Saturday, May 19, 2007


Madhur Bhandarkar is one of the best independent Indian directors currently working. He eschews the glitzy escapist froth of standard Bollywood fare and focuses on exposing the brutal reality of life in modern India. His films, PAGE 3 and CORPORATE exposed the corruption, venality and crass materialism of Indian high society and big business respectively. With TRAFFIC SIGNAL, Bhandarkar turns his attention to the life of street vendors who hawk goods and scam passers by.

PAGE 3 was originally released in 2005 to great acclaim thanks to the bravery of the subject matter, the outstanding central performances, the fast narrative pace and the accomplished hand-held camera-work from Madhu Rao. The movie focuses on an idealist young journalist (Bhandarkar regular, Konkona Sen Sharma) who gets assigned to writing the society gossip column of a major Mumbai newspaper by her editor (Boman Irani). She becomes a proxy for the audience as we are dazzled by the immorality of the film moguls. This is especially ironic in an industry that won't typically show kissing on screen. However, the most interesting strand of the film is seeing the impact of the corruption on the journalist herself - whether her own professional ambition will allow her to cross the paths of the powerful people she threatens to expose. It's a terrific film - one of the best Indian movies I've seen in the last ten years. It deservedly won the Filmfare Best Screenplay award for Nina Arora and Manoj Tyagi and Bhandarkar won India's Golden Lotus award.

Bhandarkar followed PAGE 3 with CORPORATE, released in 2006. Once again Bhandarkar teamed up with Manoj Tyagi to work up a fast-paced tightly plotted script exposing government corruption, corporate dirty tricks, chemical pollutants and sexual discrimination. Unlike PAGE 3 and TRAFFIC SIGNAL, the central female protagonist is played by Bispasha Basu, who looks rather unlikely as the ambitious young executive but turns in an okay performance. I also think the more conventional camera-work of Mahesh Limaye saps the film's energy. Still, CORPORATE is well worth checking out, though less accomplished than PAGE 3.

In 2007, Bhandarkar produced his latest film, TRAFFIC SIGNAL. Homeless kids, prostitutes, drug addicts, people who are simply poor....all pay protection money to a smart young man called Silsila, who in turn pays off a sinister mafia boss. At the top level, corruption stretches to "removing" an honest planning officer who refuses to move a fly-over that to suit the business needs of the local gang. TRAFFIC SIGNAL has the ring of truth and Bhandarkar adds authenticity by shooting mostly on location on the streets of Mumbai. Moreover, with the exception of Konkona Sen Sharma, most of the cast will be unfamiliar to audiences.

Is the movie up to the standard of PAGE 3? Arguably not. I don't understand why art films have to have music tracks that are badly lip synched by dancing cast members. More fundamentally, TRAFFIC SIGNAL lacks the underlying current of outrage and the narrative pace of PAGE 3. But then, PAGE 3 had an earnest, crusading journalist at its heart, and her outrage set the tone. By contrast, while TRAFFIC SIGNAL does feature a decent charity worker as one of its many characters, the central figure is the mafiosi middle-man Silsila. So it follows that the movie feels more like a hands-off documentary. Still, I must confess that the movie - structured around vignettes - meanders a little, and an hour in I wandered if anything really would happen. Having said that, for an audience unfamiliar with the harsh reality of street life in India, narrative weaknesses be damned: this is powerful viewing.

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