Thoughts on ‘Bombay Talkies’
In the Karan Johar helmed short in Bombay Talkies, there is a scene where Randeep Hooda’s character Dev finds the unabashedly gay Avinash unexpectedly knocking at his door one evening. Avinash knows that Dev’s wife is not at home, and asks him, “want to come out”? We know by now that he is attracted to Dev – who is married to Avinash’s attractive colleague from work (a ravishing Rani Mukherjee) – and the dialogue is a play on Avinash’s fond hope that Dev will, you know, “come out”. A corny line – there are other ones too (gale mein mangalsutra, man mein kamasutra) - and so reminiscent of many such one-liners in Johar’s grating TV show, but I’m nit-picking here. Johar’s effort in Bombay Talkies rises well above expectations. He manages to hold his own against the other three luminaries of new wave Hindi cinema.
I liked little touches in the screenplay, like when it’s the turn of Dev, slowly awakening to his repressed sexual orientation, to land up at Avinash’s tiny hovel. Just as a thought blurb went inside my head <how the hell did he know where Avinash lived.. but hey, this is a KJO movie, details don’t matter, do they>, Dev says, “office se tumhara address mila”. A passionate lip lock then ensues between two adult men on a mainstream Hindi cinema screen. Breaking new ground, and done well.
The thing I didn’t get in Johar’s film, is the connection to 100 years of Hindi cinema, which all the four miniatures in Bombay Talkies are supposed to be a celebration of. A brief reference to Madan Mohan, Dev’s extensive collection of old Hindi film songs? Too weak a link. So here’s a theory: Johar’s film opens with a small girl begging for alms in what looks like the Dadar station over-bridge, singing the evergreen classic, Ajeeb Dastan hai yeh. Ajeeb dastan = strange story. Strange = Queer. A story of a love triangle with a gay twist – was this about Karan Johar riffing on Hindi cinema’s age old love triangle theme, with his own personal stamp?
Dibankar Banerjee continues to impress as a filmmaker who intimately understands the medium of cinema and is imbued with a fine sensibility that permeates every frame. Working on an adaptation of Satyajit Ray’s Patol Babu Filmstar, Banerjee’s craft deftly weaves in references to serious issues like the collapse of Bombay’s Lower Parel mills and its impact on thousands of laid off workers and their families, the bizarre craze for emu farming which took root in parts of southern and western India a few years ago (the opening sequence where the marathi bais in the chawl crack vulgar jokes, with the emu hopping around in the corridor, is such a delight), the demise of the nautanki form of folk theatre, all inside a heart-warming 30 minute short about a father who accidentally stumbles on a day of fame as a movie extra and as a result, redeems himself in front of his daughter.
And with a talent like Nawazuddin Siddiqui as his star, what results is magic on screen. Plus that cameo from Sadashiv Amrapukar. Uff. Go see, if you haven’t already.
Zoya Akhtar turns the spotlight on how the allure of movie stars gives rise to so many celluloid dreams amongst our teeming masses. A young boy gets besotted with Katrina Kaif when he sees her gyrate to Sheila ki Jawani on TV. He starts worshipping her poster and wearing his sister’s clothes whilst obsessively mimicking her dance moves. In contrast, his father wants him to “be a man” and focus on sports like football, even fending off his daughter’s beseeching pleas to pay for her outstation history trip at school, to cough up the football fees.
Training her lens on this fairly “normal” family, Akhtar insightfully zooms in on deep rooted gender biases that exist even among our educated middle class. In her trademark understated style, she allows the audience a nuanced view on the husband-wide relationship dynamics, the bonding between brother-sister, all of which add a solid emotional connection with the story. The casting is pitch perfect too.
Thankfully, Akhtar steers clear of any attempt to try and tie up all the ends. She does not offer any comment on the possibility of the protagonist’s alternate sexuality, justify why a child performs a very raunchy item number, or any hint on how the anticipated hostile reaction from the father would be resolved. For a short, any of these would have added unnecessary clutter to the story. The rousing climax with a freeze frame of the boy deliriously happy to have found his calling, is a gratifying end to a well made film.
The premise of Anurag Kashyap’s story – a small towner coming to Bombay to try and get an audience with Amitabh Bachchan to satisfy his ailing father’s wish – seems to be, depending on your POV, a banal storyline or one with all sorts of possibilities. A couple of friends that I spoke to about Bombay Talkies were of the former view, and felt a bit let down that Kashyap didn’t come up with something more “edgy”. I hugely enjoyed this one though. Of all the four shorts, I thought that Kashyap’s film embodies the manic obsession that Bombay’s Bollywood engenders among its fans (especially from the hinterland), the best. Growing up in in Bombay, relatives/friends who visited used to ask about “Amitabh’s house”. Whenever we passed by Juhu, I saw fans outside Bachchan’s bungalow in Juhu hoping catch a glimpse of Hindi cinema’s greatest star. Kashyap captures this facet of hero worship beautifully.
He taps into his Gangs of Wasseypur ensemble to unearth another dynamite performer in Vineet Kumar Singh, who essays the role of a son on a mission with aplomb. One gets the sense that the maverick auteur is indulging himself and having a lot of fun with this film – naming Singh’s character as Vijay, the name Bachchan had for his most memorable screen roles, Vijay’s raconteuring to his fellow travellers in the train before tragedy strikes – there is an element here of the bit actor Singh evolving into a performer within the character of Vijay that he plays - I felt like there are layers to what appears as a simple storyline. Amit Trivedi’s music score lives up his high standards as usual. The twist in the story at the end, though a bit predictable, leaves us smiling at this bitter-sweet tale.
I found it hard to pick a favourite out of the four films. Each has its own voice, and a unique perspective of looking at the way movies have touched our lives over the years. Among the best to come out of Bollywood this year, Bombay Talkies is an experiment that works. One jarring note though - the garish parade of Bollywood stars dancing awkwardly, smiling to the cameras in the self-congratulatory song at the end.. should have cut this part out entirely. Almost leaves a sour after-taste to what is an otherwise engaging couple of hours of good cinema.