First, there were unauthorised Hindi-language copies of Southern films. Then there were authorised remakes. Now we have Southern directors remaking their own films in the North Indian language. That is progress in an industry with a famously lax attitude towards copyright. Recruiting Malayalam director Rajesh Pillai to reshoot his own film for a national audience should have been as easy as switching on the engine.
Pillai’s 2011 Malayalam hit cleverly managed to combine elements from the Mexican movie Amores Perros and a real-life incident involving a heart transplant in Chennai in 2009. Doctors worked closely with the Chennai traffic police to ensure a clear corridor for an ambulance carrying a heart that needed to be transplanted. The widely publicised incident proved that when our notoriously addle-brained citizens manage to get their act together, they can put on one solid show.
In Traffic, several lives intersect over a heart transplant procedure: the parents of a young man who lies brain dead in a hospital in Mumbai, the star actor and his wife whose rapidly diminishing daughter in Pune is the intended recipient of the patient’s heart, a corrupt traffic constable who gets to prove himself when he is asked to drive the vehicle bearing the vital organ between the two cities, the enthusiastic traffic police chief who oversees the operation, and a murderous doctor.
In the Malayalam movie, the various plot strands are intertwined to the point of throttling narrative logic. Yet, Pillai and writers Sanjay and Bobby make it work by creating credible characters and a sense of urgency and moral imperative to the business of saving a rich man’s daughter. The Hindi version straightens out the creases in the original, and we are sure somebody is feeling very proud of having thrown out the numerous flashbacks and the incessant inter-cutting between storylines.
But in the process, the essence of the original – and the reason it worked with audiences – has been lost. There’s none of the energy and drive in the Hindi Traffic. There is a beating heart waiting to be transported and transplanted and all possible resources are deployed to do so, but Pillai is unable to recreate the same sense of urgency. The characters are dull and unlikable and are far more poorly sketched than in the original. The acting is strictly efficient despite such names as Manoj Bajpayee, Prosenjit and Sachin Khedekar in the cast.
The actor, Dev Kapoor (Prosenjit), puts tremendous pressure on the potential donor’s family through politicians (even the Governor makes a call on his behalf) , which is the only reason the entire traffic police department is galvanised into action. The operation gives the characters of the traffic constable (Bajpayee) and a doctor with murder on his mind (Parambrata Chatterjee) a chance to redeem themselves. In this movie’s scheme of relative morality and celebration of entitlement and privilege, nobody stops to ask whether such efforts would have been taken for a poorer and less connected patient. Whether it’s the original or the remake, Traffic proves that when you are influential and wealthy, the road ahead will be free of obstacles and all signals will miraculously turn green with a few phone calls.