Sunday, March 20, 2011

4 Carats in Silver: On Corruption

I'm starting a new series of themed posts called 4 Carats in Silver because I want to have a dedicated place to talk about those films that in my humble opinion deserve far more eye balls than they got. Whether they failed to market properly, or they just didn't click with the audiences in India, or they didn't have well known actors, for whatever reason there seem to be a ton of little brilliant films that are worthy of a lot more appreciation, but because they're not in your face and obnoxious, they get buried in the pile. I may join a few together by themes, or I may just talk about one.

Today's episode has a theme and that's "the chain of corruption".

Two films impressed me recently with their brilliance on the topic: Traffic Signal and Well Done Abba. We get tons of films that in one way or another expose corruption, but I appreciated these two for the way they travel across the whole chain without making any apologies. Unlike most films that polarize the corrupt characters on one side and the good hearted, honest ones on the other side, these two films don't take any firm sides: sure some characters are more likable than others, and some have bigger hearts than others which makes us root for them, but there is no "good fighting against evil", there's mostly the good hearted fighting against the people who profit the most. Having umpteen examples myself of such situations from my home country, I can always appreciate a good film that deals with corruption.

Traffic Signal
is a film about the wheelings and dealings of a troupe of beggars and street vendors at... a traffic signal. Madhur Bhandarkar may not do very well with film climaxes, but he sure has a great eye for creating environments that just suck you in. This is the type of film where each character, however small, does its part in painting the mural, and despite the relatively short time spent on some of them, we never feel like there is anything missing. In fact, the environment takes over the film so completely that the actual events, while important, get overshadowed by the very world in which they take place. Some see this as Bhandarkar's biggest weakness, but I consider it a rare quality that not many directors have. A world that stays with me after the events of the film are said and done is far more satisfying that knowing what happened to each character. In a way his films remind me of Pieter Bruegel the Elder's paintings: you can never focus too much on a specific character because something else draws your attention, but at the same time the theme of the painting is present in each section.

Pieter Bruegel - The Fight between Carnival and Lent

If there is another main character in Traffic Signal other than the stop lights that would be Silsila (Kunal Khemu), the signal manager, whose name (translating as chain, series, sequence) is a metaphor for the whole industry of begging of which he is the smallest king. He's the one that collects the taxes from every "employee" at the traffic signal, but he also considers everyone at the intersection his own family. My favourite scene from the film involves Silsila telling the story of his success, how he went from being an orphan to being the signal manager. The pride he takes in telling the story of his ascension, the admiration shown by everyone else listening to the story, and the absurdity of what "being successful" means in their world make this scene heartbreaking.

Kunal Khemu is one of very few actors whose acting I simply cannot evaluate. He's so intensely beautiful that it turns my brain off. I really don't know if he's any good, but it seemed to me that he nailed this role. Of course, it could just be the tan and the guyliner around his eyes throwing me off completely, I'll never know.

But that's not too essential because so many other colourful characters make this scenery so intriguing: prostitutes (male and female), news paper sellers, beggars, flower girls, and all kinds of other little entrepreneurs trying to make a living. Each of them tells a story and Bhandarkar's fine spirit of observation ensures that each additional character brings up yet another social theme: floods, gay prostitution, love, drugs, the credibility that a suit gives you, and even that strange desire for whiter skin.

What I found refreshing about this film was that everyone is comfortable with their role in the chain, the signal manager is not seen as an oppressor but rather as a provider, and as the chain of command goes up we are shown the interdependency between all these layers all the way up to the politicians and big businessmen. The comprehensive way in which the chain is presented is, of course, the best sequence of scenes in the film.

Traffic Signal is a film full of ironies: how something as small as a set of stop lights can change the biggest plans, how even the richest rely on the street beggars to keep their businesses going, how the people one looks up to will be the ones to bring about their downfall... and finally Silsila's trajectory - the biggest irony of them all. But again, it's not the chain of events that make this film brilliant, it's the virtuosity with which it navigates across social statuses and business hierarchies to make this chain come full circle, that's where the 4 carats lie hidden. Sadly, the last irony is that most film critics did not see past the chain of events.


Well Done Abba
is far less complex than Traffic Signal, but no less rewarding. Well Done Abba tells the story of a villager who is trying to make ends meet by working as a driver in the city, to care for his daughter and his good for nothing brother and sister-in-law. He learns about a government program that finances people under the poverty line to get wells built in his arid village, but soon he finds out not everything is as easy as it seems. With the generous "help" of a long chain of corrupt officials, by the time he receives all the money from the government it has all been promised or spent on bribes. What he and his daughter do in the second half of the film to get their well back is the most absurd and hilarious battle I've seen in recent memory.

Once again, the universe of the film is vividly populated with all kinds of characters, all with their petty motivations. The way they relate to each other and the mechanics of this well-oiled machinery of corruption are the main source of giggles and snorts in the first half of the film. It may look like your typical poor villagers versus evil government, but the catch is the good guys are not all good, except for the lovely Muskan (Minissha Lamba) and the charming Arif Ali (Sammir Dattani), and the bad guys are not all bad either. They're just looking out for themselves.

The photoshop savvy photographer

One of the many officials needed for the loan

The good for nothing twin brother and sister in law

But the show stopper is by far the wonderful Boman Irani who plays the good hearted but... slightly slow on the uptake Armaan Ali to perfection!

It's impossible to talk too much about Well Done Abba without spoiling the fun in the second half, but I found it so very rewarding on a basic social justice level. It's a simple story with well integrated songs and some great acting all around but what makes it shine for me is the level of absurdity in the second half. Indian films do a lot of other types of comedy, but absurd comedy is not very common in the films I have seen so far, so for that alone I hold it in high regard, as this is one of my favourite kinds of comedy. And yes, I am an unabashed fan of Monty Python and the like.

Plus, even if one doesn't appreciate the absurd like I do, you can at least revel in numerous shots of Minissha Lamba's beautiful face framed by a variety of brightly coloured scarves.

And if that doesn't do it for you, then there's always Sammir Dattani

Though in all honesty I hope the absurdity of the chain of corruption and how the story tackles them does become everyone's number one reason for loving this film, even if so far that has been a very slow process if we go by the film's box office reports. I can still hope though...


Radical said...

hey Lady..good to see a new post here!

looking fwd to other additions in this new train of thoughts!:)!

Mette said...

I'm excited to read more of this project. And I haven't forgotten, that you recommended Traffic Signal to me, so that I could convince myself of Madhur Bhandarkar's talent. I will (but Corporate showed some of it, already).
Haaaa... that problem with actors, when you don't know if they're talented. I know it just too well... :)

Dolce and Namak said...

Hey Vistrit, oh there will be quite a few new additions, I seem to like a lot of films that didn't become super hits, so I'll be gladly talking about them in the future :)

@ Lime(tte) - ha! Corporate is the only one I haven't seen. But I plan to, very soon. I like MB's capacity to create these alternate worlds. I like the guy, I have liked most of his stuff so far, the only place where he disappoints is weak endings: Traffic Signal is also guilty of that: too filmi. Chandni Bar so far had the best ending but sadly Tabu completely ruined that film for me. :( You should come back and tell me what you thought of TS when you get around to watching it.

Toodles ladies!

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