Bombay Talkies (2013)

Bombay-Talkies-Poster

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.

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I Am

While Bollywood has just started to show kissing scenes and Hollywood is slowly integrating gay storylines into films, director Onir has moved much further ahead with his latest film. I Am is a confronting and thought-provoking collection of 4 stories which deal with subjects commonly not spoken about in public and rarely seen in mainstream film. In addition to its subject matter, the film is novel in that funding was partly achieved through social networking and has over 400 producers. Onir and Sanjay Suri initiated a page on Facebook where people were invited to sign up to help finance the film or volunteer their time. Manish Malhotra for example designed the costumes for free and many of the actors did not receive any remuneration. Also, somewhat unusually, there are three directors who appear as actors in the film; Anurag Kashyap, Anurag Basu and Nandita Das. I Am has won acclaim in a number of film festivals, a number of awards already, and luckily for us premiered in Australia as the closing film for the Indian Film Festival. As an added bonus, Onir and Juhi Chawla were present at the screening I attended in Melbourne to introduce the film and to take part in a Q and A session afterwards. My favourite actress, a director whose previous work I’ve enjoyed and his brand new film all adds up to a perfect way to spend an evening.

The four stories are loosely linked together by friendships, connections and chance meetings between the characters, and this works well as a connecting thread without feeling too contrived. The first story is Afia’s (Nandita Das)and deals with her determination to have a child by herself after her divorce.  Her friend Megha (Juhi Chawla) speaks as the’ voice of society’ condemning Afia for what she perceives as selfishness and the story raises a number of questions around the issues of single parenthood and artificial insemination versus adoption. The debates between Afia and Megha are honest and natural and the conversations Afia has with a number of her male acquaintances as she looks for a sperm donor ring embarrassingly true. Onir described Afia’s story as the most ‘Bollywood’ and it does follow a more traditional story telling path compared to the rest of the film.  I don’t relate to this story personally as Afia’s decisions would not be mine, although I mainly agree with her right to choose.

The second story is Megha’s own and describes a trip she makes back to Srinigar for business, having left the area some twenty years before with her family as part of the Kashmiri Pandit evacuation. She stays with her childhood friend Rubina (Manisha Koirala) and the contrast between the two women; one who was forced to leave and one who had to stay, forms the focus of this section. The suffering on both sides is evident and Rubina envies Megha’s freedom of living in Delhi away from the continual threat of fighting. Megha in turn resents having had to flee the violent attacks on her family.  Srinigar looks very similar to my home town of Belfast in the seventies, with bombed out buildings, soldiers everywhere and the ubiquitous presence of barbed wire.  But behind the rubble there is still beauty in the landscape and Onir manages to capture this equally as well as the devastation. This was a very touching story and I was surprised to read in the statistics at the end of the film just how many people were displaced as this is something I know very little about.

The third story is that of film maker Abhimanyu (Sanjay Suri) and deals with the taboo subject of child abuse. We see that Abhi was abused by his step father as a child and this is his story about finally being able to speak up about his childhood. Abhi has recurrent dreams of his mother and many of the scenes also have a dream like quality as if Abhi can only bear to relive them a step removed. There is a well-defined contrast between Abhi’s party life style and large group of casual friends and the scenes where he confronts his past with his close friend Apama.  Throughout the story Abhi is conflicted about his sexuality and his childhood experiences have had an obvious effect on his ability to form relationships. This is a very difficult subject to film but Onir and Sanjay manage to deal with it sensitively and the story is well told.

 The final story is the most shocking for me in many ways, not because it features men kissing, but because of the events that follow. This is Omar’s story and explains how Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code is used to extort money – and more – from homosexual men. Omar is a hustler picked up in a bar by Jai before they are spotted by a corrupt cop. The confrontation is graphic and detailed, and it’s very disturbing to know that it is based on true accounts.  Onir expressed his amazement during the Q and A session that the film got through the censors without getting any visual cuts (mainly referring to this story) and I am amazed along with him. Some of the dialogue was muted, however the subtitles were abundantly clear as to the viciousness of the scene depicted despite the many ****’s. Rahul Bose as Jai was incredible in this and was able to effectively portray subtle changes in Jai’s mannerisms as a consequence of his experience. I am very impressed with his performance as he really made me believe this story, much as I didn’t want to.

The film starts with an easy to digest story and ends with a truly sickening one. The progression is deliberate and the style of shooting changes along with the dialogue delivery. Afia’s story is shot with open angles and plenty of space, but by the time we reach Omar’s story the style is much more closed in and claustrophobic. The dialogue becomes more graphic in each story as does the action on-screen. I find it hard to describe my feelings about this film – I can’t say that I enjoyed it, because I felt too uncomfortable while watching.  And it’s not a film to be enjoyed as such anyway. It is brilliantly filmed – the actors are outstanding and the stories themselves are very well written and I can appreciate it as a work of art. It would be more accurate to say that I enjoyed the experience and think that the film is excellent, just not one for everyone’s tastes. Thought-provoking and challenging, I Am gets 4½ stars.

