With a film like Vivek Agnihotri’s Buddha in a Traffic Jam, it is really difficult to figure out where to begin. Made in 2014 and subsequently shelved, the film recently made headlines when there was an attempt to screen the film at the Jadavpur University Campus without official permission from the University authorities and amid protesting student bodies who found the content of the film to be reactionary and offensive. The screening resulted in a major scuffle between students and members of the saffron brigade that ended up in FIRs and counter FIRs and intervention by University authorities as well as law enforcement bodies. For the next few days, Kolkata could speak of nothing else. With such a backstory associated with a film, one surely expects a blood boiling piece of propaganda, focussed on its discourse, attractive in its style and manipulative in its content. Alas! The result is such a staggeringly poor example of filmmaking that forget propaganda, it makes a Television shot of Baba Ramdev lecturing on Patanjali products, look like serious political cinema!
Even before delving into the plot, the film launches a couple of cinematic assaults right off the bat, that one doesn’t quite recover from. The opening scene which is titled ‘Prologue’ is an apparent tribute to the most famous temporal transition in the history of Cinema. In some warped and twisted homage to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1967), the scene opens as a man of a non-Aryan body type is seen chopping wood as the title card says ‘Bastar, 2000 BC’. The shot cuts to a similar image of a similar man engaged in a similar activity while the title card announces that it’s Bastar, 2014. Having thus defecated on Kubrick’s work, Vivek Agnihotri moves on to Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009). YES, you read that right! The entire first scene from Inglourious…is ripped and ravaged as a Government official enforcing Salwa Judum sits down with the wood chopper and follows the entire routine of a glass of milk, list of names, missing son, ink pad, etc. culminating in violence. All the Tarantino elements were in place but the glaring lack of any sense of craftsmanship made the scene look like something written by Yogi Adityanath and directed by Kanti Shah!
In a nutshell, the film is about a young MBA student played by Arunoday Singh whose enthusiastic idealism and encouragement from his professor played by Anupam Kher, stirs up his interest in the Tribal situation in Bastar and he comes up with a business plan which will financially empower the tribal population. However, in the course of his efforts he encounters shocking revelations about a nexus between the State, intelligentsia and the ultra-Left Maoist groups who are working together to retain their respective power positions and exploiting the tribal population. Setting aside its obvious anti-Left and pro-Big Capital tendencies, what is striking about the film is its utter shallowness and an impudently simplistic attitude about social, economic and political issues. Furthermore, the protagonist of the film and his motives are largely built around a naïve idealism without a defined political grounding, be it left or right. As a result one is unable to sympathize with his ideas since he comes across as a rather muddled and goofy pothead without a clue in life. Consequently the film itself keeps on rambling, unable to take positions till the very last scene where both Singh and Kher face each other in a mother of all hammed up scenes where voices are raised and tears are shed as the student tries to show the teacher, the error of his ways and how an effective online business plan can solve the Maoist issues in the Red Corridors of the country. Hard to believe, but that’s actually the final scene of the film!
However, the film has a fair possibility of attaining a cult status in the coming years since one hasn’t really encountered a piece of mainstream cinematic work in a long time where every aspect, right from idea to the script to the execution is utterly flawed. Looking at the frames, one might think that no one has given it any thought before shooting. Right from compositions to colour palette to use of lens, the images are nothing but a continuous recording of content. Moreover, Agnihotri’s imagination of students seems to be a species that apparently grows, lives and thrives within an environment called the campus. This gives the entire film a rather island like feel, barring a couple of time lapse shots and one shot of the Charminar monument. Otherwise there is no interaction with outside space. Therefore within the first few minutes all the possible shots of classroom, hostel, staff quarters, etc. are exhausted and the rest of the film looks tediously repetitive where there is no progression, either in terms of plot or images. The editing takes the half-hearted absurdity of the film to a new level of stasis. Even the choice of in-point and out-point of shots seems bizarre. In a conversation scene between teacher and student in the office, the shot where the former settles down in his chair actually begins with an image where his pot belly covers most of the frame! But it is certainly the amateurishly executed sound design which will take the prize! The non-existent mixing and mastering of audio tracks almost sounds like a home video and there are quite a few instances where every other line of the same dialogue has a different timbre and tonal quality in a shot-counter shot scenario!
The sole purpose of keeping such sorry excuse for a film under the radar is that it articulates the very zeitgeist of the BJP era. There has been quite a few releases such as Wazir, Airlift and Neerja to name a few, which attempts at positing an enemy ideal and enemy body, the classic other. In case of Buddha…, it is the same routine for the enemy within. However, it should be kept in mind that this film revolves around issues like Bastar, NGOs, and campus and student movements and was already completed in 2014. And now that all these issues have started making headlines, there is hardly any room for any illusion about the current government’s policies and inclinations when it comes to Tribal rights, higher education system and the overall democratic fibre of the nation.
Arup Ratan Samajdar
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