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Traffic (dir. Rajesh Pillai, 2011)

This post first appeared on Totally Filmi on December 30, 2011.

A cinema superstar.  A discredited traffic constable.  A surgeon about to celebrate his first year wedding anniversary.  A young journalist just starting his first day on the job.  Their friends, their partners, their families, their colleagues.  All of these seemingly disparate people connected on one day, by one thing: 


Traffic’s multi-narrative story is dense and complex, using hyper-link structure to move back and forth through time, and through the various stories, to gradually peel back the layers of the intrigue.  Time loops back on itself, and we see similar moments in the film from different perspectives;  characters tip in and out of each other’s stories, sometimes just on the fringes, sometimes connecting to each other in ways we don’t expect.


Traffic is a film about affairs of the heart, both emotional and physical.  The young journalist, Rehan (Vineeth Sreenivasan) goes everywhere with his best friend Rajeev (Asif Ali), but he’s also in love with the recently divorced Aditi (Sandhya).  Rehan is angry with his father(Saikumar) for not pulling strings to help him get a job – but his father is proud that Rehan managed to get a good job on his own, and happily phones around to tell people to watch the interview Rehan will do with the megastar Siddarth (Rahman).

Siddarth is adored by his fans, and meticulously controls every aspect of his career and image, treating his wife and daughter as mere props in his publicity machine.  His daughter, Priya (Namitha Pramod), however, is ill with a serious heart condition, and on the same day her father’s latest film is released, she goes into serious decline and will require a heart transplant in order to survive.

And miraculously, a heart becomes available, because of a traffic accident that leaves one of the characters on life support without a chance of survival.  Families must come to terms with the loss of a loved one, must face the difficult moral challenge of precipitating death and balance it against the opportunity to save a life in the process.

However, there is a bit of a spanner in the works.  There are no flights available to take the heart from Kochi to the hospital in Palakkad, where Priya lies dying.  That leaves a road trip – and the distance must be covered in under two hours in order for the heart to still be viable to be transplanted.  Police Commissioner Ajmal Nazar (Anoop Menon) is asked to head up this mission, but he has serious doubts that it can succeed, and initially refuses to undertake it.  In the end, he agrees, and asks for a volunteer to drive the van, a dangerous and difficult trip.  Sudevan Nair (Sreenivasan) sees an opportunity to redeem himself (especially in the eyes of his daughter, who is ashamed of her father for having taken a bribe), and offers to be the driver. 


He takes two passengers with him – Rajeev, and Dr. Abel Thariyan (Kunchacko Boban), the surgeon who makes a shattering discovery about his marriage on the day of his first year anniversary.  The three set out, and seem to be making record time.  Everything is going smoothly.  And then?


Yup. The van disappears. Just in time for this:


The second half of the film deals with what happens to the van and its occupants, and has us on the edge of our seats wondering if the mission will be a success. 

I would love to say more about the second half of the film, which not only unravels the mystery of the missing van, but also serves to draw all these seemingly disparate relationships together in surprising and unexpected ways.  But to do so would ruin the film, and as it’s a film I love to bits and wish everyone would see, I would hate to do that.

Because I do, quite simply, adore this film.  I’m not sure it’s the best use of the hyper-link structure I’ve seen, nor of the use of overlapping and looping storylines (I think the Chinese film Crazy Stone and the Japanese film Stranger of Mine might be better), but that said, for me, this was a terrific, terrific film.  It was emotional without being maudlin, it was actually funny (in a subtle way – for example, Sudevan, disgraced for taking a bribe, must lie and bribe the right person in order to be reinstated), it was tender, and most of all, it was thrilling right to the very end.

There is not one performance, even in the smallest role, that disappoints, but Rahman, as the megastar Siddarth, is particularly outstanding.  Rahman shows us a man who meticulously controls every aspect of his image, constantly doing his make-up, checking lighting, making sure his family poses Just So in photographs. 


When his daughter Priya slips a reporter a list of questions she would like asked of her father, his responses are predictable (when asked who her best friend is, he responds, “Me.”) or carefully crafted (when asked who her favorite teacher is, Siddarth requests that the camera be turned off so he can ask Priya, because he really has no clue.  Then he allows the camera to roll and he acts as if he knew the answer in the first place). 

Siddarth uses his star power and connections to influence what happens to his daughter, but his wife (Lena, who provides the film with one of my favorite moments when she finally allows her anger and frustration to explode) accuses him of doing it only to increase his prestige and massage his already overblown ego.  “You’re the biggest failure as her father,” she tells him, and we see a momentary flicker of doubt, a brief crack in Siddarth’s usual armour of control, a crack that widens when the journalist, at the hospital covering Priya’s story, gives Siddarth the list of questions Priya wanted him to answer, driving home the point that he really has neglected his daughter.


Vineeth Sreenivasan’s role is brief, but I loved his Rehan – we can feel his nervousness in the interview for his first job, and his desire to do something that matters to him.  I love the fact that when Rehan is asked what his favorite Malayalam film is, he responds, “Classmates”.  Just out of school himself, he still relates to a film that perfectly captures college days.  He’s excited and nervous practicing his introduction to the interview he will do with Siddarth, which his mother and his friend Rajeev happily record on their phones.  And I loved his friendship with Rajeev, the two of them happily riding around on Rajeev’s scooter and sharing a late-night snack, both of them enjoying this stage of their lives.


Everything about Traffic is meticulously crafted and understated, perhaps surprising in a thriller that relies on speed and action and pacing to keep us on the edge of our seats right until the film’s closing frames.  Director Rajesh Pillai and writers Bobby & Sanjay crafted a film that entertained me and surprised me.  For a film about affairs of the heart, it caused my own heart to swell or break with every twist and turn in the story.  Traffic winds and intertwines, right up to its breathtaking conclusion.

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