6 May 2013

Film Review: Bombay Talkies


Bombay Talkies is made up of four short films created by four different Hindi film directors as a tribute to the power of cinema in India. The first film, directed by Karan Johar, is perhaps the one least obviously ‘about cinema’.

Yes, Gayatri (Rani Mukherjee) is the editor of a filmi gossip mag called Mumbai Masala, her television news anchor husband Dev (Randeep Hooda) is a Hindi film music aficionado with a “special room” that’s a shrine to old songs, and Avinash (Saqib Saleem) – the new intern in Gayatri’s office – often climbs up on a railway overbridge to listen to a little street child sing “Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh”. But really, this is a tale about truth and love and sex and selfhood, and Johar leavens a clichéd gay coming-out narrative (which does exist) with more brutal honesty than one could have hoped for.

Of course, since this is still Johar, his ‘ordinary people’ are all rather too fetching – but he gets many things right. The actors are perfectly cast, and we’re right there with them from the word go. There’s the early shot where the husband and wife, dressing for work, look into the same mirror. Rani’s Gayatri is dressed to kill, her low-slung sari blouse revealing a shapely back. She looks longingly into the mirror, no longer at herself but at her husband, but he barely seems to see her. In the next scene we see her walk into her office and become the cynosure of all eyes. That appreciative glance that comes her way from a male colleague now seems to us her due.

The other thing Johar nails is the casual sexual banter upon which Avinash’s relationship with Gayatri is forged. A milieu in which a newly-arrived intern can greet the boss-woman with a remark like “Gale mein mangalsutra, aankhon mein kamasutra” may seem a little much, but it taps into the deliberate sluttiness so often cultivated in the new liberal workplace, with sexuality played up partly for laughs and partly to establish coolness.

But it is the little girl on the railway bridge who’s the scene stealer. There is something so intensely pure and true about the quality of her voice as she breaks into “Lag Ja Gale” that one is willing to buy completely into her later dialogue about honesty, however trite. And here Johar cottons onto something that really does exemplify Hindi cinema: the undeniable pull of the song lyric, the sense one so often gets of it’s being the truest thing you’ve ever heard, even if – perhaps especially when? – it comes wrapped in a cloud of emotional excess of the sort that is no longer allowed.

A child and a song also lie at the heart of Zoya Akhtar’s offering: a little boy who is obsessed with “Sheila ki Jawani”. But not in the way you think. This is a boy who gets a persistent furrow in his brow when he’s pushed onto the football field by his unseeing bully of a father (Ranvir Shorey), a boy who likes nothing better than gazing lovingly into the classroom in which his female schoolmates are being taught to dance. When his favourite Katrina Kaif – whom he really only knows as Sheila – comes on television, she seems to be speaking directly to him. Follow your dreams, she says, but keep them secret from those you know will be unsupportive. It is a narrative that brings to mind the wonderful 1997 Belgian film Ma Vie En Rose (My Life in Pink). It is marvellous to see a story like this – unfolding all around us and yet an absolute taboo topic for discussion in most Indian families – finally being told on the Hindi film screen. Akhtar draws superb performances from her child actors (particularly the dreamy-eyed, little Naman Jain), and their conversations are studded with lines whose casualness sometimes belies their eerie profundity. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” the little boy asks his elder sister. “Nothing,” she says. “Nothing?” he asks again. “Nothing. But I want to travel the whole world.” “Oh, so you want to be an air hostess?” “No,” says the girl, “I want to be a passenger.”

Anurag Kashyap’s film was the one by which I was disappointed. The premise is pleasurably cinematic: a young man from Allahabad comes all the way to Mumbai to make Amitabh Bachchan taste his mother’s murabba (sweet pickle) on his dying father’s bidding. He waits for days outside the Bachchan bungalow (the aptly-named Pratiksha) befriending the watchmen, the omelette-seller and the Amitabh-impersonator alike – but fails to meet the star. So far, so realist. What Kashyap does next – allowing the young Vijay, as the hopeful Ilahabadi is named, to actually meet Bachchan (and Bachchan another chance to trot out his carefully cultivated benevolent persona) – seemed to entirely dilute the until then powerfully documentary effect – and affect – of the film. There is a quicksilver change of tone attempted here (and later in the train sequence), jolting us deliberately between high tragedy and comedy. But it ends up neither here nor there.

The standout film, by far, is Dibakar Banerjee’s masterful reworking of a famous Satyajit Ray short story called ‘Patol Babu Film Star’. Banerjee takes only the central premise of the original: a very ordinary man who once had a passion for the theatre suddenly finds himself picked to do a scene in a film. Instead of Patol, the 52-year-old Bengali middle class man in a Calcutta of fifty years ago, though, we get Purandar, a 30-something Nawazuddin Siddiqui; a jobless family man in a present-day Bombay chawl. Right from the first scenes – Purandar lying unblinkingly awake much before his phone alarm rings out at dawn with a plaintive ‘Jaago’ and the sound of a cock crowing, the presence of a pet emu in his cramped little home – the film establishes a strange, surreal mood. That surreality is fully realized by the centrepiece of a scene in which he tries to prepare for his shot in the film: we see Nawazuddin from a great distance, surrounded by the gleaming, tall, white buildings of some fancy highrise, rehearsing the dialogues he has spent his whole life learning and will never need. And then, at the moment of greatest turmoil, he finds himself talking to his dead father, in whose theatre troupe he had once acted.
It is pure pleasure to watch the great Sadashiv Amrapurkar berate his (cinematic) son from beyond the grave – as my father said as he watched the film with me this morning, no-one is better at taana maarna than Amrapurkar. Siddiqui, of course, is superb – and the layers of cinematic meta-ness here are wonderful, as Bollywood’s latest poster-boy for acting plays the anonymous struggler he so recently was.

What Banerjee’s film achieves is a powerfully real sense of why the cinema feels like a vehicle of fate. The man of the crowd, picked out seemingly at random, might suddenly find himself illuminated – and yet it is entirely ephemeral. As the camera zooms out from Purandar’s room, he is back to being one of the tens of thousands of little people – framed ever so briefly in a flash of light, before being returned to the anonymity of the crowd.

This review was published in Firstpost.


Anonymous said...

The link doesn't work.

Trisha Gupta said...

Thanks for pointing that out. Just fixed it.

RelaxingBuddha said...

All 4 stories had fathers as pivotal characters. Is Indian cinema moving on from the Mother as the motivating factor in the protagonist's life?

The closing silent sequence of Dibakar Banerjee’s movie epitomise what cinema truly means to us: a simple storyline made alive by dramatic retelling, to a wide-eyed audience that rediscovers its childlike innocence.