Apologies – this post is brimful of spoilers. Mind you, no one who edited the trailer or the geeks writing for Wiki or reviewers for some major papers seems to give a toss about giving away details.
Bombay Talkies sounded like an odd but potentially brilliant project. Four directors, four stories with the only connection being an homage to the Indian film industry. And I liked it a lot. Not all the stories are equally strong but they each have something that has stuck with me since seeing the film last week.
Ajeeb Dastaan Hain Yeh
Karan Johar opens the film with a story of a marriage undermined by secrets and lies. The music of old films is always present, mostly through Savitri, a little beggar girl who sings sad old love songs and who is a kind of moral compass for the film. The songs are haunting with themes of truth and betrayal.
Gayatri (Rani Mukherjee) edits a trashy tabloid, digging up the dirt or making it up, whatever. Gayatri was a confident woman who dressed to be noticed. Gayatri’s new intern introduces himself as “Hi, I’m Avinash. I’m gay.” He seems disappointed to get no reaction and insulted if he gets an over-reaction. Gayatri and Avinash (Saqib Saleem) develop a close friendship and Avinash is also drawn to Gayatri’s husband Dev (Randeep Hooda) who shares his love of old filmi music. Where Gayatri is demonstrative and affectionate, Dev is reserved to the point of being withdrawn. Avinash is sure Dev is gay. His pursuit is direct and Dev’s response is brutal. I had issues with both characters as Avinash seemed to see himself as the victim. While he didn’t deserve to be physically attacked, he didn’t have to chase his friend’s husband or interrupt a meeting to tell Gayatri in front of everyone that Dev kissed him. He seemed to need confrontation. I wasn’t convinced by Saqib Saleem in the more emotional moments but he was fine in the less nuanced scenes. And this story is often funny which makes the drop off the emotional cliff that much harder. I laughed at the explanation of how to pick if a guy is gay, but then the reality of being out was not a joke. Randeep Hooda has always struck me as quite wooden, and that actually works quite well for Dev who is fastidious and repressed. The absence of affection was shown in several understated scenes. Rani was wonderful as Gayatri from warmly flirtatious to magnificently angry at having been made to feel like she had been doing something wrong in her marriage. Karan Johar was refreshingly unsentimental in a story that is moving but has no simple resolution. He simply leaves the characters, allowing space for what ifs.
Dibakar Bannerjee directs a charming adaptation of a Satyajit Ray story about a man who had ambitions to be something. Nawazuddin Siddiqui is brilliant and gives his character eccentricity and such good humour that had me cheering for him. I had a smile on my face almost all the time. It’s a beautifully shot film too, full of lovely visual details.
Purandar (Nawazuddin) is a man with a wife, a daughter and an emu called Anjali. He is the kind of guy who will speculate on emu breeding (in his apartment stairwell) but won’t stir himself to get a mundane job. His daughter wants him to tell her stories but he says he hasn’t seen anything new to tell her about. Chivvied out of the house to go for an interview, he accidentally finds himself working as an extra in a big budget film. It’s the everyman dream come true in the big filmi city. His backstory emerges in a dialogue with his dead father. Purandar was a supporting actor in a theatre troupe but never really went after his ambitions. Prodded into proving his mettle, he improvises his scene beautifully. Then he runs home without collecting his pay to tell his little girl this new story. He enacts the day’s events, playing for laughs and dramatic effect. His wife and daughter sit in their room, backs to the TV, as they relive his glory and the shared experience of storytelling. While Purandar scurries and struts around his flat, the camera pulls back to show the lit up apartment windows of his neighbours and glimpses of people going about their evening rituals, a mosaic of stories.
Sheila Ki Jawaani
Zoya Akhtar’s story is familiar to anyone who has seen Billy Elliott, but has a few only-in-Bollywood touches. Vicky (the delightful Naman Jain) is a typical little boy, only not as good at sports as his slap-happy father (Ranvir Shorey) insists he must be. Vicky gazes longingly at the girls classical dance class as he drags himself off to soccer practice. I suspected child abuse as soon as the poor kid was taken to see the dreadful Tees Maar Khan* on a family night out, but Vicky was struck by inspiration.
Katrina Kaif appeared to him as a sparkly silver angel and told him to believe in himself and follow his dream. While I agree Katrina is an excellent example of someone with little discernable talent having a brilliant career, I’m not sure I can fully endorse her as a role model. Vicky and his sister (Khushi Dubey) confide in each other, and cheer each other up in the face of parental opposition. But she was taken aback when he announced his dream was to be Sheila Ki Jawaani. I was mildly entertained by the story but really puzzled by the audience reaction. As soon as Vicky started dancing around dressed up in his sister’s clothes, the audience erupted into giggles but with a lot of tongue clicking and whispering. When Vicky unleashed his inner Sheila and put on a show to raise money for his sister’s school trip (all funding had gone to his soccer training), the aunties sitting behind me nearly exploded whispering ‘gay’ repeatedly. He’s just a little kid! And does it matter?
When he shook his tiny sequinned butt, beaming at the audience of mums, kids and aunties from his building, he was just joyful. I normally have issues about sexualising children and the choreography for Sheila Ki Jawaani is skanky, but Naman Jain’s happy face and the uninhibited energy of his performance showed the joy of dancing his dream. Zoya Akhtar didn’t explore the family dynamics or the emotional resonance Vicky felt with Sheila, we just knew he could rock sparkly knickerbockers. She was exceptionally lucky in the two child actors who are confident and accomplished and give the story much of its appeal. Ultimately, it’s a feelgood story that doesn’t bear close examination lest the sparkly bubble burst.
Anurag Kashyap’s film is the most overtly filmi of the four as it is about the Indian film fanatic, the fan who genuinely believes they have a personal connection to their favourite. Amitabh makes a special appearance in this story but his charisma is as powerful in his absence, still driving his fans to distraction.
Vijay (Vineet Kumar Singh) is sent to Bombay to fulfil his father’s dying wish that he meet Amitabh and feed him a piece of murabba. While waiting outside the Bachchan residence we see the legend of Amitabh as it pervades the city. There are crazy fans and professional impersonators flocking outside the gates with Vijay, and the images of the Big B are everywhere. Vijay starts confidently but is beaten down to the ground by the big city and the futility of his mission. Kashyap’s films are pretty much always about people being arseholes to each other and this is no different. Even when Vicky finally returns home in triumph, things go awry. Vineet Kumar Singh is likeable as Vijay and his reactions to the fan insanity are a window for the viewer who hasn’t experienced that craziness first-hand. While I enjoyed bits of Murabba, it meanders and ultimately the destination wasn’t equal to the journey. This is the weakest of the four stories for my money.
I was also thrilled to see the terrible Bombay Talkies song actually began with a nicely edited montage of Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Madhubala and others. Unfortunately most of the audience decided they had to stand up, wander around, shout on their mobile phones and generally be annoying so I missed most of it. Not the tribute to Indian cinema I was hoping for!
* I walked out on Tees Maar Khan just after interval after hating it from the very first seconds. I sat through Drona so that says something.