Well, sort of stuck in traffic, sort of got lost on the way and took a detour. Either way, appropriate! The point is, I got it two days late because someone at the mail center in India messed up and put in the wrong digit for my zip code, which meant it went to Dunkerton, Idaho, before it made its way to me. Actually, kind of remarkably it was only 2 days late, since that’s several hundred miles away from me. Also, remarkably, the funky Indian website where I ordered it was not at fault! I checked the original packaging and packing slip, and they had everything right, it was only when it was handed over to the private shipping company that it got messed up.
But, All’s Well that End’s Well, I finally got my DVD, and I was able to watch it in bits last night and while getting ready for work this morning.
(update: Moviemavingal just posted her take on it, including why it is and isn’t like the American style hyperlinks)
It’s a movie that does surprisingly well in spurts. Kind of like Bajrangi Bhaijaan, the structure is for a series of different tones segregated into different 10 to 20 minute chunks. Only, Bajrangi Bhaijaan just did that as a structural decision, I think Traffic is doing something a little deeper with how the structure plays out.
Traffic is a “hyperlink” movie, which is the cool new term for a narrative that follows an assortment of different characters who all interact at some point in the story (often the ending or beginning, sometimes both), and some subset of whom will interact off and on through out the narrative (a and b, then b and c, then c and a, then d and a, and so on), but mostly have their own concerns and lives. It also often uses techniques of splitscreen, montage, and occasionally changing narrative style, like including news footage or home movies or similar.
“Hyperlink” is the new term, meaning it reflects the experience of reading something on the internet and following a series of links through to other content, and is identified with fairly modern films. However, this narrative style has been around for decades, even before film. John Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy, for instance, used a variety of styles, jumped back and forth in time, and followed a loosely connected group of characters. The Bridge of San Luis Rey is another Great American Novel which uses a similar method, in that one starting with a group of characters who all die when a bridge collapses, and then working backward to show what in their lives lead to that moment.
(Great American Novel. But I’ve never read it, because, Depressing!)
In Indian film, you can point to multiple possible “hyperlink” films, but I think the greatest modern one has got to be Mani Ratnam’s Yuva/Aaytha Ezhuthu. Which, in a nod to Thorton Wilder’s novel, was originally supposed to be called Howrah Bridge, and which uses the same opening of a massive event taking place on a bridge and then going back and watching how all the characters reached that point. I mean, I know Howrah Bridge is like THE symbol of Calcutta, but he didn’t have to use it exactly this way. Or even set the film in Calcutta and thereby reasonably use a Bridge scene as his opener.
What I think makes Mani Ratnam’s film, and Indian films in general that have the “hyperlink” style, interesting, is how nicely it interacts with the established Indian film structure including intermission, multiple side stories, flashbacks, and tone changes. Heck, even something like Amar Akbar Anthony could arguably be considered a hyperlink film!
(With a plot that makes Traffic looks like kid’s play)
So, this movie! We start with an accident, then flash forward ten minutes to the driver describing the accident to the police, and then go back about 4 weeks to watch various people going about their lives, then come back to the same accident after a song has covered the 4 week interval in montage, then we go straight through in time, while still breaking occasionally for quick flashbacks as characters remember what motivates their actions.
It’s a cool way to structure the movie, but it also ties in with what, I think, is the main theme of the movie. It’s all about second chances. We see where things went wrong, we see how they can be put back. The title is Traffic, but it could just as easily have been “Detour”, and that might have been even more accurate. All of these characters took a detour in their lives, got on the wrong track, but they kept going and eventually ended up in an even better place. Just like what happens in a pivotal moment of the film, they are forced off the main road, take a wrong turn, and end up back on the main road, even further along than they would have been if they had gone right all along.
I also like that the ways they went wrong are so varied. Way at the beginning, we are introduced to our hero’s love interest, who has just finalized her divorce. Our hero tells her that she made a mistake but should forget it and start over. A lowly traffic cop begs to be put back on the force after being caught taking a bribe. And, of course, the female driver accidentally ran a red light and is now hoping for a second chance from the police after leaving the scene of the accident. Their mistakes range from deadly to greedy to simple errors of judgement, but all of their lives have now been shoved off track.
I also like that it’s not all wrong-wrong-wrong, right-right-right. At the beginning, we have a police officer feeling down because his life is a mess, but we also have the doctor super happy with his life, and the divorced woman feeling like her life is finally back to where it is supposed to be. In Yuva, for instance, the hyperlink was used to show how all three sets of characters were following similar routes. Falling in love, getting involved in politics, everything happening similarly to these disconnected young people. Which was the point, that in one large city, three young men will have similar concerns and problems, but will still end up in conflict with each other. But in this, the point is that at the same time one person is happy, another is sad, and another is recovering from sadness. That both happiness and sorrow is inevitable.
(Couldn’t find the song from Traffic, so here! Enjoy an AR Rahman classic with Ajay being cute!)
