Sitting in that darkened cinema hall, watching Madhur Bhandarkar’s Traffic Signal, I felt like someone had slapped me across the face really hard. I think most people who will pay to watch this film will come away feeling cheated because it’s very clear that there’s nothing to this film. No plot, no treatment, no performances.
The director has said that it’s his final chapter in his trilogy of expose films after Page 3 and Corporate, but if you ask me, the only thing that Bhandarkar exposes with Traffic Signal is himself. I refuse to believe there was ever a script for this film, I’m guessing they just shot whatever came to their mind on the set.
Give a handicam to a 15-year-old, and I’m willing to bet he’ll make a better film than this. And it’s not like Bhandarkar isn’t talented, it’s not like he doesn’t know how to tell a story. Chandni Bar was a deeply moving film, even Page 3 was quite clever in parts. But Traffic Signal just seems like a dishonest attempt on Bhandarkar’s part to cash in on his reputation as a filmmaker of small, realistic pictures.
It’s hard to explain what this film is about, because it’s about nothing, quite frankly. Set in a busy, crowded part of Mumbai, the film follows the lives of all those people who live and work around a traffic signal, and whose livelihood depends in many ways on that traffic signal.
So the protagonists of this film are beggars, flower-sellers, pavement dwellers, prostitutes, eunuchs and drug addicts. I think the point that Bhandarkar may have been trying to drive through this film is that even begging is an industry today, a well-networked business that’s linked to the underworld, to the police and to politicians in power.
I wish he’d realised however, that most people who read the papers and who follow the news would know of the beggar mafia already, so he’s not really exposing anything here because it’s an old truth, yesterday’s news actually, one that people are aware of and have made peace with unfortunately. Yet, I think that had Bhandarkar told that story with some passion and some real drama, you might have been moved. But sadly, he tells the story so impassionately and so indifferently that you find yourself as unaffected by it as he himself seems to be.
Evidently Traffic Signal is not so much a plot-driven film as it is a character-driven picture. And Bhandarkar creates a motley group of oddballs to suck you into the story. Like the dark-skinned beggar boy who spends most of his earnings on fairness cream, or the druggie who’s fallen for a hooker but is too stoned to tell her, or the eunuchs who complain that there are beauty pageants for men and for women but nothing for their lot. Or then the little rag-picker who pours his earnings into long-distance telephone calls to inquire for any news on his parents who were separated from him in the tsunami.
These characters Bhandarkar manages to create convincingly, investing them with some believability. But he fails so badly with most others whom he turns into mere caricatures. Like that middle-aged businessman’s buxom but bickering trophy wife who taunts him about his sexual inadequacies every time their Mercedes pulls up at the traffic light.
Listing the flaws in this film would take me all day, but to put it briefly, the problem with Bhandarkar’s new film is that it’s going in no particular direction because it’s following no particular blueprint.
In the absence of a screenplay, the plot just meanders endlessly till you’re exhausted by all the going around in circles.
In the end you’re expected to feel sympathy and sorrow for this oddball bunch who’ll no doubt be displaced when the traffic light’s been demolished. But because the director fails to involve you in their lives and fails to connect you with their pain, you feel nothing at all for them.
Of all the actors it’s only Konkona Sensharma who’s able to bring a shred of credibility to her part, while the rest — every single one of them — Kunal Khemu, Ranvir Shorey, newcomer Neetu Chandra and the others fail to rise above the sorry script.
Watching Traffic Signal is like being taken for a ride because it’s one of those slap-dash films that’s made with no sincerity. I think it’s very clear Bhandarkar’s just taking it for granted that whatever he makes will be lapped up by an audience hungry for something different from formula Bollywood films.
But someone please tell him he can’t bore us to death with this uninspiring story of clichéd characters and forced humour. So then that’s two thumbs down for Madhur Bhandarkar’s Traffic Signal. This movie has to be seen to be believed. On second thought, maybe that’s a price too high to pay. You want to see a real film about pavement dwellers, watch Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay. It’s light years ahead of Traffic Signal.