From fake laurels to manufactured outrage to a deliberately simplistic view of ground realities, there is much that is dishonest about Vivek Agnihotri’s ‘Buddha in a Traffic Jam’.
Buddha in a Traffic Jam
Director: Vivek Agnihotri
Starring: Arunoday Singh, Anupam Kher, Mahie Gill, Pallavi Joshi, Anchal Dwivedi
I should have been more pissed. After all, I’d come all the way to Rajarhat and run up four escalators so as not to be late for the noon show of Buddha in a Traffic Jam, only to be told by the box office guy that the show had been cancelled since I was the only one who’d showed up. This meant that instead of spending the next couple of hours in an air-conditioned hall, I’d have to walk back out in the 94 percent humidity and find a bus to office—where I would attempt to go reverse Sylvia Plath and stick my head into the AC in search of relief—and rearrange my plans for the day in order to catch a later show. I was already annoyed at myself for not waking up in time to make it to an earlier show at Quest, and cranky that Raja Sen’s excellent review of the film had already beaten me to the best possible one-liner about it: “It’s enough to put the ‘git’ in ‘agitprop’.”
But it wasn’t annoyance that I felt. After the initial disappointment had receded, it was replaced by a perverse satisfaction. Shows being cancelled because of lack of audience was the best possible response to a piece of naked propaganda such as this. Much as I was appalled at the hooliganism of the ABVP activists during the screening of the film at Jadavpur University the week before, I had disagreed with the decision to stage a boycott of the film in the first place. Not only did the boycott allow director Vivek Agnihotri to claim the moral high ground by whining about the threat to his freedom of expression—and his person, and car—it gave the film unnecessary free publicity.
The makers were spoiling for a fight in order to get the film mainstream attention. In March, Anupam Kher claimed that JNU had refused permission for a screening, though the university clarified that it had not. At Jadavpur, too, the authorities mysteriously gave permission only to revoke it on the day of the screening, citing the model code of conduct being in place due to the state elections.
After the initial disappointment had receded, it was replaced by a perverse satisfaction. Shows being cancelled because of lack of audience was the best possible response to a piece of naked propaganda such as this.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not as if no one would have heard of this film had the students of Jadavpur not tried to set up a fascism-free safe space on their campus. Agnihotri and his cast keep talking about how they want the film to be shown to college students throughout the country, and even if every campus decided to boycott and somehow managed to ward off the stormtroopers, and in the extremely unlikely scenario that a film like this would be unable to get a commercial release in the Age of Modi, all they would have to do was release the film on YouTube and manufacture some outrage over being censored.
It wouldn’t, however, have had a fraction of the attention it received as a result of the fracas, or transcended its role as a fly-by-night piece of party propaganda in the league of International Gorillay. Here’s the YouTube link if you haven’t watched this epic tale of divine retribution for Salman Rushdie. If you’d rather not, at least savour the spectacle of flying Qurans smiting the infidel.
(By the way, when the British Board of Film Classification denied that film a certificate, Rushdie got the ban lifted. “If that film had been banned,” he later said, “it would have become the hottest video in town: everyone would have seen it.” Although it was a hit in Pakistan, the film disappeared without a trace.)
No, really. Buddha in a Traffic Jam might have better production values, and two bona fide Bollywood stars, but don’t mistake it for a respectable film. This is when you say: “But Ajachi, look at all them awards!”
Ah yes, them awards. I didn’t think twice about them until I watched the movie and couldn’t believe any film festival worth its salt would give it an award. Also, with all the recent buzz about Photoshop, wouldn’t hurt to double check, would it?
The first laurel was from the 2015 Jakarta Film Festival, where the film apparently won Best Actress, Best Screenplay and Best Director (the laurel in this screenshot from the trailer says 2014, but the Wikipedia page says 2015). If that festival happened, it doesn’t seem to have had any online presence. The Wikipedia page of the Jakarta International Film Festival, last updated in November 2015, doesn’t mention any edition after 2013. There are two Facebook pages for JIFFest 2014 and a Twitter page that is still operational, all of which link to a website for that year’s edition. There is no mention of Buddha anywhere on the website.
I wrote to the email addresses on the website’s “About” page, asking for a clarification. Margie Patty, managing editor at Muvila.com, the organisers of the festival, confirmed that there was no JIFFest in 2015 “due to various reasons”. She did say it would be “better and fair if you check on another film festival that [was] held in Jakarta in 2015.” So I did, and again, there’s no mention of the film on the websites of the Q! Film Festival, the Jakarta International Documentary and Experimental Film Festival, the International Film Festival for Peace, Inspiration and Equality or the International Film Festival for Environment, Health and Culture.
