pace, without losing any of the many threads he throws out.

In the crowd of the unwashed poor, are beggars, eunuchs, prostitutes (Konkona Sensharma daring to play a streetwalker), drug addicts (Ranvir Shorey, frighteningly realistic), street vendors (Neetu Chandra, convincing as a Gujarati garment seller). There are genuinely funny scenes—like the one in which a beggar on a date with his girlfriend, runs into an outraged alms-giver at a plush multiplex.

At the other end is the hierarchy of Bhais from the area in-charge (D.Santosh), the bigger don (filmmaker Sudhir Mishra’s cool acting debut), and the unseen voice in Dubai, interacting with corrupt MLAs, builders and cops.

The problem, if any, is that poverty and crime and too sanitized and romanticized for public consumption. Life on the streets is all friendship, joy and celebration—where is the squalour and brutality? Silsila is too innocent and clean-cut to be believable in that scenario. In Bhandarkar’s merry world of the city’s underprivileged, everyone seems to be having a blast, so there is no need to even talk of improving their lot in any way. The end—when everything comes together into a semblance of a mini-plot-- is way too idealistic, as if Bhandarkar did not want the audience to go back feeling disturbed.

Still, it is a brave effort, since audiences are now used to watching glossy films shot abroad. Bhandarkar is getting technically more accomplished with every film— Signal is well shot and edited. And Nitin Desai’s set of a busy Mumbai street is astonishingly authentic.


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