Picture this: An indie movie, on an off-beat topic. There is no typical Bollywood masala kitschy running around trees by over-aged botoxed heroes. Instead there are poems by the legendary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. The story is not the banal rich guy meets poor girl, or how one man does insanely ridiculous stuff to change the system. The story is about real world problems, and how lives revolve around it. It’s not a 4.5 star rated movie which involves an ageing star, playing out some hyper-realistic sequences, with patchy “special” effects, an unconvincing plot, all wrapped up in a self-idolising movie. It’s instead the story about ordinary students, who uncover something extra-ordinary. The climax is not a clash of brawn and might, it is a clash of ideas and ideologies.
On the face of it, such a movie would be the darling of our “enlightened”, “intellectual” movie critics. So many times have we heard them cry for out something more from Bollywood or the Indian film industry at large.
Buddha in a Traffic Jam, is one such movie, which, if not delivers completely on the promise, at least dares to trod the path less ventured on, and succeeds to a large extent.
The movie’s first sequence shows us how poor and down-trodden India’s tribals in the Naxal infested areas are. Not only is their financial situation pitiable, they are forever caught up in a situation of being caught between proving and choosing loyalties, to the local Naxal overlord, who terrorizes them, and the Government, whom they cannot entirely trust. The Government and its representatives here are no heroes, making the predicament of the villagers even more complex.
The next sequence shows a bunch of free-thinking, party-going students, taking on the self-appointed moral police chieftains of our society. The movie makes no bones about making it clear that these goons in fact belong to the Hindu far-right, heck even the picture of a real-life goon from such fringes is shown. And these students stick it to these guys. This along with the theme of sympathy for the downtrodden and angst against extremist forces are what constitute wet-dreams of Indian leftists. But that’s just the sucker punch, the fattening of the proverbial lamb.
As the movie progresses, we see what no leftist would ever want us to see. How socialist ideas are irrelevant and failing. How some ideologies can be misused for exploitation of the poor. How leftists have penetrated institutions across the board. How capitalism is running the world around us, and how it can solve many core issues. Without revealing much, one can say it does ask a lot of questions.
Even thought I am not qualified to comment on this aspect, from a pure movie-making angle, the film is not perfect. Some of the acting could have been better. Certain portions seem unwarranted, and a tighter edit could have made proceedings more riveting. Some crucial plot points seem to be under-developed, leaving the viewer to figure out a bit on his own. But this is not what the movie reviewers talk about. They focus, on entirely other things, to make sure the viewer doesn’t go to see it. Most negative reviews of the movie follow a template, which can be explained thus:
1. Before the review of the movie, comes the review of the director and his fans. “Oh Right-wingers”, “Oh he directed these movies before this one” are desperate attempts to downplay the credentials of the director. A classic tactic of ad-hominem attacks being used here, and of course no one will tell you that the movie has been screened in multiple film festivals, even bagging a few awards. Yes, we are to believe these are independent unbiased reviewers.
2. There is a reference to the 2 or 3 sequences, which otherwise do not aid the story per se, which are tributes to path-breaking movies from Hollywood. While fair, unbiased reviews have indeed called them “tributes”, the leftist critics have been unanimous in calling them “rip-offs”, almost as if all of them were given the instruction to say this.
3. There is a reference to a few small scenes which according to the reviewers make no sense. One reviewer even said this:
Bizarrely, he seems to be rather aroused by information, at one point inexplicably shown to be touching himself, one hand down the front of his boxers, while reading left-wing material written by his professor. Seriously, I can’t make this stuff up.
Sorry sir, you did make it up. The character was in fact not looking at left-wing material and as confirmed by the director himself, was not even touching himself. Quite a flight of imagination by the reviewer. So apart from focussing on trivialities, reviewers are even “making stuff up”.
4. Most importantly, everyone makes sure to point out that the story is ridiculously unbelievable. Yes, in this cuckoo world, a reviewer gives 4.5 stars to a movie which shows a character who is a top-billed Bollywood actor, running at night on the streets and on rooftops, to catch a nemesis who looks exactly like him. But, the same reviewer calls Buddha in a Traffic Jam’s plot: “preposterous”. Other adjectives used by some other reviewers include: “propaganda”, “unconvincing”, “ridiculous plot”, “laughable”. Sure, it is a simplistic approach to a very complex issue. After all, it is a movie and not a documentary. But is it really “preposterous” when there have been numerous cases of the exact crucial plot point unfolding in real life? (Spoiler alert:1, 2, 3, 4)
5. And most reviews are peppered with inaccurate observations. Examples:
a. Some reviewers question the accent of Arunoday Singh. Maybe they did not hear Arunoday’s character himself saying that he had spent 4 years in USA. What could have been a cinematic accuracy is being questioned by so-called critics now! (and of course another banal point)
b. One review claims that a character pictures his professor while making love to some girl, “orgasming to his master’s voice”, when truly, the movie shows all the different events, which continue to haunt the character even when he should be mentally involved in something else. And for the record, his mind is shown picturing numerous sequences besides his professor too.
c. Another review claims that the Indian School of Business was interchangeably called the Indian Institute of Business at certain points. Hello Mr Reviewer, the movie clearly calls the college the “Indian Institute of Business”, even though it is shot at the real-life ISB. In fact, there is even a statement at the start which says that one shouldn’t conflate the fictional IIB with the real ISB, since the ISB holds different values and beliefs.
They list the above problems, but very clearly the elephant in the room which no “critic” will speak about is this: The movie cuts a bit too close to the bone on occasions. Further, it has the potential to be used as a tool, and in the exact manner as they use their tools. Remember how some “trolls” are branded Sanghi RSS-supporting Hindutva Bigots as soon as one speaks anything pro-Modi or pro-BJP or pro-Hindus or pro-Government and even just anti-Left? This movie shows how some on the Left might be aiding Naxals, and there in lies the fear in the minds of the “critics”: What if we all are labelled Naxalists by the people who watch this movie?
In the end, Buddha in a Traffic Jam doesn’t pretend to offer any solutions to a very complex issue. It simply poses certain questions, which have clearly become uncomfortable to a few: How do we address the very real issue of tribal upliftment? How do we tackle the serious threat of violent Naxalism in parts of India? How do we take care of a small section of the bleeding heart leftist “intellectuals”, who either knowingly or unknowingly are helping Naxalism? Can plain and simple capitalism be a panacea for many ills? How do we get out of this traffic jam?
Watch the movie for its attempt at touching on a topic no-one has dared to talk about. Watch it for some eye-opening possibilities it presents, which have been mirrored in real life. And watch it for being amazingly prophetic, by filming in 2012 (when the movie was actually made), a scene which has played out in real life in 2016, and which has been a focal point of debates for some time. Not really “preposterous” now is it dear reviewers? It is no masterpiece, but it isn’t one to swept under the rug either.
Editor’s note: The director of Buddha in a Traffic Jam has previously written columns on OpIndia.com