The biggest instance of this theme, is of course the heart transplant that the entire mission revolves around. Our hero is dead, but even dead, he has a chance to save a life and change the direction of another story. And what is sorrow for his parents and friends can become joy for another family. Also, I like anything that promotes organ transplants in India, because they need to be promoted!
(Again, couldn’t find a song from Traffic. So enjoy yet another AR Rahman classic, also promoting organ transplant!)
The characters are also pretty great in this. Not deep, because they don’t have to be deep, we don’t need to see a whole like childhood backstory and all that. We just see enough to outline them as distinct people with distinct personalities and character types. The doctor is calm and relaxed in stressful situations, see his reaction when we first meet him and his car is stopped by a traffic cop. Therefore, it makes sense that he could hide his emotions later, even when they are over-whelming him. The traffic cop is quiet and decent, primarily concerned with looking good in the eyes of his wife and daughter. Therefore, it makes sense that he might be underestimated by his superiors and enemies, but the audience knows that he has a motivation which makes him willing to go above and beyond. Our hero’s friend is a nice boy, maybe a bit of a flirt, not quite grown up, who has probably never had anything bad or serious happen to him before. Therefore, he is extra dedicated to the effort here, since it feels like he can fix this one first mistake.
My favorite character, or at least the one I was most interested in, was the movie star. Because I am always extra interested when movies deal with movies. I loved the way his power and influence was in everybody’s life, not just his ability to control government ministers and police, but the way his posters and films were a part of everyone’s lives even before he officially interacted with any of the other characters.
Actually, my first thought was that he was really controlling everything, that there would be a reveal he had arranged for the accident to begin with because he knew the heart would be a match for his daughter. I mean, the hero was even on his way to meet the movie star for an interview! The end could have been a flashback showing how he knew everything and made it happen. It would have been super cool! But this is a cool movie too, having him ultimately be just as controlled by fate as any other character.
And I loved loved loved how they handled the movie star’s family relationships. My favorite scene of the movie actually was when he was giving the TV interview/photo shoot with his family, talking about how close he was with them, how much he loved them and so on, and his wife and daughter were sitting on the side looking at each other and giggling. They just had no respect, or patience, for any of his games. It was great! It wasn’t even like the cared/respected him enough to make a big deal about it or get angry. They just thought it was funny, how he was pretending to be a good guy. And I liked it even more when the daughter sent the note to the interviewer to ask questions which would reveal his lack of knowledge/interest in his family. Because she didn’t seem to do it out of bitterness or anger, just sort of thought it would be amusing to watch him squirm. And maybe wanted to share the joke with someone else, let the film crew see how fake he was.
And I loved how when their daughter was sick, her mother held onto her husband as a fellow parent, but still had no patience with all his “ooo, I’m a big movie star!” stuff. When he tried to terrify the doctor into doing what they needed, she just grabbed the phone away from him and turned it into a plea from a mother. And when their daughter was finally possibly saved, she let him know that he could be a part of their life if he wanted to, but he would have to work for it, and they didn’t really need him.
Least favorite part was how they left the poor divorced woman hanging. Yes, her boyfriend’s parents came to her house, but I would have liked a little more definitive closure on her grief, maybe even a hint that she could start a romance with someone else? I know I know, her lover just died like an hour ago, but I’ve seen it happen faster than that in plenty of movies! Remember Rab Ne Bana di Jodi? They married her off the day after her fiance died, and that worked out just fine!
My favorite actual action sequence, not related to characters or anything, just how it looked, was the ending bit when they had to drive through the slums and everyone was hopping in and out of the car chasing people in front of them. That was really really cool, on every level. A great usage of space, clearly edited and filmed so you could understand who was where when, and a really clever set up, with the hero’s friend knowing how to get through because he used to buy bootleg DVDs there, and the movie star being able to reach out to his local fan club to help out.
All of the film was shot in a similar manner. Very clear as to what is happening, even when it is moving through complicated space, cutting from one car to another, one side of the intersection to the other, always letting the audience know where everyone is in relation to each other and, more importantly, what is happening and at what time. It wasn’t showy, I wasn’t watching it going “wow, that is great camera work and editing!”, but when it was over, if I wanted to draw a diagram of the plot and who was doing what and at what time and so on, I totally could! Considering how complex the whole thing was, that means the film work must have been remarkably clear and communicative.
There weren’t that many songs, which was fine because there was too much plot to get through to allow time for songs. The most important one was the first one, showing everyone going about their life before they were brought together. And really, having one excellent song sequence in a film is better than having 5 lame ones.
(Again, I can’t find the song I actually want, so here, enjoy the title song from Amar Akbar Anthony!)
I should also say, this movie was much more complex and enjoyable than Mili, but Mili was shot in an even more expert manner. Which just makes me more sad that the director died so young. I would have loved to see what he could have done with a plot like Traffic and the skills he learned since then.