Even from the outside, looking in, before I'd seen a single Malayalam film, I had a strong sense of their character. Despite not being the most prolific Southie regional film industry, nor the one bursting with the biggest budgets or the most recognisable stars (while Mammootty and Mohanlal are known outside Kerala, too, I would rate Hindi stars or Rajnikanth above them in pan-Indian recognition), Malayalam films had the reputation of having good stories. Why else would the other industries borrow from them so much? It seemed like fresh ideas and interesting characters in solid stories was Malayalam industry's USP - unique selling point.
Of course, not every film can be amazing, so the generalisation is never without exception, but I have to admit that my blind purchase of the 2011 film Traffic hit jackpot - it crafts something marvelous and character-focused out of a rather simple premise, and through slow reveal, keeps its viewer constantly on the edge of their seat.
The film, directed by Rajesh Pillai, introduces us to its rather varied, big cast of characters, all going through the inevitable grief of ordinary life: traffic. The introduction lasts as long as need be, and once you're settled into the world of these characters, the first big event occurs - an traffic accident that touches them all, one way or another, through the course of the film. There is the central character of a police officer, marred by corruption allegations (Sreenivasan). There's the famous actor, realising his family life is less than the ideal (Rahman). Abel (Kunchacko Boban), a surgeon listening to his best friend flirt with a girl on the phone. A young journalist (Vineeth Sreenivasan), on his way to his first job.
To say too much about the plot would be to ruin it. Even if you never decide to seek out this film itself, you might be able to catch its Tamil and/or Hindi remake in the near-future, and I wouldn't want to spoil you the biggest twist of the film, which makes the plot considerably more interesting.
The best thing about Traffic, I think, is the way it doesn't even try to reach for the stars, or aim for an epic scale. It's story is told simply, but through interesting choices, and cleverly not revealing everything to the viewer at once, the simplicity comes into full bloom. The performances all around support the story, and it's difficult to pick who are the best ones; Sreenivasan is mostly in focus, but all the others seem to do great as well. There are only a couple of songs, but they provide perfect little lulls to an otherwise intense story.
If you have a way to get a hold of Traffic, I would recommend it - if you have to wait for the inevitable remakes, so be it, I'm certainly waiting eagerly myself. It's a positive surprise that certainly confirmed all the positive stereotypes I had about Malayalam films as character-driven, story-driven solid films, and I hope to catch other Malayalam films as good as this one.