No, really. Buddha in a Traffic Jam might have better production values, and two bona fide Bollywood stars, but don’t mistake it for a respectable film.
Then there’s the Madrid Film Festival, where the film apparently won Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor, while being nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay. (I presume they were simply trying to fill space by mentioning both the nomination and the win for Best Original Screenplay.) The film’s Wikipedia page, which has been changed multiple times since I started paying attention, now says it “has won best Best Original Screenplay and was nominated for Best film and Best Lead Actress in a Foreign Language (Mahie Gill) at Madrid Film Festival, Spain.” (Virtually every claim about the film lacks a citation.) So I checked out the website of the Madrid International Film Festival, and the only mention of the film was that it was listed as having won Best Original Screenplay in a Foreign Language Film. Best Lead Actor went to Wild in Blue, Best Actor in a Foreign Language Film to From Seoul to Jakarta. There was no list of nominations, though, and I wrote to the organisers to enquire whether they even announce nominations. Festival director Adam Tinnion promptly wrote back, confirming that the film would have been eligible only for the Foreign Language awards. He also confirmed that Mahie Gill had indeed been nominated for Best Actress in a Foreign Language Film.
I was surprised to find out that there is even such a thing as the “Global Film Awards”, where Agnihotri allegedly won Best Director; it just sounds made up. But no, there’s a website and everything, even if the whole thing looks very shady. The Global Film Awards is a family of four international awards—the Accolade Global Film Competition, the Best Shorts Competition, the IndieFest Film Awards, and the Impact Docs Awards. Each of these awards is handed out four times every year, honouring literally hundreds of films every year. I went through every list of awards handed out in 2015, and found no mention of the film. I even ploughed through the Facebook timeline of the Global Independent Film Awards, an even shadier online film festival, which hands out awards every month, just in case Buddha was mentioned. No dice.
I’d thought the deceptions were restricted to foreign festivals, but boy was I wrong. The 2015 Global Film Festival in New Delhi, where Buddha claims to have been the opening film and won Best Actress, also doesn’t seem to exist. There is a Delhi Global Film Festival, but when I spoke to Jitesh Kumar, chairperson of the festival, he told me that the first edition is scheduled for 2017, their 2016 debut having had to be postponed for logistical reasons. The Khajuraho International Film Festival does exist, though the opening film at the 2015 edition was Raja R Bundela’s Alex Hindustani, as this photo I dug up after trawling through Madhya Pradesh Tourism’s Facebook page shows. None of the daily schedules mention our film.
As for the 2015 Jaipur International Film Festival, another festival the film claims to have opened, I found a press release for the fest on their Facebook page. Again, it made no mention of Buddha and said the opening film would be Jamshid Mahmoudi’s A Few Cubic Meters of Love. (The opening films of the 2016 edition were Manto and Piku.) I spoke to Hanu Roj, founder of the festival and head of marketing and corporate communication. He clarified the film was screened in the festival, but was not the opening film.
The Dada Saheb Phalke Awards, where it says it was nominated for Best Film and Best Screenplay, aren’t the Dadasaheb Phalke Award awarded by the government but the Dada Saheb Phalke Film Foundation Awards, as Suprateek Chatterjee of HuffPost India found after being flummoxed at Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insaan being reported to have won India’s highest film award. I can confirm, however, that the film was indeed an official selection at the 2014 Mumbai International Film Festival, but given all the deception, I cannot speak to whether it received what the Wikipedia page calls “a standing ovation and great reviews.”
There is a reason that all this deception is relevant to a review of this film. After all, this is by no means the only bit of intellectual dishonesty exhibited by Buddha in a Traffic Jam, a manipulative piece of cinema whose entire purpose seems to be to manufacture consent for whatever horrors are on the government’s agenda for Chhattisgarh. It is pertinent to view the film in the context of the State’s recent actions in Bastar, such as the hounding out of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, the harassment of Malini Subramaniam and other journalists, the attack on Soni Sori and the arrest of her nephew Lingaraj Kodopi. At a time when voices that challenge the official narrative in the region are being silenced in a systematic manner, comes a film designed to indoctrinate the nation’s youth with said official narrative.
At a time when voices that challenge the official narrative in the region are being silenced in a systematic manner, comes a film designed to indoctrinate the nation’s youth with said official narrative.
