Bombay Talkies is a portmanteau film celebrating 100 Years of Indian Cinema and featuring four short films by leading Indian directors. The film led the Indian presence at Cannes this year and as it has been widely discussed in the trades and festival reports I was keen to see it. I enjoyed all four short films but the final section – a kind of musical salute to Bollywood featuring a host of stars – didn’t really work for me.
The four directors chosen (or did they volunteer?) for this enterprise seemed to me to fall into two camps. Karan Johar and Zoya Akhtar represent a kind of Hindi cinema ‘royalty’. Johar almost personifies Bollywood with his creation of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai in 1998 and his work on subsequent spectacular blockbusters with Yash Chopra productions. Zoya Akhtar has been slightly lower profile but she is the daughter of writers Javed Akhtar and Honey Irani and sister of actor Farhan Akhtar as well as working in a variety of roles as writer and director.
The other two directors represent various forms of ‘new’, more independently-minded Hindi cinema. Dibakar Banarjee has directed four films including Khosla Ka Ghosla (2006), which I enjoyed very much and Shanghai (2012) which has been critically-acclaimed but annoyingly not released in the UK. Anurag Kashyap has become the principal figure in ‘Indian Independent Cinema’, especially after the popular success of Gangs of Wasseypur (2012).
All four short films have a connection to Hindi cinema in some way and in particular to commercial filmmaking in Bombay. Johar’s story hinges on the emotional impact of ‘filmi music’ whereas Akhtar’s story is about childhood dreams fuelled by adoration of a young star (Katrina Kaif). By contrast, Kashyap’s story deals with a different kind of fandom associated with the iconic figure of Amitabh Bachchan. Banerjee’s film, which for me was the highlight, focuses on an out of work actor (played by the charismatic Nawazuddin Siddiqui, arguably the hottest star in Hindi cinema at the moment) and his accidental involvement in the shooting of a scene from a typical Bombay movie.
The two ‘inside’ films have Bollywood gloss and stars – Rani Mukerji for Johar and Ranvir Shorey for Akhtar. Johar’s film seemed the most unreal and contrived, although its presentation of an unhappy marriage and the intervention of a young gay man has possibilities. Akhtar’s film would possibly win the popular vote with its focus on a small boy, who doesn’t want to play football as his father suggests but wants to dance in films instead, is certainly very enjoyable. The opening shots of the other two films immediately take us out of the artificial world of Bollywood and into the ‘real India’. In Banerjee’s film, the central character wakes from his bed on the balcony of his apartment, overlooking a flyover and a major road. Inside the stifling apartment is wife and daughter help him prepare to go out to look for work. I was intrigued to see that the film is based on a short story by Satyajit Ray (Patol Babu, Film Star, 196? – does anyone know the publication date of the story), but on reflection it does feel like it has connections to Ray – or at least to a literary take on Indian popular cinema in the 1960s. Banerjee is a very interesting director but I was saddened to see him make rather disparaging remarks about ‘regional cinema’. This was in response to a direct question about how the 100 Years of Indian Cinema seemed to ignore regional Indian cinemas, focusing primarily on Hindi language cinema. Banerjee was taking a Bengali story and transposing it to Bombay. I think I read that Siddiqui used a Marathi accent, but I’m not sure if any Marathi dialogue as such appears in the segment. Anyway, you are wrong Mr Banerjee, various regional cinemas continue to prosper despite the attempted hegemony of Bollywood.
Kashyap’s film starts in a similar milieu in the centre of Allahabad with a young man ‘working’ the crowds on the street when he is summoned home where his father is ill in bed and wants him to go to Bombay as he once did for his own father. The son’s task is to meet another, more successful older man from Allahabad, Amitabh Bachchan, and persuade him to bite into a local delicacy, a murabba – a form of preserved sugared soft fruit such as a plum or mango, carried in the film in a large pickle jar. He must bring the half-eaten sweet back to his father who believes that he will then be able to connect directly with the great man. Allahabad in North East India is around 24 hours by train from Bombay so it is a major trip for the young man who is very well played by Vineet Kumar Singh. In some ways his arrival in Mumbai is similar to that of the hero of Satya – Anurag Kashyap’s first script for Ram Gopal Varma in 1998.
The final part of the film is the appearance of a host of Bollywood stars in what I thought was a fairly unimaginative dance sequence. The saddest aspect of this was the use of a series of archive clips from earlier decades of Hindi cinema, many from prints in very poor condition, some appearing to be old VHS copies, heavily pixellated. I can’t imagine what the Cannes audience made of this. Still, if it acts as a wake-up call for rights owners to get off their backsides and start to use some of the money wasted on current productions to restore the classics it might be a good thing.
I hope that Bombay Talkies gets a UK release so that audiences can see the mainstream and more independent directors under the same conditions.
Hears the murabba song by Amit Trivedi for the Anurag Kashyap segment (be warned, it’s very catchy!):