Udaan

Udaan was the first Indian film in seven years to be selected for the ‘Un Certain Regard’ section at the Cannes Film Festival, and also won the Best Audience Award and Best Music Score at the Giffoni Film Festival. Sadly the film didn’t have a cinematic release in Australia, which is unfortunate as I think it is the best Hindi film I have seen so far this year. Overall Udaan is a simple story brilliantly told with some fantastic performances by the young and inexperienced leads.

Rohan is a seventeen year old who has been at boarding school in Shimla for 8 years. In that time he has not been home, nor has his father or any of his family visited him. His friends are his surrogate family and they follow the ‘all for one and one for all’ motto. Their various escapades, including a late night trip out to see am adult movie, result in their expulsion from the school and Rohan has to finally return home to Jamshedpur. His father barely acknowledges his arrival at the train station, not speaking a word, and leaves Rohan to drag his trunk across the platform and up the stairs into their flat  by himself. 

Once home, Rohan finds that while he was at school his father had married again and he has a six-year-old step-brother Arjun. The relationship between them is off to a bad start as neither knows of the others existence, and as the bigger and older brother, Rohan totally pushes Arjun aside. 

Rohan’s relationship with his father, never a happy one, deteriorates further as Bhairav Singh decrees that Rohan will work in his factory in the morning and attend engineering college in the afternoon.  Rohan wants to be a writer, and throughout the film we hear his poems and stories. When he is looking after his step-brother in hospital, everyone crowds around to hear his stories, so we believe that he really would be able to make it as a writer despite his young age.  Engineering however is not his calling and he struggles continually. He tries to be the son his father wanted and perseveres with his studies, but he is only seventeen and the lure of his writing is too strong to be ignored.  He skips school to sit in the fields and write, so inevitably fails his courses.  

His father is an authoritarian bully, an alcoholic, and is determined that his son will follow in his footsteps and take over the foundry.  He is continually disappointed by Rohan’s seeming failures and physically and verbally abuses him.  He also forces Rohan to run and train with him daily, trying to mould him into the man he wants him to become.  His treatment of his younger son is equally appalling and results in the two step-brothers finding some common ground. Bhairav has a younger brother, Jimmy who has a happy but childless marriage, and he becomes an ally for Rohan in his attempts to get his father to accept his writing.  But Jimmy has issues of his own with his brother and cannot stand up to him when it comes to the two boys.  Rohan rebels by stealing his father’s car and heading off to the bars in Jamshedpur where he goes drinking with some new friends. Rohan has to decide if he will stay, become an engineer and end up like his father, or leave to try to realise his ambition.  As his step-brothers fate also seems to lie in his hands, this is not an easy decision to make.

For me, the film works so well because Rohan’s dilemma is very realistically portrayed.  Like most of us, he wants his father to approve of him and he tries very hard to win this approval.  He can remember how much his mother loved him, and is desperate for some feeling from his father. Rohan’s rebellions seem very typical of a teenager, and his reaction to his step-brother rings true.  The issues of alcoholism and abuse are dealt with in a very matter of fact way.  There is no attempt by director Vikramaditya Motwane to either sensationalise or underplay the brutality and cruelty in the relationships between Rohan, Arjun and their father. The harsh reality of the story is allowed to speak for itself and it is to the director’s credit that the film is such a moving and poignant story.  

The performances by Rajat Barmecha as Rohan and Aayan Boradia as Arjun are extraordinary.  Both are flawless in their roles and we really feel the developing relationship between them.  For such young and inexperienced actors they have given truly excellent performances. The experienced actors also can be credited with some very good acting. Ronit Roy is fantastic as Rohan’s father, Bhairav Singh.  He keeps his expressions grim when dealing with his sons and while at work, but is animated, smiling and laughing with his friends. His alcoholism is always hidden from the rest of the world and he keeps his treatment of his sons an equally well guarded secret. Ronit Roy manages to convey so much of his character through these basic themes and with minimal changes in his expressions. Ram Kapoor also does a great job with his role as Jimmy.  He manages to make his character affable and ineffectual with some nicely underplayed acting.

The film has plenty of symbolism, which gives it a very European feel. The school as Shimla is set in the forest, and the transition on the train to the industrial sights of Jamshedpur makes a sharp contrast.  Shots of Rohan’s father are often framed by the barbed wire fence surrounding their home, and his scenes are often dark and heavy in feeling.  My favourite of these moments is probably Rohan’s T-shirt which states Love Happiness, but when he sits down it folds to read Lose Happiness. An excellent find by the wardrobe department!  The music by Amit Trevedi won an award at the Giffoni Film Festival and is beautiful and haunting.  Although often part of the background, a number of the songs also serve to move the film forward and are very well placed to do this. The last song is just perfect and a lovely memorable end to the film. 

There is nothing to find fault with in Udaan.  The screenplay by Vikramaditya Motwane and Anurag Kashyap is excellent, and the dialogue, going by my basic Hindi and the subtitles, seems appropriate for the story.  A sad film, but one which touches the heart and I totally loved it. 5 stars.  Heather