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.
This review was published in Firstpost.