The machinations with which it does so are fascinating, and are the only thing of value I got from the film, which is indeed as horrible as the reviews make it sound like. Here’s what Sen had to say:
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.
Much as I enjoyed his dissection of the film’s cinematic shortcomings, of which there are indeed many, not engaging with the film’s politics does let it off the hook. Despite its pretence of being a serious film validated by serious film festivals, this is not intended as a “genuine statement of political cinema” but as a clumsy attempt at manipulation. And however hollow it might be, the film isn’t a “senseless product”; with the current state of political discourse, it shrewdly concludes—like Donald Drumpf—that in this post-factual age, all you have to do is present a compelling narrative that people want to believe, not one that resembles reality. Stephen Colbert famously called this “truthiness”.
Agnihotri’s objective in the film is to decouple the Right’s economic agenda from its social one, in an attempt to influence liberal college students. Of course, he finds it hard to disguise his contempt for liberal politics, undercutting his efforts. The first chapter of the film—there are nine, as well as a prologue and an epilogue—is called “I am a bitch.” We are introduced to our hero Vikram Pandit (Singh), an IIB (stand-in for the International School of Business, Hyderabad, where most of the film is set) student chilling in a bar with his friends, holding forth with his opinions on the relative merits of Facebook and Twitter. (One is like a blowjob and the other like shagging, we are told, though it’s unclear which is which.) His female friend Pooja (Dwivedi)—who is not his girlfriend, m’kay?—finishes jamming with the band and staggers over to their group and presents her grand theory of how there are only a finite number of souls in the world but an ever-increasing number of people, so the newer people must have animal souls, which is why humans are increasingly acting like animals. Vikram, she says, is a “cock reborn, who we call a dick reborn.” As for herself, she says as she stubs a cigarette in a poor guy’s cupcake, she is a bitch!
This escalates into a song and dance number, as she proclaims her bitch-ness to all and sundry, taking her top off to emphasise that she is indeed the loose woman who smokes and drinks and talks dirty that right-wingers believe all outspoken women are. (You know, the kind who are so shameless that molesting them doesn’t count as molestation.) Unfortunately, just as she does so, the place is overrun by the moral police, who shame her by taking photos and demanding she chant “Bharat mata ki jai!” This deeply affects our hero, who returns to his dorm room and takes a crash course on moral policing through the internet, before plagiarising Nisha Susan’s Pink Chaddi campaign and starting a Facebook group that asks women to send pink bras to the vigilantes. (Susan has written about how she was contacted to give permission for them riffing on her campaign. When she asked why a man would be shown starting the campaign, she was told, “We can’t show the campaign as being run by a woman! That won’t be realistic.”)
Agnihotri’s objective in the film is to decouple the Right’s economic agenda from its social one, in an attempt to influence liberal college students. Of course, he finds it hard to disguise his contempt for liberal politics, undercutting his efforts.
This bit of online activism makes him famous, and when he is the only one to find fault in Professor Batki’s (Kher) lecture extolling the virtues of corruption, the good professor invites him to his office for further discussion. Batki tells him he didn’t want to embarrass him in class, but that he finds online activism useless and that nobody cares about communism (never mind that sales of the Manifesto spike every time there is an economic downturn, or that nothing about Vikram’s utterances until that point was remotely communist). When Vikram demurs, he challenges him to a game—here are my leftist writings from when I was 21; pass them off as your own, and make them famous on social media.
What follows is a montage of Vikram reading Batki’s articles and planning their propagation, and a series of images juxtaposing online liberal outrage over freedom of expression and sexuality issues against images highlighting the plight of India’s Adivasis, suggesting that the focus on the former is responsible for the neglect of the latter. Once he’s ready, he gives a speech to the Student Union that I’m sure the filmmakers thought was radical, but is really just generic college-kid angst peppered with Savarna Saviour Complex. Completely ignoring the agency of Kashmiris and Adivasis, he likens the Naxal issue to the militancy in Kashmir, talking about how both are cases of innocents stuck between two equal and opposite cynical forces looking to exploit the situation for their own ends. The film has already made this point in the prologue, in which a tribal goatherd is visited by both the Naxals and the Salwa Judum, both of whom harass the poor fellow in order to get him to join them—he can’t leave his home, you see, not because this is his inalienable land, but because he has to tend to the local temple—before eventually killing him. Vikram’s solution is not to have the proletariat seize the means of production, but for his message—of what exactly? He’s not clear—to resonate among the nation’s youth. Change is possible, he says, “if we just fucking try; if we just fucking believe”.
