Dear Indian Right Wingers,
You have my sincerest condolences. Propaganda films can be dangerous, influential, misleading — and that is what they intend to be. The one true requirement of a propaganda film is that it be effective. Emphatic instruments of (mis)information and awareness, instruments geared to trigger a change in mindset, to squelch a way of thinking and to encourage another. It is frequently unsubtle filmmaking that belabours its point, but its work can also be subversive and sly and admittedly clever.
Buddha In A Traffic Jam is none of those things. Which is why my heart bleeds for the Indian Right-Wingers misled into believing this is the film they need to put their weight behind. Throughout history we have had propaganda films that, while putting forward lethal ideology, have also been cinematic milestones. However, where the Nazis had DW Griffith and Leni Riefenstahl, you guys have Vivek Agnihotri. It’s enough to put the ‘git’ in ‘agitprop.’
Not that Agnihotri thinks of himself as any less exalted, of course, of course. A director who has experimented catastrophically with different genres every single time — poorly plagiarised thriller (Chocolate), sports film (Dhan Dhana Dhan Goal), erotic thriller (Hate Story) — he kicks off this politically posturing film with foolhardy loftiness. The film opens in 2000 BC, with a tribal villager chopping wood, before it cuts to 2014, with the villager still hacking away at it. This is Bastar as Agnihotri sees it, unchanged even as the director, with appalling audacity, bastardises Stanley Kubrick’s iconic opening from 2001: A Space Odyssey. No, really.
The stolen ambition pours into the scene immediately after, as an outsider comes to the tribals and asks for a glass of their famed milk, which he drinks before, well, doing violent things. The Agnihotri Odyssey has artlessly veered into Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, a film it steals from again a couple of minutes later when a girl — whose casting call must have said ‘must look drunk at all times’ — plunges her cigarette rather brutally into her boyfriend’s pastry before launching into a loony song proclaiming herself “a born again b**ch.”
Oh, what pandemonium this is. Set around the story of a business school student being led astray by his red-saluting professor, the film’s mechanics and motivations are laughable. The cast doesn’t help. Arunoday Singh, God’s gift to actors with self-esteem issues, is the curiously accented student. The professor, meanwhile, is played by Anupam Kher, a man it is now admittedly hard to look at without immediately picturing that blonde Patanjali meme, the actor pitching his performance wildly differently from scene to scene.
Arunoday’s character, Vikram Pandit, is a guy who decries Facebook for its pointlessness before, a scene later, embarking on a giant Facebook campaign. He’s a clueless youth who immediately nods along with anyone who has a point of view. Bizarrely, he seems to be rather aroused by information, at one point inexplicably shown to be touching himself, one hand down the front of his boxers, while reading left-wing material written by his professor. Seriously, I can’t make this stuff up. Later in the film, in case you missed the earlier scene, he pictures said professor while making love to some girl. Orgasming to his master’s voice may not be the traditional way to show commitment, but Vikram — who smokes almost as much as he speaks — is all about being a contrarian.
The problem is that we are supposed to like Vikram and his gang, which include the drunk girl, and yet Agnihotri, in his quest to make them cool and hip, makes them utterly obnoxious and loathsome. Yet in a film this feeble, this kind of criticism feels, ironically enough, like nitpicking. I could dedicate this review to the politics of Buddha In A Traffic Jam but that would be doing it too much credit; here there isn’t competence enough for this film to be discussed as a genuine statement of political cinema. This is a senseless product made with bewildering ineptitude, a film that thinks it deserves a soapbox while being utterly hollow. Even Jayant Kripalani, who appears in half a scene, stifles a yawn.
Buddha may well turn out to be a cult film, though not for reasons Agnihotri will like. Few films are this unaware of their own goofiness, and a lot of the absurdity is impossible to sit through with a straight face: the way Pallavi Joshi launches into the history of pottery when asked about her charitable organisation. The way Mahie Gill breaks into a shouty lecture in a library and hurls around the F-word as if wielding a machine-gun. The way Arunoday starts squeaking about Naxals as some alien race who have infiltrated humans and live among us. The way Kher is first reluctant, but then immediately eager, to sing along to an Elvis song.
The plot is preposterous, and by the end of the film, all us critics were laughing in exhausted disbelief. Is this a real movie? Did someone fund this? Is this actually releasing in theatres? In the name of Comrade Jesus, how about a solitary drop of sanity?
Most importantly, who in the world is Anupam Kher’s unseen Papa, constantly calling him on the phone and asking him to turn on the radio?
(Perhaps, given another propaganda ‘movie’ not too long ago, his Papa is MSG. Now that’s a twist I could live with.)
Rating: No stars
First published Rediff, May 13, 2016