Vivek Agnihotri’s Buddha in a Traffic Jam severely lacks artistic merit, but it will forever be entrenched in memory as one of the zeitgeist films of the Modi era.
Though the film was completed in 2012, it was never actually released in theatres. But the protests at educational institutions such as Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University and Kolkata's Jadavpur University have offered Agnihotri the perfect opportunity to reheat his rather-insipid product.
An advertising filmmaker who has previously made the deeply ordinary Chocolate and Goal, Agnihotri has been working hard to package his narrative as a polemical tract about India's present and future. He has also done his bit to contribute to the troubles at Jadavpur and other campuses: he has gone out of his way to claim that his film is "controversial" and then, when screenings at colleges have faced protests, has screamed himself hoarse about the attacks on his freedom of expression.
The biggest protest to be made about this 115-minute film is on grounds of bad taste. Its Ground Zero is Bastar, where underclothed Adivasis are squeezed between nostril-flaring Naxalites and the governent-sponsored Salwa Judum militia. The action then shifts to a college modelled on the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad, where hunky student Vikram (Arunoday Singh) is sprouting a brain and a conscience. Outraged by a police crackdown on pubs, Vikram organises a “Pink Bra” campaign (a reference to the Pink Chaddi protest) and feels very good about himself.
Vikram’s conscience is given more growth hormones by his professor Ranjan (Anupam Kher), his do-gooder wife Sheetal (Pallavi Joshi), and activist Charu (Mahie Gill). With Charu’s help, Sheetal employs women from Bastar villages to make pots. When a crucial grant from the Centre is stopped because of a crackdown on non-governmental groups working in the impoverished region, Ranjan challenges Vikram to create real (rather than virtual) change by coming up with a plan to sell the unsold pots.
Until the point where Vikram gives a presentation on creating an online business model that will rescue Sheetal’s project, Buddha in a Traffic Jam is sincere (though pretentious) attempt to lecture MBA fat cats about the need to pay attention to the underprivileged. Soon enough, however, the true intentions of Ranjan and Charu become clear: we learn that they are not wine-swilling liberals but Maoists with connections to the aforementioned nostril-flaring guerillas of Bastar. And thus, the movie begins its inexorable slide.
The ridiculousness of the plot has its edifying moments. Such declarations as “industrialists will lead the country into a new era of growth” and “cut out the middlemen” reflect the current government’s veneration of business solutions for social problems. Warnings about the “red menace”, which has apparently infected just about every aspect of Indian public life, sound like direct quotes from the speeches of Baba Ramdev and Mohan Bhagwat.
The characters played by Mahie Gill and Anupam Kher (who has like Agnihotri, reinvented himself in real life as an ultra-nationalist) are meant to serve as warnings that, when we weren’t looking, leftists invaded the campuses and the non-profit sector. The scene in which Vikram dreams that he is surrounded by zombie-like waves of leftists is truly special. “Anybody can be a Naxal,” he says. "Are you a Naxal?"
Fortunately, Agnihotri isn't as skilled a propagandist as Leni Riefenstahl and more a modern-day Don Quixote. As he sallies forth against the windmills of his imagination, his political and economic prescriptions for a better India get the better of his storytelling. And to think that it all began with a pile of unsold pots.