Anywho, after one of these firebrand speeches, Vikram meets Sheetal Batki (Joshi), who’s so impressed by his oratory that she almost doesn’t tell him she’s married, that too to his professor. He asks her out for a drink, where he engages in some casual misogyny disguised as flirting—“All the sexy women don’t have substance,” it seems, “and women with substance are rarely sexy. By the time they’re both, they’re married.” Smooth. He is interrupted, however, by a patriotic son of the soil, who calls him out for spouting socialism while drinking phoren liquor in a bar, and throws his drink in Vikram’s face and calls him an ISI agent before he is escorted out. The episode is enough to douse Vikram’s leftism, for he goes back to college and returns Batki’s articles. I came here for an MBA, he says, not to be an activist.
He asks her out for a drink, where he engages in some casual misogyny disguised as flirting—“All the sexy women don’t have substance,” it seems, “and women with substance are rarely sexy. By the time they’re both, they’re married.”
We are then introduced to the Potter’s Club, an NGO run by Sheetal and her friend Charu Siddhu (Gill), which supports potters—I presume there are more than one, and that the name is a grammatical error—in Bastar by buying up their product and selling them in the city. They’re having their annual gala, engaging in some networking (Vikram is introduced to the head of the Greyhounds, who spouts some propaganda about the Naxalites being more dangerous than Kashmiri militants) and some drunken ribaldry by Pooja (whose entire purpose in the film is to be a caricature of drunkenness; in fact, like in Messenger of God, there are three women in the film whose entire raison d’être is to paper over the complete lack of personality in the lead actor by serving as what Woolf called “looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size”) and patting themselves on the back for the great difference they’re making. Suddenly, we have tension! A bureaucrat tells Batki that the government has decided to stop funding the NGO; since the idea of using the air force on the Naxals is too unpopular (in 2012, when this film was made, but things have changed), the PM has decided to cut off their main source of funding—NGOs. The Potter’s Club is left penniless and Pooja is left without the one thing that made her not feel like a bored housewife.
But this is IIB, incubator of entrepreneurs. Batki gathers his class and asks them to come up with a plan to raise the Rs 20 crore they’ve been denied. Heavy foreshadowing begins, suggesting that he’s more interested in the money than in saving the NGO. I’d say spoiler alert, but if you haven’t realised by then that he’s a Naxal, you’ve not been paying attention. Vikram comes up with an epiphany that is exactly the sort of epiphany you’d expect MBA types to have under the circumstances—let’s make an app for it! He proposes to cut out the middlemen and pay the potters Rs 90 for every hundred-rupee-pot they sell. Batki puts a stop to the project, because God knows Naxalism would come to an end should the two to three percent of Bastar’s residents who are potters suddenly be holdin’ serious dough.
That is Buddha in a Traffic Jam’s message, after all. All you need to solve the plethora of social ills in Chhattisgarh is some good ol’ capitalism. Never mind the constant State violence that drives tribals to the Naxals—even the Salwa Judum guy is shown to be a Naxalite. Never mind that the forces of capitalism are the ones forcing them off land that has been theirs for millennia. Never mind that the Naxals aren’t aliens who’ve suddenly descended onto the Red Corridor to foment revolution, but products of the very society they are accused of ruining for their own ends.
That is Buddha in a Traffic Jam’s message, after all. All you need to solve the plethora of social ills in Chhattisgarh is some good ol’ capitalism.
Of course, the film wouldn’t be as egregious if it restricted itself to such bhadralok living-room pontification. These are, after all, not new ideas, just a self-serving oversimplification of ground realities, as half-baked as the title itself. But the real project Buddha engages in is much more insidious, that of pointing fingers. It’s easier for the government to target inconvenient NGOs if the public is made to believe that they fund the Naxals. It’s easier to discredit outspoken women if you’re convinced they’re loose and shameless. It’s easier to root out what little sympathy your populace has for the Naxals’ cause if you can convince them they’re only in it for the money. It’s easier to condemn leftist college students if you call them “padhe-likhe behenchod intellectual terrorists” and paint their activism as one step removed from grabbing an AK-47 and declaring war on the State.
Near the end of the film, once Sheetal finds out about her husband’s plans, she runs to the library to warn Vikram. You must watch out, she says, these Naxals are everywhere. They could be in the library, in your college, sitting on the park bench eyeing little girls with bad intent. As Vikram runs manically, everyone he sees turns red-faced, like some bad zombie movie. All attempt at subtlety is lost, replaced by pure paranoia; the message is clear—anybody can be a Naxalite, even you.